At the end of the Fall semester, I was at a dinner that we hold for the platform party and distinguished guests on the day of our commencement ceremony. That night, I sat with several deans and another vice president. It was the first time I had seen many of them in person since 2020, and so there was a lot of catching up to do. One of my colleagues started to reflect on a recent New York Times article about feelings and the pandemic. She said, “I’m going to describe this feeling and all of you will respond, ‘oh, yeah that’s me’.” She described feeling aimless, not functioning at full-capacity, and just sort of blah. We all nodded, recognizing those feelings. And she nodded her head and said, “Well, apparently we’re all languishing. And now you have a name for it.”
It has been a week now since that conversation, and I’ve been reflecting on what it means to “languish”. Overall, I felt like I had been handling the recent stream of never-ending challenges in stride. I didn’t feel particularly overwhelmed, but I also didn’t find joy in my usual end of semester goal setting. In fact, I hadn’t set any personal or professional goals like I used to pre-pandemic. I am just not motivated to go through that process right now.
I wanted to dig a bit deeper into this concept of languishing. It is not a mental health diagnosis, but the state of not being at your best. And to give myself grace, that’s not surprising and after the past several years of professional (racial reckoning, Covid-19, presidential transition, staff resignations, difficulty recruiting and retaining) and personal challenges (In 2019, my newborn was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect and three months later my then four-year old was diagnosed with leukemia – couple that with a global pandemic putting them both at even greater health risk.), it’s not a surprise I am in a state of not being at my best.
One of the main side effects of languishing is lack of energy. Languishing for too long has the potential to develop into a mental illness. Languishing also reduces our capacity to handle stress or other curveballs that life throws at you. I’ve seen this exhibited in our student body and staff, who just seem to have exhausted their resilience, and small setbacks are causing more intense responses than they typically would.
On the other end of the spectrum from languishing would be flourishing, being in a state of positivity and functioning well, socially and mentally.
Now that I have a name for what I am experiencing, I wanted to know what to do about it. Perhaps like me, the concept of languishing is resonating with you, and you’d like to be thriving – not languishing – as we start a new year. Flourishing is a constant state of being, it is something that you can work towards and practice.
Dr. Martin Seligman, considered the founder of the flourishing, identified the PERMA model as key contributors to one’s ability to flourish. PERMA stands for positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments (Cooks-Campbell, 2021).
Within this area you can start a gratitude practice, identify and name your emotions, and let yourself do something that brings you joy.
Try to get into a state of flow, which helps with creativity. Be honest with yourself about your feelings; when we’re not, the cognitive dissonance drains our internal energy. Take care of yourself, make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating well, and moving your body.
Connect with others and maintain healthy relationships with others. These connections can help increase resilience during tough times. Invest in your friendships. Talk to a coach or therapist; sharing your feelings and goals can help prevent depression.
Choose your work wisely (if you can). Work that is draining or not aligned with your values affects your mental wellbeing over time. Give yourself grace and view any setbacks as one chapter of your journey. Plan for the future – plan a trip, date night, or something to look forward to.
Find a new challenge to take on. It doesn’t have to be work-related. Perhaps you will start a new hobby or like me, join a gym competition to challenge you. Set some small goals to accomplish. These will help you have some early wins and build momentum for larger ones. Celebrate the small things. Don’t lose sight of the things you have accomplished, even if they are everyday tasks.
The good news: languishing can be temporary and if we’re not alone in experiencing this. And even better: we can move ourselves out of languishing and towards flourishing with some efforts and the support of others.
If you’re interested in learning more about this concept, check out Adam Grant’s TED Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/adam_grant_how_to_stop_languishing_and_start_finding_flow
Cooks-Campbell, A. (2021, October 27). Are you languishing? Here’s how to regain your sense of purpose. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.betterup.com/blog/what-is-languish-how-to-flourish
Grant, A. “Feeling blah during the pandemic? It’s called Languishing.” NYTimes.com, New York Times, April 19, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html. Accessed December 1, 2021.
About the Author
Dr. Amy Hecht serves as the vice president for student affairs at Florida State University. Hecht currently serves as a member of the NASPA James E. Scott Academy Board.