Feeling “so-so”? – (L)anguishing in times of a pandemic
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This article was written by Flow Lab’s Head of Content and MSc. psychologist Eva Siem. She studied at the University of Groningen (NL) and is specialized in the area of performance and motivational psychology. In her articles, she combines findings from psychological research with practical tips from her experience as mental fitness coach and workshop trainer.
It’s been over a year since the pandemic hit. During the early days, most of us were constantly on alert, perhaps refreshing our news feeds every minute. We’ve been trying to adapt to the situation by developing new routines, setting up our home office and reaching out to people we haven’t heard of in a long time. Well, a few weeks at home soon became a few months. A few months became a year by now. Chances are that many experience this acute state of fear slowly turning into a sense of stagnation, lack of focus, and numbness. Psychologists call this the state of languishing.
The absence of well-being
Too many people have dealt with grief, overwhelm and sorrows during the pandemic. For lots of others though, the past few months were rather shaped by monotony and emptiness. To them, an ordinary day in times of a pandemic may feel like being stuck in a rut. How often do you catch yourself spending an extra hour in bed in the morning, feeling indifferent about your tasks or abandoning your hobbies?
Languishing is much more subtle than these intense feelings of fear and anxiety we may have experienced in the beginning of Covid. The somewhat nebulous state of languishing gradually sneaks up on us, making us feel sluggish and unmotivated, perhaps unfocused and certainly unsatisfied. It’s different from depression or burnout though. Rather than a mental disorder, languishing is the absence of well-being. We neither hit rock bottom nor do we flourish. We’re floating somewhere in between. But this doesn’t make it any less severe: Apparently, it triggers a slew of negative mental health consequences, “with substantial psychosocial impairment at levels comparable to an episode of pure depression” (Keyes, 2002, p. 217). Yet, the awareness for this lingering feeling of emptiness is still quite low: In a recent article, the New York Times describes it as “the neglected middle child of mental health”.
Let’s change that. Here’s how to cope with it.
We neither hit rock bottom nor do we flourish. We’re floating somewhere in between.
The remedies to languishing
Recognizing languishing is an excellent first step. In order to climb up the mental health ladder, researchers suggest further strategies:
Tip #1: Show compassion – for yourself and for others
When struggling to maintain your focus while working, motivate yourself for another home workout or stay optimistic, self-compassion can help to ease this feeling of inner resistance or guilt. Treat yourself with kindness and talk to others to acknowledge that you are not the only one feeling this way. In fact, self-disclosure and showing compassion for the other can already lift our mood: Studies show that felt-understanding enhances health and happiness (Lun et al., 2008) and encourages openness in relationships (Oishi et al., 2010). What’s more, a giving attitude is what “languishers” can learn from “flourishers” (Wissing, 2019). So let’s make a conscious effort to support others and show them our appreciation.
Tip #2: Acknowledge languishing as a phase
Although external circumstances may cause the number of languishing people to increase these times, the feeling itself is nothing new. Jeff Haden states in the Inc. Magazine that we go through phases – we languished before the pandemic and will afterwards. In fact, “to languish is human. As is deciding to look for, and take advantage of, the opportunities that inevitably result from change. Because opportunities always follow”. This calls for a shift in perspective. Yes, there may be many uncontrollable factors limiting our opportunities right now. But rather than focusing on what is lacking, we should focus on what is possible. On opportunities. And on the things that can make our lives worthwhile.
Gratitude exercises, for example, may be a starting point to adopt an abundance mindset. It helps us become aware of the things that are still going well. Positive psychology recommends writing down three things you are grateful for every day or writing a gratitude letter to a loved one. Or try out a guided reflection with our Flow Session “Thank Me Later”.
To languish is human. As is deciding to look for, and take advantage of, the opportunities that inevitably result from change. Because opportunities always follow.
Tip #3: Beat languishing by engaging in meaningful activities
We may also counteract a feeling of emptiness by engaging in meaningful activities. At work, for instance, people reported significantly higher levels of well-being when they viewed their work as a “calling” or “passion”, compared to those who viewed their work as a career (Wrzesniewski et al., 1997). They also experienced more meaning in life and were more satisfied overall (Steger & Dik, 2009).
If you think about it, what is it that can provide you with a sense of purpose in your everyday life? In which areas can you align your actions with your personal values? Where can you contribute to others, to society, to our planet? Which issues do you hold close to your heart? These questions may not be answered straightaway. But reflecting on them may bring you closer to flourishing. For some guidance during these reflections, check out our Flow Sessions Rocking Chair, Legacy, and Jar of Life.
Languishing and flow
Another way to escape the state of languishing may be to seek optimally challenging tasks. Ideally, we tap into the state of optimal experience – the state of Flow. In Flow, we are completely absorbed in an activity, to a point where we lose our sense of time. We are deeply focused and engaged, in effortless control, unselfconscious and at the peak of our abilities. It is a unique state where performance is exceptional and consistent, automatic and flowing. A person in Flow is able to ignore all the pressures and to unleash their full potential. The activity itself is fun, motivating and exciting.
Numerous studies point to positive effects for both performance and well-being: Productivity increases by 500% (McKinsey, 2013). Also, work satisfaction (Maeran & Cangiano, 2013), organizational commitment (Rivkin et al., 2016), job performance (Demerouti, 2006) and creativity (Zubair & Kamal, 2015) increase, while the risk for burnout decreases (Lavigne et al., 2012).
An upward spiral of meaning and Flow
The good news is: If you already reflected on meaningful activities, you laid a solid foundation for Flow. Because when aligned with your personal values, these activities fuel your inner drive and help you find into this effortless state of productivity – even in mundane activities (e.g., Delle Fave, 2009). In the long run, this triggers an upward spiral between Flow and meaning: Meaningful tasks help us find Flow and Flow motivates us to pursue meaningful tasks in the future again.
Make sure you stretch your skills so the task feels challenging, but not overwhelming. Remind yourself of your higher goal in mind to motivate yourself. If you struggle to brace yourself up, set a timer for ten minutes to work on your task. This helps you create momentum and overcome the first hurdle of getting started. Ideally, plan distraction-free deep work time so you can immerse yourself in your activity.
Tip #4: Train your mind on a regular basis
These may be great short-term approaches. For more lasting effects though, we need a regular mental fitness routine. Over time, you’ll certainly reap the benefits: Neurobiologically, the brain changes with experiences – a process called neuroplasticity. In other words, repeatedly using certain thought and emotional patterns strengthens the corresponding synaptic connection so they become more automatic. This way, even the way you respond to and deal with languishing becomes more automatic and can change your experience for the better. You’ll learn to embrace more adaptive mindsets, regulate your emotions, control your attention and develop intrinsic motivation.
So go ahead and start your Flow training now!