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Are you languishing? Here’s how to regain your sense of purpose

October 27, 2021 - 26 min read


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What is languishing?

What are the symptoms of languishing?

What’s the difference between languishing, depression, and burnout?

What does it mean to flourish, and how is it different from languishing?

How to beat languish and learn to flourish instead

Languish is common, but it can be overcome

You might have noticed that everyone is talking about languishing. But what exactly is languishing? 

Languishing can be defined as a pervasive feeling of blah-ness that dulls your motivation. The feeling can follow you throughout your day, holding you back from the flourishing life you want. 

Pre-pandemic, one study showed that 55% of the workforce might be in a state of languish at any given time. Named by sociologist Corey Keyes in 2002, this not-so-new feeling of languish is becoming more common than ever. Some have even called languish the dominant emotion of 2021. 

An April 2020 article in The Atlantic highlighted the feeling of languish that many are feeling as a result of the pandemic. Writer Ashley Fetters suggested that the question “how are you?” was wildly misplaced in such times. She highlighted how the unprecedented crisis has touched everyone in different ways. When everyone’s struggling — in some form of languish — the standard answer of “fine” means nothing. 

Though the feeling of languish may seem like an unbeatable wellness challenge, we’re here to help. Keep reading to learn what languishing is, what causes languish, and ultimately, the best tools and tips for how to overcome this feeling.


What is languishing?

What does “languish” mean? 

Corey Keyes described languishing as “emptiness and stagnation, constituting a life of quiet despair...” 

In addition, the APA defines languishing as the absence of mental health. It’s characterized by dissatisfaction, lack of engagement, and apathy. 

Ultimately, languishing isn’t a health condition or clinical illness like anxiety or depression. Instead, it’s a state some of us can find ourselves stuck in. Synonyms such as “wasting away” or “deteriorating” reflect the loss of energy associated with languishing. 

Through his work on languishing, Keyes wanted to bring awareness to the group of people trapped in the middle of the mental health spectrum. While languishers aren’t displaying symptoms of a clinical mental health disorder, they aren’t thriving either. They are just getting through the day. Languishers have enough energy to complete their tasks but find little enjoyment in doing so. This all goes to say, these are all symptoms of invisible illnesses


How is languishing related to the coronavirus pandemic? 

Languishing has become increasingly common since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. But what’s the connection? Is more time at home to blame for everyone feeling so “blah?”

The brain is only wired to function optimally under short bursts of stress, such as a deadline at work. When a bit of daily anxiety becomes chronic stress, the body begins to break down. You become emotionally exhausted

Chronic stress can be especially harmful to your wellness when there’s no end in sight for your stressors. Over the last year, the coronavirus pandemic has caused many to be worn down by uncertainty, fear of illness, and grief

Isolation and distance from loved ones also made it worse for many. All these stressors can easily add up into a state of languishing. 

After seeing millions get sick, die, lose jobs, homes, and plans for the future, people can become desensitized to the experience of trauma. Or at least, people think they have become desensitized. In reality, they could be suffering from a pandemic post-traumatic stress disorder.

With worldwide restrictions beginning to lift and a COVID-19 vaccine available, a return to normalcy feels near. This means that many of us suddenly have space to process the weight of everything we couldn’t acknowledge in the middle of the stress.

You may feel gratitude, joy, and enthusiasm about the nearing end of the pandemic. However, you may also have what seems to be an out-of-sync feeling of languishing. 

This feelings-discrepancy could add a layer of embarrassment or guilt to everything else. When pandemic-languishing was highlighted by Adam Grant, many realized that they weren’t alone in their suffering.


What are the symptoms of languishing?

Languishing isn’t a mental health diagnosis. It’s a state of not being at your best, despite the absence of an acute stressor. While nothing is wrong, exactly, nothing’s right either. Languishers tend to feel aimless. They scroll social media, stare at the television, or watch the clock instead of actively engaging in life. 

Those suffering from languish may want to do something but lack the energy or the conviction that it’s worth the effort. In fact, lack of energy is one of the biggest side-effects of languishing.

If you are suffering from languish, the normal stressors of work and life may feel like they hit harder. Languish depletes your energy and your ability to bounce back from challenges. This can set off a downward spiral and make everything a struggle. Major transitions can also amplify the feeling of languish.

Are you suffering from languishing?

At work, languishing looks like:

In your personal life, symptoms of languishing include: 

  • A sense of emptiness or existential crisis
  • An absence of well-being even though you’re not sick
  • Inability to describe your feelings (alexithymia) 
  • Feeling as if there’s nothing to look forward to
  • Engaging in risky or inflammatory behaviors to try to break the “blah” feeling
  • Feeling as if you’re just going through the motions
  • Feeling as if you're going through a crisis (quarter-life crisis, existential crisis, etc.) 

