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What Is Languishing, and What Can We Do About It?

A white man seated at a kitchen table with his head resting on his arms; he appears down or depressed.

Andrew Neel/Pexels

Key Takeaways

  • "Languishing" describes low mental well-being in the absence of a diagnosable mental health condition.
  • It can be hard to identify. But experts say that languishing could be a risk factor for mental health conditions like major depression later in life.
  • Practicing mindfulness, or even putting a name to the feelings you experience, can help people move from languishing to flourishing.

Maybe you feel that you lack a sense of purpose in your life. Perhaps joy and other simple pleasures have lost the meaning they once had. You might even say that you're just feeling kind of "blah."

Questions about these feelings are often used to screen people for mental health conditions like depression. But answering "yes" to any of them does not always mean that you are depressed or burned out. You could be feeling what psychologists refer to as "languishing."

This article explores the concept of languishing and why it is similar to, but not the same, as depression or other mental health conditions. It offers some ideas for how you or a loved one can cope with these feelings.

Organizational psychologist Dr. Adam Grant has explained languishing as a sense of feeling "stuck" and empty about your life. "It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield," Grant said in a 2021 New York Times article.

What Is Languishing?

When you're in this mental state, you may not see the point of things. It's hard to look forward to new or positive directions in your life. You're not necessarily feeling hopeless. You're languishing.

The term "languishing" is believed to originate with international researchers. They include sociologist Dr. Corey Keyes, who defines it as a previously overlooked clinical state. Symptoms may be unique to each person but include:

  • A sense of feeling stuck, or that life has become stagnant
  • Feelings of emptiness
  • Lack of motivation
  • A sense of mental malaise (general lack of well-being)

These researchers based their findings on three separate studies of South Africans. The participants answered questions about their goals, relationships, and outlook on life.

The findings suggest that the absence of a diagnosable mental disorder does not always equate to mental health and well-being.

Keyes has called for a "predictive health" approach. It monitors for behaviors that are linked to positive mental health and well-being. However, the study authors note that more research is needed.

Recap

"Languishing" is used to describe a mental state that may make it hard for you to feel positive about your life. People who feel this way lack the same joy they once had. They may feel a general lack of mental well-being, but they do not have depression or other diagnosed mental health conditions.

When It Looks Like Depression—But It's Not

Positive emotions and life satisfaction are tied to a person's sense of mental well-being. Your life's meaning and your social interactions are closely linked to them. But there are many ways to assess these qualities.

A 2021 research review found more than 80 studies to support the idea that some states and measures of mental well-being exist even if there is no mental illness present.

Australian researcher Matthew Iasiello, one of this study's authors, suggests that people who are languishing experience some of these states. At first glance, they may seem depressed—but they're not. Even so, they are not flourishing despite the absence of a depression diagnosis.

Changing Views on Mental Well-Being

Scientists who study the issue of languishing say it may be more common than mental health conditions like major depression. Some are working to develop new models to assess mental health and the lenses through which it traditionally has been viewed.

One basic premise is that mental illness has a diagnosis and it is always the opposite of mental health. This has led to an either-or way of seeing mental well-being. Instead, researchers like Keyes, Iasiello, and their colleagues see more than this one dimension.

One model defines mental health or illness across a spectrum. It uses four quadrants, or boxes in a square, to represent and compare various states of well-being.

Imagine a cross formed by two lines. The horizontal X-axis represents mental states across a spectrum of health to illness. The vertical Y-axis draws the states of well-being. People high in mental health and well-being are flourishing. Those with low levels of well-being, but no diagnosable mental illness, are languishing.

languishing/flourishing quadrant
 Queensland Mental Health Commission

Is Languishing a Mental Health Risk Factor?

It's possible that any states or symptoms of languishing may be seen as a risk factor for mental health conditions. Learning and knowing the signs may help to prevent them from developing, or emerging later in life.

