How often – in response to the question “how are you?” – have you used the phrase “not too bad”? Is that just a kneejerk response or does it indicate a view that you’re coping but that aspects of fulfillment are elusive? Could it even be that you are experiencing what some have called the "neglected middle child" of mental health – languishing? And maybe you and we should also explore how – even in these challenging times – you/we can move closer to a more contented state – that of flourishing?
The last 15 months have been difficult for many of us and “languishing” describes low mental well-being in the absence of a diagnosable mental health condition. The New York Times earlier this year (and later repeated in The Guardian in April 2021) wrote that organisational psychologist Adam Grant had described languishing as "a sense of stagnation and emptiness". While you're in this state, you may not see the point of things or anticipate forward direction or fulfillment in your life. You're not feeling hopeless – just a bit "blah".
The term "languishing" was originally coined by sociologist and psychologist Corey Keyes in an article in 2002. His research suggested that the absence of a mental disorder does not necessarily equate to mental health and well-being. He called it an untested assumption.. It is worth noting as well that recent studies suggest that languishing could be a risk factor for mental health conditions like depression later in life.
Positive emotions, life satisfaction, a sense of meaning and positive relationships are all concepts that are tied to our sense of mental well-being – people who are languishing tend to score noticeably lower in these. At first glance, these people might seem depressed – but they're not. Even though this group of people would not be diagnosed with a mental health condition, they're a long way from getting the most out of life.
So if this resonates and you’ve been feeling a bit “blah” over the last few months what can you do to move away from languishing and at least get on the road to flourishing? The good news is that the scientific evidence related to flourishing is robust, and numerous studies show simple activities can lead to marked improvement in overall well-being. Here are some practical activities, from a model developed by the ‘founding father of flourishing’, Dr Martin Seligman, which can help you get started.
These 3 activities are not necessarily easy to enact but will bring rewards:
- Get better at noticing, directing and re-directing your attention.
Just as we must carefully manage our time and our financial resources, we should also carefully manage our attention. Attention that is focused towards worrying, fretting, anger, revenge, and sadness is generally wasted attention; instead work to notice your negativity and to focus your attention on analysis, possibilities, investigation, compassion, and growth.
- The tendency to use your time with intention and for impact.
We all have to deal with constraints and barriers due to lack of time, but we don’t have to throw our hands into the air and admit defeat; instead, we can consciously choose to apply at least some of our discretionary time wisely and avoid wasting it on activities that do not bring us joy or move us closer to things we want to achieve.
- The ability to communicate and listen to others.
Soliciting feedback from others is vital to just about every human endeavour, and flourishing is no different. It’s tough to evaluate ourselves, so we should consider ourselves lucky for people who are willing to provide honest information on ourselves and our efforts. Those who flourish do so, in part, because they are willing to listen to others, learn from them, and take advice.