There’s also a hidden problem with these symptoms. They make forming and maintaining positive relationships more difficult. Negative relationships and limited social connections lead to interpersonal stress and performance issues. All this together leads to more and more languishing.


How to know if you are languishing 

We are almost guaranteed to be asked “how are you?” every single day. The automatic answer? “I’m fine.” 

This automatic exchange can make it difficult to spot those who are languishing. Though it’s a normal pleasantry, the easy “I’m fine” answer can also make it hard to recognize the symptoms of languishing in yourself. 

Languishing can creep up on you. The feeling isn’t dramatic, sometimes leading us to miss just how far below our potential we are existing. After all, languishers are fine — they’re just not great, either. 

So, on one hand, we don’t recognize our condition — on the other, many people also don’t know that they have the power to improve their condition. Places, where conversations about well-being aren’t common, tend to make it especially tough. People may feel that unless they’re in crisis, there isn’t any point in talking about how they’re really doing. 

All this to say, identifying languish is definitely important. Research suggests that those who are left to languish are more likely to slide into serious mental illness later. This can include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, and major depression.

What’s the difference between languishing, depression, and burnout?

While languishing, depression, and burnout share many symptoms, they differ in cause and severity. Many symptoms overlap between the three, such as a lack of energy, difficulty focusing, and not feeling hopeful about the future. 

Burnout is specifically a work-related phenomenon. It arises from a poor work-life balance or doing work that isn’t a good match for one’s values and skills.

Languish, on the other hand, is an overall state that affects every area of life. People who are languishing don’t meet the criteria for a mental health disorder. However, they lack a certain degree of vitality and optimism associated with true well-being

Languishing may be such a common feeling now because of its unpredictability. People move in and out of a state of languishing over a period of days or weeks. Languishing is most concerning when people get “stuck” in the feeling and don’t have the tools to get themselves out.

Depression, by contrast, is a clinical condition that is more severe than languishing. Depression extends into all aspects of life, and it doesn’t come and go. Depression must last at least six months to be diagnosed and requires professional help to treat it.

However, those experiencing languish or burnout are at higher risk of becoming depressed. In fact, the feelings that come with languish and burnout are a predictor for anxiety disorders and depression later. 

The majority of people who are languishing don’t need access to therapy, though. They need support to develop their own resources to help themselves get “unstuck.” These skills and psychological resources can help them at the moment. Plus, according to Keyes’ research, such skills can be protective of an individual’s well-being in the future. This is true even if they have a more serious mental health condition.  

It’s important to normalize conversations about mental fitness and support. Even today, many people may not feel comfortable reaching out or utilizing the resources available to them. This is particularly true in cultures that stigmatize mental health support.


Are you languishing, or facing an existential crisis? 

Another difficult mental challenge many of us face is the existential crisis. While languishing can make us feel apathetic or like we’re slowly wasting away, an existential crisis feels more like a true crisis.

The biggest difference between languishing and an existential crisis is the underlying emotions. While both experiences may make you feel lost, apathetic, or stagnant, an existential crisis goes deeper. Here are some signs you’re facing an existential crisis, not languishing: 

  • You’re questioning the direction of every part of your life, including your purpose, work, and relationships 
  • You feel disappointed when thinking about your current circumstances
  • You feel a sense of dread or anxiety about the future
  • You experience negative self-worth, lack of self-acceptance, and lack of confidence 

Ultimately, an existential crisis is a deeply-felt dilemma about your purpose, values, and direction in life. Languishing feels more like being stuck in the gray between joy and depression. However, both are challenging to overcome. 

What does it mean to flourish, and how is it different from languishing?

If languishing is one end of the spectrum, the other end is flourishing. Languishers are disconnected and disillusioned. In contrast, those who are flourishing experience engagement and joy in their lives. Flourishing is characterized by a sense of connectedness to life, relationships, and career.

In a state of flourish, we have energy. We also have confidence in our ability to control and improve our own mental well-being. We are not panicked by the challenges and setbacks of life. Instead, we use tools and psychological resources to understand and act on our own well-being

Dr. Lynn Soots describes flourishing as “the pursuit and engagement of an authentic life that brings inner joy and happiness through meeting goals, being connected with life passions, and relishing in accomplishments through the peaks and valleys of life.” 

This sense of presence and connection is the antidote to languish. Celebrating accomplishments and staying fully engaged results in flow. Those in a flow state can’t simultaneously experience the dissociation that comes from languishing. 

According to Dr. Martin Seligman’s research on flourishing, the best way to move from languishing to flourishing is the PERMA model. Seligman developed PERMA as a short-hand to explain the components of what leads to flourishing. It stands for:

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement
  • Relationships 
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishments 

The idea is that carefully cultivating each of these five areas leads to greater life satisfaction. If you are consciously experiencing more positive emotions, feeling present and engaged, cultivating healthy relationships, finding meaning in what you do, and celebrating, you’re doing more than just getting by. You’re thriving (or, in modern terms, “living your best life”).