One concern raised by the experts rests on the tools and systems used to assess mental health and, in some cases, make a diagnosis of mental illness. These tools and practices may not be designed to fully consider the things that help to build a sense of mental well-being.

They may be less accurate if there are flaws in how they measure factors like your sense of purpose and the quality of your relationships. They may not give a true picture of how you are enjoying life.

Languishing could be a risk factor for depression and other mental health conditions. One study of more than 1,700 individuals found that languishing did, indeed, predict future mental illness.

Another study looked at about 800 individuals who went through residential substance abuse treatment programs. Those who successfully stayed in recovery scored higher in flourishing. They reported fewer drug or alcohol cravings than people who were, by comparison, languishing.

Languishing During COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted life across the planet. It also presented a threat to your life and the lives of the people you love. Many people have found ways to adjust to the changes, but others have struggled to cope with the fear and dread. These feelings can place pressure on your mental state and lead to languishing.

An international study of nearly 10,000 people in 78 countries assessed the participants for stress, depression, and other factors related to COVID. Participants reported their responses to COVID lockdowns and how they coped with the drastic changes to life, work, travel, and relationships.

Overall, the responses indicated that most of them had started with a moderate level of mental health. The study results suggest that, on average, about 10% of the people were languishing after COVID lockdowns. Many had low levels of mental health associated with financial problems. These problems included not being able to get supplies to meet their basic needs.

The study named three factors that predicted higher levels of mental health:

  • Social support
  • Education level
  • Flexible rather than rigid mental responses

Another study from Italy found that healthcare workers who were languishing in the spring of 2020 were three times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. The study authors called for actions meant to protect these workers. They concluded that policies designed to boost mental health may help to limit the negative impacts of the pandemic.

Recap

A state of languishing may be more common than many people realize, including mental health professionals. Some researchers have called for improved models and tools used to screen people for mental health issues. This may help to identify languishing in people who have no mental health conditions. It's important because languishing may mean that you're at a higher risk of a mental health disorder in the future.

From Languishing to Flourishing

The impacts of languishing can go unnoticed when there are no clear signs of depression or other mental illness. There are steps you can take to be proactive and protect your mental well-being. They include ideas like taking the time to immerse yourself in an activity. You also may want to avoid behaviors like obsessively checking email or switching tasks too often.

Researchers say that managers can help employees avoid languishing by setting clear goals. They can give employees the time and resources they need to do their jobs. They also can give their employees more feedback about their work and progress.

Further research is needed, but initial studies point to some strategies that may help. Mindfulness practices, and cognitive and behavioral therapy, are identified as places to start.

Summary

Experts have coined the term "languishing." It describes a low state of mental well-being that is not the same thing as depression or other diagnosable mental health disorders. It's important to identify, as some research suggests it may put you at risk for these conditions later in life.

Languishing may be more common than previously noted. This is one of the reasons why researchers are working to better understand its impacts and the people it affects. Their work is leading to improved methods for assessing and diagnosing mental health conditions.

There are steps you can take to reduce the feelings and behaviors that may arise from a state of languishing. Among them is mindfulness, a practice that commits you to being aware of how you feel and what you're experiencing. It may help you discover or return to a sense of flourishing.

A Word From Verywell

Experts say that taking the steps needed to grow and protect your sense of mental wellness has rewards in the present. Those gains may extend into the future too, so find ways to promote well-being and prevent languishing. A mental health professional can help.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How Can Mindfulness Help With Languishing?

    Mindfulness means being aware and using an intense focus to know what you're sensing and feeling. It can help you to live moment by moment, without judgment. It has been shown to help some people to relax and reduce stress.

  • What Are Symptoms of Depression?

    Some symptoms of depression include anxiety, fatigue, feelings of sadness, and a loss of interest in life activities. Languishing is not the same thing as a diagnosed mental health condition like clinical depression. Some researchers suggest it may put you at risk for other conditions.


The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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