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‘Languishing’ Is the Latest COVID Buzzword as People Feel Stuck in the Waning Days of the Pandemic

People logo People 2021-04-22 Julie Mazziotta
a woman standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Getty Office worker © Provided by People Getty Office worker

With millions of Americans getting vaccinated every day and new infections slowing, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be getting closer. But with so much still uncertain — when can people safely travel again? When will the U.S. hit herd immunity? Will cases ever fully disappear? — it can be a struggle to actually feel hopeful for the coming months.

That feeling can be termed "languishing," psychologist Adam Grant argued in a story for The New York Times.

"Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health," the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania professor and TED Talk host wrote. "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."

Grant said that the term was first coined by Corey Keyes, a sociologist at Emory University. Keyes researched the feeling and found that people who felt as though they were languishing are the people most likely to develop serious depression and anxiety disorders over the next decade. Keyes advocated in a 2010 study for mental health prevention "through risk reduction," to help "those vulnerable to mental illness."

a woman standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Office worker © Getty Office worker

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In another paper, from 2003, Keyes said that languishing is "more prevalent than major depressive disorder," and those suffering from it are "devoid of positive emotion toward life, and is not functioning well either psychologically or socially, and has not been depressed during the past year."

"In short," he added, "languishers are neither mentally ill nor mentally healthy." Instead, they're stuck in a purgatory between the two, and at risk of moving towards mentally ill without further intervention.

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Grant offers several suggestions for getting out of the languishing rut. The first is to recognize the feeling. "Instead of saying 'Great!' or 'Fine,' imagine if we answered, 'Honestly, I'm languishing,' " he advised.

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The next step is finding excitement again. Grant says "flow" — becoming absorbed in activities without getting distracted — "may be an antidote."

But with so many distractions in life these days, flow can be hard to find. Grant suggests carving out a chunk of time to work on a hobby or anything people find enjoyable, without interruption.

Another tip he shared was to make goals smaller — if knitting a whole scarf is too daunting, try an oven mitt; or if watching an entire movie feels like a chore, pick out an episode of a TV show instead.

"Sometimes it's a small step toward rediscovering some of the energy and enthusiasm that you've missed during all these months," he said.


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