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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.
  • While it can be hard to identify, experts say that languishing could be a risk factor for mental health conditions like major depression later in life.
  • Practicing mindfulness or even simply getting comfortable putting the name to the feelings a person is experiencing can help people move from languishing to flourishing.

Do you lack a sense of purpose and fulfillment in your life? Have joy and other simple pleasures lost their meaning? Are you just feeling kind of "blah?"

These questions are often used to screen people for mental health conditions like depression, but answering "yes" to any of them does not necessarily mean that you are depressed or burnt out. You could be experiencing what psychologists refer to as "languishing."

What Is Languishing?

In a recent article in the New York Times, organizational psychologist Adam Grant, PhD, wrote that languishing is "a sense of stagnation and emptiness." While you're in this state, you may not see the point of things or anticipate any forward direction or fulfillment in your life. You're not necessarily feeling hopeless—just a bit "blah."

The term "languishing" was coined by sociologist Corey Keyes, PhD. His research has suggested that the absence of a mental disorder does not necessarily equate to mental health and well-being.

Instead of focusing on conditions like depression, Keyes favors an approach called "predictive health," which monitors predictors and behaviors that are linked to positive mental health and well-being.

When It Looks Like Depression—But It's Not

Positive emotions, life satisfaction, a sense of meaning, interactions with society, and positive relationships are all concepts that are tied to our sense of mental well-being. Matthew Iasiello, MA, an Australia-based researcher and PhD candidate who studies well-being, tells Verywell that people who are languishing "are scoring poorly across those domains."

At first glance, these people might seem depressed—but they're not. Iasiello says that even though this group of people would not be diagnosed with a mental health condition, "they're very far from getting the most out of life."

Remodeling Mental Health & Well-Being

Grant wrote that languishing is the "neglected middle child" of mental health. It's not making headlines or appearing in academic papers as often as conditions like major depression—but it could be much more common.

If that's the case, why has languishing gone unexamined by researchers and the media?

Iasiello says that for a long time, the idea that mental illness is the opposite of mental health has been served as the prevailing, but erroneous, theory. "Keyes basically came along and said, 'That's actually an untested assumption,'" Iasiello says.

Rather than looking at mental health along a one-dimensional spectrum—with one side representing a diagnosable mental disorder and the other side, mental well-being—Keyes and Iasiello think about it differently. They see it in four quadrants along the dual continuum of mental health and mental illness.

Imagine a cross formed by one horizontal line and one vertical line. The X-axis draws the continuum between mental illness, while the Y-axis draws that between well-being. People high in mental health and well-being are "flourishing," while those with low levels of well-being—but no diagnosable mental illness—are "languishing."

languishing/flourishing quadrant
 Queensland Mental Health Commission

When presenting his research, Iasiello sometimes places Bugs Bunny in the high mental health and high well-being quadrant, representing the state of flourishing. For languishing, he shows Ol' Gil (a floundering, unsuccessful businessman) from The Simpsons.

"Because no one measures mental well-being in our mental healthcare system, we can't tell the difference between who are the Bugs Bunnies and who are the Ol' Gils," Iasiello says.

Is Languishing a Mental Health Risk Factor?

Cartoons are just caricatures, but Iasiello says that recognizing states of flourishing and languishing in ourselves can help prevent mental health conditions later on.

"If you were an Ol' Gil who and went to a doctor, they would be basically saying you don't have enough symptoms for a mental illness," Iasiello says. "Therefore, you must be fine." He adds that this could be because diagnostic tools and systems are not considering the things that help build mental well-being, such as our sense of purpose, enjoyment, and relationships.

At the same time, languishing could be a risk factor for depression and other mental health conditions. In a decade-long study of more than 1,700 individuals, Keyes found that languishing predicted mental illness.

A 2015 study in Australia found that of about 800 individuals attending residential substance abuse treatment, the people who remained abstinent scored higher in flourishing and experienced fewer cravings than people who were, by comparison, languishing.

Languishing During COVID

When COVID-19 upended society, it also threatened our lives and those of our loved ones. Many people have found ways to adjust to the changes, but as Grant pointed out, unrelenting fear and dread can sink us into a languishing state.

"As scientists and physicians work to treat and cure the physical symptoms of long-haul COVID, many people are struggling with the emotional long-haul of the pandemic," Grant writes. "It hit some of us unprepared as the intense fear and grief of last year faded."

It's still too early to ascertain all of the effects that the pandemic has had, and will have, on languishing. However, a recent Italian study found that healthcare workers who were languishing in the spring of 2020 were three times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the study, the authors concluded that "actions aimed at providing adequate training, protecting more vulnerable workers’ categories and promoting positive mental health may mitigate the negative psychological impact of the pandemic, and help plan for a post-pandemic phase."

From Languishing to Flourishing

Languishing may go unnamed and understudied because of its insidious and quiet nature. According to Grant, some personal practices, such as carving out time to immerse yourself in an activity and avoid frequent task-switching (such as frantically checking email every few minutes), can help.

Researchers say that managers can help employees avoid languishing by setting clear goals, giving employees the time and resources that they need, and/or verbally acknowledging their work and progress.

Iasiello is investigating techniques to promote flourishing and reduce languishing. Earlier this year, he and his colleagues published a review of current psychological interventions that are being used to improve mental well-being.

Further research is needed, but the initial data point to mindfulness, cognitive and behavioral therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy-based interventions as places to start.

Mindfulness involves intense focus and awareness of what you're sensing and feeling, moment by moment, without judgment. It has been shown to help people relax and reduce stress.

"The one intervention type that worked incredibly across the board [was] mindfulness," Iasiello says, adding that "the cool thing about mindfulness is that there's lots of different ways to practice it."

With mindfulness, it's important to remember that what works well for someone else might not work well for you. "Some people like doing it off their mobile phones, some like walking in nature, some like doing yoga," Iasiello says.

Taking time for yourself to sow your sense of mental wellness won't just have rewards now—you'll keep reaping the benefits. "Well-being is such an incredible resource," Iasiello says. "Like we said before, for prevention, but also for promotion [of well-being] and recovery as well."

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Article Sources
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