For the past few months, I’ve noticed a perplexing daily occurrence. Around 3 p.m., a sense of gloom rolls in: I become unfocused, overwhelmed, a bit anxious and a little sad. I thought I was alone in these emotions until a few of my friends started describing feeling the exact same way — worn out, unmotivated, melancholy.
Then I came across an article in The New York Times that seemed to offer an explanation — “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.” In it, author Adam Grant considers the long-term effects of the pandemic on our emotional and mental health. He talks about these shared feelings of “muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.” You’re not depressed, but you’re also not thriving. “We didn’t feel hopeless,” he writes. “We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.”
The article offers a theory on why “languishing” might be the dominant emotion of 2021. During the early days of the pandemic, “your brain’s threat detection system — called the amygdala — was on high alert for fight-or-flight,” the article explains. Over time you began coping and forming new routines, which decreased your panic, but eventually gave way to languish — a sense of stagnation and emptiness.
I relate to this. The first months of the pandemic were intense. We were grieving canceled events and plans, trying to assess the threat level to us and our loved ones, and being forced to create completely new routines. Now it feels as if things are getting better. Restrictions have been lifted, businesses are reopening and many of our regular rhythms of life are being restored. But is languishing a sign of problems ahead? Grant thinks so:
“Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.”
I think it’s valuable to recognize these lesser-known categories on the spectrum of mental health, because naming and acknowledging them allows us to course correct. I may not be depressed now, but how can I respond to what my emotions are telling me when I’m languishing?
Just flow with it
One possible solution mentioned in the article is to incorporate more “flow” into your life.
“Flow is that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self melts away. During the early days of the pandemic, the best predictor of well-being wasn’t optimism or mindfulness — it was flow. People who became more immersed in their projects managed to avoid languishing and maintained their pre-pandemic happiness.”
Based on my own observations, this rings true. Those who were able to more quickly implement new, meaningful routines during 2020 seemed to sidestep languishing. I have friends who established new workout routines, refinished furniture, completed reading challenges, planted gardens and created new family traditions. They seemed to absolutely thrive during the pandemic. I, on the other hand, did not adjust so easily. With three of my four children coming home from school, my husband working out of our bedroom, and my “third space” (coffee shop) unavailable, I struggled to pivot. My emotional well-being took a hit.
Only recently have I been able to reengage in some things that create “flow” in my life, such as taking walks with friends and carving out regular time for freelance work and running errands. In line with this, the article suggests focusing on small wins by tackling a “manageable difficulty” every day: “That means carving out daily time to focus on a challenge that matters to you — an interesting project, a worthwhile goal, a meaningful conversation.” Instead of feeling a need to do something big, celebrate today that you woke up early to work out, cleaned the kitchen, made a homecooked meal or called your mom.
The ultimate antidote
As I reflected on the ways I’ve languished this year, I turned to God’s Word, looking for a biblical response. I wasn’t surprised that the idea of languishing is mentioned a fair amount in the Old Testament. After all, it’s not like we’re the first followers of God to “go through something.”
Psalm 88:9 expresses the state of languishing when it says: “My eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call upon you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you.” The psalmist turns to God with these feelings every day. Recently, I was thinking about a small personal trial that causes me some emotional struggle and stress. I felt the Lord ask, “Have you asked Me to help you with that?” I hadn’t — I felt it was too insignificant to pray about. But when I’m languishing, going to my Heavenly Father should be my first response.
In Jeremiah 31:25, God says, “For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish.” This mirrors Matthew 11:28 where Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (NIV). When we are languishing, God can strengthen us and fill us up.
Languishing may be the dominant emotion of 2021, but it’s not entirely terrible if it prompts us to pay attention to our mental health and ultimately points us to our need for God’s replenishment.
Copyright Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.