In the last week or so I’ve heard several people refer to Professor Adam Grant’s recent New York Times article entitled “There’s a name for the Blah you’re feeling: It’s called Languishing”. The article and its contents seemed to resonate – not only in terms of the emotional experience many people are feeling at this time, but the word itself seemed to stick. I found this particularly interesting as I’ve been using the term for close to 20 years now and I’ve experienced a similar effect in my workshops as people recognised that perhaps they weren’t clinically depressed however they weren’t really flourishing. Thank you, Adam, for bringing the term and the associated research to a global audience. You truly have a gift for bringing psychological science to life.

A history lesson…

The first time I came across the term “languishing” it was in reference to an article by Professor Corey Keyes, who first introduced the concept (Keyes, 2002).  At the time, it was enlightening for me. As a clinical psychologist in training, my attention had been drawn solely to the identification and treatment of depression and other clinical disorders. On reading Keyes’ article, which had been recommended to me by my supervisor at the time, Professor Lindsay Oades, a whole new world of mental health opened up. I began to realise that my role as a psychologist was not just to treat mental illness but to prevent it – and promote mental health and wellbeing more broadly. Hence my movement into the fields of Coaching Psychology and Positive Psychology.

Keyes, and others, presented and argued for a “complete state of mental health”. He argued (Ryff & Keyes, 1995, Keyes & Lopez, 2002) that mental health is not merely the absence of mental illness – nor is it simply the presence of high levels of well-being. He suggested that mental health is best viewed as a complete state consisting of the presence and the absence of mental illness and mental health symptoms.  Keyes also introduced the concept of “flourishing” at the time – or the “F-word” as we like to call it in Positive Psychology!

Keyes suggested that adults with complete mental health are flourishing in life with high levels of well-being. To be flourishing is to be filled with positive emotion and to be functioning well psychologically and socially. Whereas adults with incomplete mental health are languishing in life with low well-being.

No alt text provided for this image

Figure 1. Dual continua model ( Keyes & Lopez , 2002) 

Keyes suggested that languishing may be conceived of as emptiness and stagnation, constituting a life of quiet despair that parallels accounts of individuals who describe themselves and life as “hollow,” “empty,” “a shell,” and “a void” (see Cushman, 1990; Keyes, 2003; Levy, 1984; Singer, 1977). Keyes described those who are languishing as not mentally ill but showing few signs of mental health. In my work, I’ve also drawn parallels to the concepts of absenteeism and presenteeism in the workplace. Languishing to me is like presenteeism – there but not there! In fact, I would suggest that perhaps what’s underpinning presenteeism is in fact languishing!

The introduction of these concepts and terms has not only been powerful in terms of my own broadening understanding of mental health but for those I’ve worked with at an individual and collective level. They form part of a psychological literacy or what’s increasingly referred to as “wellbeing literary” (Oades et al, 2020).  We know words are powerful and they have the capacity to change how we view ourselves, others and the world.  I’ve seen the introduction of a new vocabulary through education and training in the workplace or schools change lives and help change culture. This growing interest in Positive Psychology in our workplaces, schools and communities helps enhance our emotional, psychological and wellbeing literacy.

Emotion or emotional state?

In Adam Grant’s article he describes languishing as the dominant emotion of 2021. However, based on Keyes’ conceptualisation and my own understanding and experience, languishing is more a collection of emotions or perhaps a complex emotional state – that might consist of several discrete emotions such as sadness, disappointment, frustration. Grant suggests that why many people are languishing is because of the prolonged nature of COVID-19 and the sustained fear and grief that accompanied it. Grant clearly suggests that languishing is not mental illness but where we feel “joyless and aimless”. He describes it as the place between depression and flourishing. However, if you review Keyes’ complete state of mental health model and research, you’ll find that what really is the “middle child” is those who were neither flourishing or languishing but were described as “moderately mentally healthy” (approximately half of the population). As I say though, who just wants to be moderately mentally healthy? My aim is to flourish as much as possible for the remainder of my time on the planet!

Why Worry?

Why worry about languishing? Should we be as equally concerned about languishing as we are about clinical depression? Well firstly pure languishing has been associated with substantial psychosocial impairment at levels comparable to an episode of pure depression (Keyes, 2002). Second, in that same study languishing was as prevalent as pure episodes of major depression.  Keyes’s quoted that while approximately 17.2% of adults are flourishing, another 56.6% are moderately mentally healthy (they’re “okay”), 12.1% are languishing, and 14.1% are depressed.

Adam Grant suggests that we still have a lot to learn when it comes to understanding what causes languishing and I agree. He suggests naming the feeling is a good first start and again I couldn’t agree more. However, what I’d also like to suggest is that we do know a lot about what we can to promote flourishing. Much like we don’t just focus on preventing physical illness, we now know that we need to also focus on promoting physical health.

Prioritising Positivity

I love Adam’s reference to “acts of quiet defiance” against languishing such as the search for bliss in a bleak day, connection in a lonely week, or purpose in a perpetual pandemic. These types of activities fall under what’s been referred to as “prioritising positivity” in the scientific literature (Catalino, Algoe & Fredrickson, 2014). Those that prioritise positivity deliberately plan their days and intentionally schedule time with people, places or activities that can lead to naturally-occurring positive emotions. Catalino et al (2014) also found that individual differences exist. They also found that those that are high in prioritising positivity experienced higher levels of wellbeing. Adam prescribes a number of activities as antidotes to languishing – including flow, uninterrupted time and focusing on small wins, and I have no doubt that those high in prioritising positivity would undoubtedly be engaging in such activities – perhaps without even realising it.

It’s important to note though this is not about the search for happiness. In fact, research has consistently shown that ironically, this strategy backfires and results in lower levels of happiness (Ford, Shallcross, Mauss, Floerke, and Gruber, 2014; Mauss, Tamir, Anderson, and Savino, 2011 Mauss et al., 2012). Prioritising positivity is more about our day to day lives and the mindful presence we bring to them that allows us to savour and appreciate the many small joys or small wins that exist – even on a bad day! In my clinical work, even those that were suffering with extremely severe clinical depression were usually able to find a “spot or dot of joy” in their day, if together we consciously looked for it.

So whilst one small step towards flourishing is as Adam suggests, the acknowledgement that languishing exists, and to recognise that a path forward is possible, it might also be to start prioritising positivity in your daily life. However, there are often a multitude of complex factors and deeper issues that lead to depression or languishing. My recommendation is to seek professional help proactively – don’t wait until clinical depression sets in! In fact, it may be that languishing is sub-clinical depression.  So don’t delay, because as I say regularly – life’s too short to languish!

If you’d like a copy of our “Positivity Practices Diary Card” visit our website here. You can also learn more about languishing and flourishing in the “Mood” module of our new workplace wellbeing solution – POTENTIAL+ – here