When you’re flourishing, life feels easier. Although you may still experience setbacks, you don’t feel the need to run from them. Failures aren’t internalized as personal or insurmountable. People who are flourishing feel connected to something bigger than themselves. They are excited and optimistic about life

Apart from feeling happier, flourishing has other benefits. Keyes’ research uncovered that individuals who were identified as flourishing missed less work. They also had fewer health care costs and were less likely to have cardiovascular illnesses. Flourishers had higher positive psychosocial traits, like intimacy and resilience. Additionally, they were more likely to have clear life goals.


How to beat languish and learn to flourish instead

What does it look like to put Seligman’s PERMA model into practice? Dr. Soots emphasizes that flourishing isn’t a static trait or something that “you either have or you don’t.” It can be learned — or even better, practiced. The more effort you put into it, the more you’ll flourish. 

Coaching, using evidence-based interventions is one of the most effective ways to move out of languishing. Why? People who are languishing need to develop the psychological skills associated with PERMA. And to develop those skills, they need support.

The habits that make us languish have been learned over years of schooling and work. A skilled coach can guide us into new practices, reflect back to us what we're doing, and keep us accountable and encouraged. Coaches can help you to do the work to build core skills such as resilience and emotional regulation. It can be powerful to have someone in your corner to help you get unstuck.

If you try coaching and are still struggling with a feeling of languish, behavioral therapy can help. There could be underlying causes contributing to your languish. For example, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression can make change difficult.

Here are some practices to help you begin cultivating the five PERMA factors in your life:

Stop languishing through increasing positive emotions

  • Create a gratitude practice. You could use a journal, an app, or a simple meditation. The act of practicing gratitude is associated with better mood and overall health.
  • Name your feelings. Putting words to how you feel draws you out of the amygdala and into the prefrontal cortex (the decision-making part of your brain). You’ll find it easier to take action when you practice this kind of mindfulness.
  • Have fun! Let yourself do something — anything — that brings you joy. The more joyful you feel, the more joyful you’ll be — and the impact will carry over into other areas of your life.

Decrease languishing by increasing engagement

  • Get into a state of flow. Flow has been considered the antidote to burnout, and for good reason. In a flow state, we accomplish more with less effort. We experience higher levels of creativity and lose our sense of self-consciousness. 
  • Be honest about your feelings. By necessity, we disengage from our feelings when we’re not honest with ourselves. That cognitive dissonance is draining. Not only does it distance us from our negative emotions, but we lose the ability to be fully present.
  • Take care of yourself. It’s harder to stay engaged and positive when you don’t feel well, so take the time for self-care. Ensuring that you are well rested with adequate food and hydration can go a long way towards improving your mood — and your attention.

Improving relationships can help stop languishing

Finding meaning can help stop languishing

  • Choose work wisely. If possible, try to choose work that allows you to be in flow — at least some of the time. Work that is draining or misaligned with your values will exhibit an increasingly powerful effect on your health over time.
  • Give yourself grace. Practicing self-compassion and reframing setbacks will help you avoid spiraling when things go awry. See your challenges as a chapter in your life, and learn what you can from them.
  • Plan for the future. If you feel like there’s nothing to look forward to, you’re likely languishing. Plan a trip, a class, a date night, or a virtual happy hour — whatever it takes to get you looking ahead again.

Accomplishments can help end your feeling of languish

  • Find a new way to challenge yourself. If you’re languishing, try taking on a new challenge. It doesn’t have to be work-related — try starting a new hobby or preparing to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. Often, getting absorbed in something new is a great way to reignite your passion in other areas of your life.
  • Set small goals for yourself. When you’re not feeling excited about life, it can be hard to get started. Setting small, meaningful goals for yourself can help build momentum and a sense of self-efficacy. Making progress in small ways often leads to big changes.
  • Celebrate your successes, large and small. When the big things seem out of our control, it’s easy to forget about the small things. Make a list of everything you did today, even if it’s something you do every day. You’ll amaze yourself with how much you accomplished, and you’ll be able to look back and cheer yourself on the next time you’re in a slump.

Languish is common, but it can be overcome

Though languish is a common feeling these days, you can overcome it. Building skills and engaging in coaching and therapy are able to help us end and ultimately stay out of languishing. By focusing on PERMA, we can find the ability to flourish in our lives: 

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement
  • Relationships 
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishments 

With the right support, coaching, and skills, flourishing and mental fitness can become second nature. Languishing is common, but it doesn’t have to be your experience — there is hope. With these tools, you can start flourishing, stop languishing, and “live your best life.”

Guidance can help. Need help getting over languish? Get in touch with BetterUp. One of our expert coaches will be happy to support you. 

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Published October 27, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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