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Why is languish such a common feeling now, and how do you get to flourishing?

You might have noticed, everyone is talking about languishing. It is that pervasive feeling of blah-ness that dulls your motivation and drags at you as you go through your day.

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What is languishing?

Why is languishing a relevant issue since the pandemic hit?

What are the symptoms of languishing?

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

What does it mean to flourish?

How to beat languish and learn to flourish instead

It’s so common now, that some have called it the dominant emotion of 2021. But languish isn’t a new problem. Sociologist Corey Keyes named the condition “languishing” in 2002. A study done pre-pandemic, showed that 55% of the workforce might be in a state of languish at any given time. 

Today, it’s more common than ever. 

In an April 2020 article in The Atlantic, Ashley Fetters suggested that the question “how are you?” was wildly misplaced in a pandemic. The article highlighted how the unprecedented crisis had touched everyone, albeit to different degrees. When everyone’s struggling, the standard answer of “fine” means nothing. 

This article will give an overview of languishing, how it feels, and what causes it. It will also provide tips for transcending that condition and moving yourself from a state of languish to a state of flourish.

What is languishing?

What does “languish” mean? Keyes described languishing as “emptiness and stagnation, constituting a life of quiet despair...” Individuals might describe their life as hollow or empty. The APA defines languishing as the absence of mental health, characterized by dissatisfaction, lack of engagement, and apathy. It isn’t a clinical illness. Beyond the definition, synonyms such as waste, wither, and deteriorate reflect the loss of energy and vitality that define it.

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.

Why is languishing a relevant issue since the pandemic hit?

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 fact is, the brain is only wired to function optimally under short bursts of stress. With chronic stress, especially the kind with no real roadmap to normalcy, the body begins to break down. You become fatigued. Even those who didn’t suffer severe impacts were worn down by uncertainty, fear of illness, and grief for lost plans or lost way of life.  Isolation and diminished social connection made it worse for many.

After seeing millions get sick, die, lose jobs, homes, and plans for the future, people become desensitized to the experience of trauma

Except they don’t, really. When the stressor lifts, people suddenly have space to process the weight of everything they couldn’t acknowledge in the moment. With a return to some “normal” on the horizon, it’s becoming apparent that we all have changed. 

The languishing is notable because it is also unexpected. It feels out of synch with the gratitude, joy, enthusiasm, and drive to make up for lost time we might have thought we would have. That discrepancy adds a layer of embarrassment or guilt. When pandemic-languishing was highlighted by Adam Grant, it was a revelation to everyone suffering alone — they weren’t alone after all.

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, scrolling social media, staring at the television, or watching the clock instead of actively engaging in life. 

They may want to do something but lack the energy or the conviction that it’s worth the effort. They are pre-defeated. 

What’s going on? When people are languishing, the normal stressors of life and work also seem to hit them harder. It depletes their reserves for moving forward. That can set off a downward spiral and make everything a struggle. Major transitions can amplify the effect.

Here are some signs that you or someone you know is experiencing languish:

At work, languishing looks like:

  • Feeling disconnected or dissociated from your coworkers
  • Being irritable, confused, or sad
  • Inability to get excited about upcoming projects
  • Difficulty focusing or remembering 
  • Cynicism about your leaders, colleagues, or career
  • Procrastination or lack of motivation to complete assignments

In 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

There’s a hidden problem with these symptoms, too. They make forming and maintaining positive relationships more difficult, whether at work or in our personal lives. Negative relationships and limited social connection lead to interpersonal stress, performance issues, and further hammer our sense of well-being.

The “How are you/I’m fine” exchange of pleasantries reinforces a languishing culture. 

When we all automatically say “I’m fine,” it may be difficult to spot those who are languishing — or recognize the symptoms in yourself. 

Languishing creeps up on us. And because it isn’t dramatic, we 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. In places where conversations about mental health and well-being aren’t common, people may feel that unless they’re in crisis, there isn’t any point — or interest — in talking about how they’re really doing. 

It is important to identify them, though. Research suggests that those who are left to languish are more likely to slide into more serious mental illness later, including PTSD and major depression.

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

While languish, 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 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. People may move in and out of a state of languishing over a period of days or weeks. It is most concerning when people get “stuck” here and don’t have the tools to get themselves out.

Depression is a clinical condition that is more severe than either burnout or languish. 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.

Those experiencing languish or burnout are at higher risk for becoming depressed.

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 in the moment and, according to Keyes’ research, be protective of their well-being in the future, even if they have a more serious mental condition. 

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

What does it mean to flourish?

If languishing is one end of the spectrum, the other end is flourishing. While languishers are disconnected and disillusioned, 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 health. We are not panicked by the challenges and setbacks of life because we have the tools and psychological resources to understand and act on our own well-being. In fact, a person can have a mental illness and still be flourishing. 

Dr. Lynn Soots describes flourishing as the result of process that involves “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 of languish. 

According to Dr. Martin Seligman’s research on flourishing, the best way to move from languishing to flourishing is to maintain the five aspects of 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, 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 also 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. We don't know, as humans, what the upper limit on flourishing is.

Coaching, using evidence-based interventions, has shown to be the most effective way to move out of languish. Why? People who are languishing need support to develop the psychological skills associated with PERMA. 

The habits of thought and ways of interacting and prioritizing that make us languish have been learned, across 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 to do the work to build core skills such as resilience and emotional regulation. It helps to have someone in your corner to help you get unstuck.

Here are some of the practices to begin consciously cultivating the five PERMA factors in your life:

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. The act of identifying and 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 know how you feel.
  • 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.

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. Ensuring that you are rested with adequate food and hydration can go a long way towards improving your mood — and your attention.

Relationships:

  • Connect with others. Healthy relationships are a cornerstone of healthy lives. Maintaining friendships, close relationships, and even connecting with your colleagues can make you feel more engaged and more resilient to challenges when they arise. 
  • Talk to a coach or therapist. Sharing your feelings and goals with another person can help prevent depression. People with clearly defined goals and a support system are more likely to flourish.

Meaning:

  • 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 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 course, a date night, or a virtual happy hour — whatever it takes it get you looking ahead again.

Accomplishments:

  • 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 and it is also solvable. Beyond, getting unstuck, building the psychological core to maintain and improve our mental health helps us stay out of languishing. And when we fall into languish, we don't panic and we don't linger because we know we can pull ourselves back out.  It is an ongoing effort to stay fit and flourish, but like physical fitness, with support to train effectively, it becomes less effortful. Flourishing and mental fitness becomes a lifestyle.