Traditionally, mental health has been split into two black and white quadrants: mental illness and mental wellness. Only recently did the idea of an in-between mental state known as “languishing” start gaining traction. Coined by researcher Corey L.M. Keyes, languishing is a feeling of emptiness and stagnation; it’s not as hopeless as depression but is still far from fulfillment. You are okay but not great. You may feel neutral, listless, washed out or lacking motivation and positive emotions. You may feel that what you do or think does not matter, and you may have a hard time finding meaning in life.
People who experience languishing “are somewhere in the middle between the worst possible mental illness and the best possible mental wellness,” said Dr. Melanie Badali, a registered psychologist and board director of Anxiety Canada. “People who are languishing are not flourishing—they are surviving rather than thriving.”
Languishing may sound a lot like depression, but it’s not. While the experience of languishing varies from person to person, people who are languishing still have the desire to engage in the world around them. Though they feel cut off from life, they’re still trying and wishing to thrive. As one article writer expressed, “Life is at once too overwhelming and not engaging enough.”
Languishing is hard to pinpoint, since many factors that negatively affect mental health can lead to this state, such as “prejudice, discrimination, exclusion, systemic barriers and economic disparities.” Other factors like financial insecurity and loneliness that were caused by the pandemic may also lead to languishing. Outward signs of languishing may include a visible lack of motivation, functioning below one’s potential and a decrease in expressing positive emotions.
Some people who experience languishing might not even show any outward signs of their poor mental state, but on the inside, they may feel like they’re trying to wade through quicksand. Languishing in an individual can easily go unnoticed, which is unfortunate due to the fact that languishing was found to be a major risk factor and predictor for serious mental illness.
Luckily, there are ways to break free from languishing. As Allison Abrams, a psychotherapist and mental health advocate, noted, just “putting a name to this mysterious but ubiquitous feeling was relieving…Like most states of distress, being able to label the negative emotion(s) is often healing in itself. It is normalizing; validating.” Once you identify what state you’re in, you can start taking the necessary steps to come out of it. If you feel you may be languishing, here are four proven ways to get out of your funk.
A review of psychological interventions to improve mental wellness found that the practice of mindfulness was incredibly effective in improving mental health. Mindfulness is “a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment.”
Practicing mindfulness can help you stop thinking and feeling negative thoughts or emotions. It can help you connect more with the world around you, which can be difficult for those who experience languishing. There are many different ways to practice mindfulness, such as simply paying attention to what is happening around you and focusing on your breathing, or doing more structured exercises like body scan meditations, sitting meditations or walking meditations.
Rewarding Yourself Throughout the Day
Writer, wellness coach and licensed therapist Minaa B., LMSW, explained in a Well + Good TALKS event how rewarding yourself throughout the day can help reduce languishing. Minaa stated, “And recognizing that as people who are worthy and deserving, we don’t have to necessarily earn good moments in life—we can cultivate them.”
She concluded with “If you find that your days are starting to feel mundane, chances are you’re not rewarding yourself with some sort of mood-boosting activity.” Reward yourself with what you truly enjoy or with the activity that works best for you and your environment in the moment. You could spend some time in nature, write down your feelings, take a nap, watch a funny video, meditate or eat your favorite healthy snack.
Find a Creative Outlet
According to LIFE, “Creative outlets are especially beneficial when it comes to finding a state of flourishing because they not only act as an outlet for emotional expression and interpretation, but they also tend to be stimulating for the brain.” A state of languishing may be caused by a lack of stimulation and is often characterized by monotony. Therefore, the stimulation from the sense of accomplishment at having created something, such as a poem, painting, dance routine or song, might be just what your brain needs to get out of its slump.
This may be due to how activities related to creativity require a certain amount of “immersion, embeddedness, social discussion, and reflection, which facilitate the sense of connection, curiosity, and motivation characteristic of flourishing.” You can also get the same benefits by interacting and engaging with works of creativity, such as reading or discussing art and music.
Strengthen Connections and Relationships
People who are languishing often feel like they’re cut off or isolated from the people around them. This feeling grows until they feel unappreciated and unseen by the people close to them, and they may likely believe that they have weak support systems. This causes them to brood, which makes them fall further into a state of languishing.
As studies have shown, a “sense of isolation actually tends to lead to other negative consequences…people experiencing a state of languishing leads to a more self-centered worldview whereas people experiencing the connectedness associated with flourishing are often more other-oriented and focused on the greater good.” By making the effort to improve relationships and cultivate social connections, you can take a huge step in freeing yourself from languishing. Improvement in social connectedness can lead to greater contentment and a stronger sense of security in knowing that you have someone to count on and talk to when you’re feeling down.
Languishing is not a permanent mental state and can be remedied by many activities and strong connections with others. Most importantly, recognizing that languishing exists is critical for improving mental health practices for those who experience it.