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  • Dan Connors

Languishing and Flourishing- the new mental health dichotomy.

Languishing: How to Feel Alive Again in a World That Wears Us Down

"Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness." Adam Grant

How are you doing these days? Some of us are doing better than others, and we are all struggling through a stressful period in history. So much seems to hang in the balance. But let's put aside all of the worldwide and national problems for a moment and look deep inside the dark and mysterious world of mental health. For about one in six of us, serious mental illness prevents us from functioning. These are the people with depression, anxiety, substance abuse issues, and all the rest of the mental health morass that seems to befuddle us and the medical profession. For another one in six, things are going very well. They have meaning to their lives, friends, family, growth and a deep sense of belonging. They are the lucky ones.

For the other two thirds (or four sixths if you don't do math), there is the nebulous term of languishing that has become trendy since the pandemic descended on our lives. People who are languishing feel stuck, unmotivated, disconnected, and are just going through the motions of life unable to feel like it could get better. Politics are a mess, the economy has become more and more unfair, and big problems seem to be popping up with little hope of solving them.

This middling world of mental dysfunction is the topic of the new book, Languishing, by Corey Keyes. Keyes is a sociology professor who has done extensive work on human happiness and mental health, drawing a lot of lessons from his own dysfunctional childhood, which he uses a lot in this book.

Keyes doesn't go much into medical and psychological treatments for severely depressed or anxious people. He is not a medical professional and is looking at the issue from a different perspective. He sees languishing as a growing problem, especially in a world where relationships with screens are on the rise along with loneliness and isolation. Keyes compares it to its opposite- flourishing. Flourishing is the ultimate goal for human functioning- for feeling healthy, connected, and fully alive. Flourishing and purpose seem out of reach for many of us, who are content with the emptiness of languishing because at least we can take our minds off of it with all the diversions that modern life offers.

According to Keys, flourishing is divided into three central areas of life- emotional, social, and psychological well-being. It's possible to be high on one scale and low on another one. He sees mental health as a patchwork of attitudes, and not an all-or-nothing sick or healthy dichotomy. Which makes sense, as all through life we fluctuate between highs and lows depending on how our lives are doing at the moment.

The following concepts seem to be key to flourishing and are taken from his test:

  1. Being interested in life

  2. Feeling like you had something important to contribute to the world

  3. A feeling of genuine belonging to a community

  4. The belief that people are basically good.

  5. You have warm and trusting relationships with others.

  6. You have experiences that challenge you to grow and become a better person.

  7. You feel confident to think for yourself and express your own ideas and opinions.

  8. Managing the responsibilities of your daily life is getting done.

  9. You are happy.

  10. Your life has a sense of direction and meaning to it.

Much of the emphasis in daily life goes to individual achievements. Awards, grades, salaries, possessions, and milestones matter more than happiness. They define a life well lived for so many, but leave a void inside that leads to imposter syndrome. I may achieve a lot, but do my parents love me unconditionally? Am I my job, or do I have a higher purpose? There are so many unanswered questions, that they can lead to languishing when they aren't addressed. At the heart of things, we all want to feel loved, respected, and acknowledged by others for who we really are. Humans are social animals to the core, and we need each other much more than we'd like to admit.

Keyes devotes much of the book to his five foundations for true flourishing. Many of us try these things but do them more performatively to get something for ourselves.

  1. Flourishing people want to learn new things. They are curious about the world and willing to take on new ideas, environments, and challenges from a deep need to grow as a person. Languishing people learn as little as necessary, and latch onto that knowledge even when it fails to serve them anymore.

  2. To flourish, you have to build warm, trusting relationships. We need friends who are willing to be with us through good and bad times, hearing our pain and listening to our stories with deep interest. True friendships like that are hard to find and harder to maintain, but they are a key to feeling loved and connected. Transactional friendships or Facebook friends are shallower and less dependable. We can accumulate dozens and dozens of these types of friends, but we rarely feel comfortable sharing deep feelings with most of them.

  3. We all need to feel some sense of transcendence, awe, and connection with something good and bigger than ourselves. For some this might be religion, and for others it might be spirituality or meditation. If we only live in the nitty gritty of what's empirically visible, we miss out on what can't be seen- only felt. Languishing results from a lack of experiencing the divine, in whatever form that might take for you. The thought that life is meaningless and cruel will take the motivation out of anybody, which leads us to number four.

  4. To flourish, you have to find a purpose for your life. This is the central question that so many of us wrestle with our entire lives. Who am I? Why am I here? What makes me special and how can I use it to help others? For many of us, finding a purpose is a trial and error thing that can be frustrating. But once one is found (and we can have multiple purposes during our lives), things start to flow all in the right direction. Not having a purpose hits hardest at those who are elderly, sick, or poor. It can even it those who look outwardly successful, if that success is in a field they detest. Languishing comes from giving up on having a purpose, either drifting aimlessly or mindlessly giving your life over to someone else's plans.

  5. Everybody needs to play, not just children. And by play, we mean active, fun activities that stir the imagination and bring us closer together with others. Many languishers think of play as a structured activity that everybody else is doing- like organized sports where winning and beating others is the goal. Sports can be fun, but at a high level they rarely are. Passive activities like watching movies or doom-scrolling on a phone may feel addictive and entertaining, but that wears off quickly. True flourishing comes from actively seeking out fun experiences while connecting with others. And not keeping score.

It was interesting to look at mental health from someone who is not a health professional. We all have opinions on what makes people happy, and Professor Keyes backs up his ideas with stories and studies that explain his points. Mental health is a neglected topic, and isn't just the absence of mental illness. It's a continuum, just like everything else in life. The lower on the continuum we are, the more vulnerable we become to serious mental and physical ailments, and the higher we are, the more likely we will die feeling like we had a life full of love and meaning. Definitely food for thought.

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