I can’t tell you how many times recently I’ve had conversations that have started like this:
Because, for many of us right now, the answer to “How are you?” is so deeply complex, so layered, so hard to sum up, that honestly the best we can do is toss up our hands and say with a shrug, “I’m fine.” Even I’m answering “fine” all the time these days, and if you know me you know that “fine” is my least favorite f-word. Honestly, it’s a useless answer that doesn’t come close to approaching the truth of how we feel (most of the time).
Grant first wrote about languishing in the NY Times in April 2021, “There’s A Name For The Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing,” and then spoke further about it in a TED talk called “How To Stop Languishing and Start Finding Flow” in August 2021.
What does languishing mean? It’s defined as “a sense of stagnation or emptiness,” or “the absence of well-being,” or, as Grant likes to say, simply feeling “meh”—languishing is that hard-to-define feeling that most of us mean these days when we answer “I’m fine.”
Corey Keyes defined this for us back in 2002 in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior when discussing “The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing To Flourishing in Life.”
Languishing is not anguish. Acute anguish is at the far end of the spectrum—what people are experiencing right now who have lost loved ones, lost jobs, lost homes. Anguish is deep pain from a specific source. And many people across the globe are indeed in deep, deep anguish right now.
Languishing is certainly not flourishing, either. We flourish when our life feels in flow, and when we are thriving. We are flourishing when we have positive emotions, relationships, purpose, and direction.
Languishing lingers in the middle, and that murky, messy, muddled middle is where many of us are feeling stuck at the moment.
I’ve heard that one of the worst things we can do to a languishing person is giving them a bumper sticker dose of positivity…
“Oh, just look on the bright side!”
“Hey, life is what you make it!”
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!”
“We all have 24 hours in a day—how will you spend yours today?!”
… and hope they will somehow snap out of it. It’s why if you yourself have recently tried to give yourself a pep talk of positivity, you may have found yourself responding to yourself with complete indifference. Possibly even an eye roll.
What Keyes, Grant, and others tell us, though, is that there are ways to move through our languish in order to get closer to flourish, and key among those things are: mindfulness, connection, and action.
Mindfulness is important because it invites us to name what we are feeling, which is a really, really helpful tool in our overall emotional wellbeing. And once we name it, we can simply acknowledge the feeling with curiosity and non-judgement.
Connection is important, always, because disconnection leads to isolation which leads to spirals of unproductive or perhaps even destructive thoughts and actions. When we stay connected we are reminded, at the very least, that we are not alone on this big planet. We are not alone. Connection gives someone else the chance to say to us “Oh, me too!” which, I don’t know about you, but it immediately makes me feel So. Much. Better. My situation doesn’t have to be improved for me to feel better… sometimes just knowing someone knows makes me feel better. You know?
Action is important because even though we often hear that to change our lives we must first change our thoughts… the truth for many of us is that we must first change our actions in order to change our thoughts, and ultimately our lives. I need to get out of my head sometimes, and action is the quickest way to do that. So, if I’m languishing in a state of “I don’t want to do anything,” the best thing I can do is anything.
So, to assure yourself that you are moving through languishing, and not just sitting stuck in it, the three best things you can do are to:
- Be mindful and curious about how you are feeling
- Connect with another person
- Take any action, no matter how small
In the meantime, the next time you are tempted to ask “How are you?” when you see someone, pause and think of a different question to ask. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- What are you excited about today?
- What’s been the best part of your day so far?
- Are you working on any personal projects right now?
- What has frustrated you today?
- What last made you laugh?
- What is your go-to comfort right now?
- What is coming up on your calendar that you are looking forward to?
- Are you reading/watching/listening to anything right now that I might like?
- Did you see anything surprising in the world today?
And, in the end, just know that if what you are feeling right now leaves you only able to muster up an “I’m fine”… well, that’s just fine. You are most assuredly not alone.
September is Suicide Prevention Month. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available. Call 1-800-273-8255. Someone is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to offer free and confidential support.
September is also National Recovery Month, in recognition of mental and substance use disorders and in support and celebration of those on the path of recovery. For more information, visit https://rm.facesandvoicesofrecovery.org/