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Living, But Not Flourishing: The Pandemic-Fueled Feeling Known As 'Languishing'

Emory University sociologist Corey Keyes coined the feeling "languishing" — showing up for life, but living without purpose or aim. (Getty Images)
Emory University sociologist Corey Keyes coined the feeling "languishing" — showing up for life, but living without purpose or aim. (Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This story was rebroadcast on Jan. 14, 2021. Find that audio here

Are you feeling “blah” a year into the pandemic?

Psychologist Adam Grant’s latest op-ed for The New York Times details the experience many are feeling during the pandemic — showing up for life, but living without purpose and aim.

Grant draws on the work of Emory University sociologist Corey Keyes, who coined the feeling as “languishing.”

Keyes has been publishing research on the topic for years, but COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions have brought greater attention to mental health awareness.

The Difference Between Languish And Depression

Languishing is not depression or sadness, but rather “the absence of feeling good about your life,” Keyes says. Languishing is also the lack of meaning, purpose or belonging in life, which leads to emptiness, lack of emotion and stagnation, he says.

Depression, on the other hand, is a clinical disorder. Interest in life disappears and sadness is felt acutely, he explains. There are also clear signs of depression such as sleeping too much or too little and expressing hopelessness or suicidal thoughts.

“Languishing is neither feeling good nor sad,” he says. “It’s feeling really nothing.”

The French have long had a term for this feeling. Existentialists in France coined it “ennui,” which is “a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction,” according to Merriam-Webster dictionary.

There used to be an eighth deadly sin called acedia, “defined as a want of interest in life,” Keyes says. Emptiness led people to fill their lives with “unsavory” vices, therefore acedia was folded in with another deadly sin called sloth, he says.

The key difference between languishing and depression is when someone feels depressed, they often don’t want to leave bed, he says. When a person feels languished, they proceed with going through the motions of life.

“It’s almost like you put yourself on hold and you’re waiting for something good to happen,” he says, “or you’re even trying to distract yourself by jumpstarting a good old battery that I call emotion, which is to feel something.”

In his research, he’s found languish can lead to a high risk of developing depression and anxiety as well as elevated risks of suicide attempts and premature mortality.

Fortunately, there are ways to tackle languish. In his New York Times op-ed, Grant writes how important it is to find a flow — something that can engage and immerse you. For Keyes, who has depression, he attempted to extinguish his languish during the pandemic by working on self and home improvement projects, something he noticed a lot of others doing too.

Finding a flow that excites you is key to flourishing and promoting good mental health, he says. For him, another flow is honing in on his research, which he calls his “North Star.”

Grant also writes that focusing on goals and setting boundaries can help boost enthusiasm and energy.

Beyond Languish: Rethinking Approaches To Mental Health

Keyes makes it clear — the absence of mental illness does not mean someone is flourishing, just as treating mental illness doesn’t mean the good things in life will simply reappear. As a society, we need to reexamine how we treat mental illness, he argues, and part of that is reimagining the usual response that includes medication, training and services.

“There’s nothing wrong with that. But no public health problem throughout history has ever been solved through individual treatment alone,” he says. “What we’ve had to do is move upstream, look at the conditions under which we live and how they prevent mental illnesses or physical illnesses. And that requires reimagining the conditions of life.”

Depression will be the No. 1 cause of burden to every country in the world by 2030, the World Health Organization predicts. But Keyes says that doesn’t have to be the case.

“That’s a prediction that doesn’t have to come true if we change the way we approach the problem of mental illness and stop trying to treat our way out of it,” he says.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Alexander Tuerk produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.