Overcome Languishing & Flourish: A Positive Psychology Guide

LanguishingAmid the turmoil of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, one positive psychology construct has captured more attention than any other.

As societies worldwide had to endure lockdowns and social isolation, many people found themselves feeling “meh.” Not clinically depressed, but far from thriving in life.

Cue languishing: a sense of stagnation and emptiness, where life loses its color and motivations wane (Keyes, 2002). This state may easily go unnoticed, but its effects on our physical and mental health are significant (Iasiello et al., 2019).

Languishing is a challenge that psychologists, coaches, and therapists alike should be aware of and able to address in their clients. After all, the detrimental impacts on our physical and mental health and wellbeing are significant.

This guide leans into the concept, offering pathways out of the fog of languishing and into the realm of flourishing.

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Understanding Languishing in Mental Health

Recognizing the nuances of human psychological experiences, languishing has been identified as a significant state distinct from mental illness. It reflects the recognition that mental health isn’t merely the absence of mental illness, but also encompasses the presence of positive states of wellbeing.

While organizational psychologist Adam Grant (2021) spread awareness about languishing through his article in The New York Times in 2021, it’s a term that was coined as far back as 2002 (Keyes, 2002).

A definition of languishing

Coined by sociologist Corey Keyes (2022), languishing describes a state of being that is characterized by a lack of vitality or zest for life, and a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It’s a condition where one may function adequately but without a sense of vitality or fulfillment.

Languishing describes the absence of mental wellbeing rather than the presence of ill-being (Keyes, 2002). Individuals experiencing languishing are not flourishing; they do not realize their full emotional, psychological, or social potential. It’s akin to an engine running on low gear, moving but not accelerating with the vigor or purpose it’s capable of.

The dual continuum model of complete mental health

Understanding the complexities of mental health requires a comprehensive framework that acknowledges the spectrum of human experiences. The dual continuum model of mental health provides such a framework (Keyes, 2005).

Contrary to the traditional view, where mental health and mental illness are seen as opposite ends of a single spectrum, Keyes’s model proposes two distinct but interrelated continua:

  1. One continuum represents the absence or presence of mental illness, ranging from severe psychological disorders to no mental health conditions.
  2. The other continuum reflects the level of mental wellbeing, from languishing (i.e., low mental wellbeing) to flourishing (i.e., high mental wellbeing).

This model acknowledges that an individual can experience mental health issues while still enjoying positive wellbeing, or conversely, have no mental illness but poor mental wellbeing. This paradigm shift emphasizes a more holistic approach to mental health, focusing on both treatment and fostering positive mental states.

Complete mental health is attained when there is both an absence of mental illness and the presence of flourishing (Keyes, 2007; see figure below). Sadly, the prevalence of complete mental health is estimated to be less than a sixth of US adults (Keyes, 2002).

Dual Continua Model

Research among youth has also shown that mental health and mental illness are two distinct concepts (Suldo & Shaffer, 2008). So, how do you know if you’re languishing?

Signs and Symptoms of Languishing

Signs of languishingThe signs and symptoms of languishing don’t usually scream for attention the way acute mental illness symptoms do. Instead, languishing typically manifests in a variety of subtle signs and symptoms that might be overlooked in daily life.

These include (Keyes, 2002; Keyes, 2005; Keyes, 2007):

  • A general lack of feeling or a sense of emptiness and emotional numbness
  • Reduced ability to enjoy life or take pleasure in once enjoyable activities
  • Low motivation or drive to engage in activities
  • Trouble focusing or maintaining attention on tasks
  • A sense of indifference, apathy, or lack of interest in life
  • Feeling stuck or as if your life is not progressing
  • Withdrawal from social activities and reduced interest in maintaining social relationships
  • Not performing to your full potential, either at work, in personal projects or social roles
  • Persistent feelings of dissatisfaction or unhappiness
  • Feeling that life lacks purpose, direction, or meaning

In his TED talk, Adam Grant not only describes the signs and symptoms of languishing, but also offers valuable insight into how to shift from languishing to flourishing.

How to stop languishing and start finding flow - Adam Grant

Causes and Contributing Factors

Since languishing can be considered the opposite of flourishing, factors that are absent or lacking in languishing individuals may be inferred from what promotes flourishing.

In particular, the following causes and contributing factors stand out: prolonged stress and burnout, lack of social connections and support, monotonous or unfulfilling daily routine, personal setbacks or disappointments, and negative thinking and rumination.

Prolonged stress and burnout

Chronic stress, particularly when coping mechanisms are inadequate, significantly contributes to languishing. Lazarus and Folkman’s (1984) research on stress and coping underscores how being exposed to ongoing stress without applying effective coping strategies can deteriorate mental health.

Additionally, job dissatisfaction, lack of autonomy, and work-related stress have been shown to lead to burnout, a condition closely related to languishing (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007).

Lack of social connections and support

Social support and strong personal relationships are critical for flourishing (Taylor, 2011; Helliwell et al., 2019). The absence of these connections can lead to feelings of isolation and contribute to languishing (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010).

Fostering meaningful relationships and engaging in community activities can provide a sense of belonging and support.

Monotonous or unfulfilling daily routine

Steger et al. (2006) found that the presence of meaning in life is strongly associated with wellbeing, suggesting that a monotonous or purposeless routine could contribute to languishing.

Incorporating variety and challenging activities into the routine can combat the sense of stagnation and invigorate daily life, potentially shifting the individual from a state of languishing toward one of engagement and fulfillment.

Personal setbacks or disappointments

Experiencing personal setbacks or disappointments can also lead to languishing. These events can trigger negative thinking patterns and a sense of being stuck, contributing to a state of mental stagnation (Seligman, 1972).

Building resilience through practices like mindfulness and positive reframing can help mitigate the impact of setbacks or disappointments. This helps in the recovery from negative experiences and reduces their contribution to languishing.

Negative thinking and rumination

Finally, persistent negative thinking and rumination can create a cycle where negative thoughts reinforce feelings of emptiness and lack of fulfillment, further entrenching the individual in a state of languishing (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991).

Interventions such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy can be effective in breaking the cycle of negative thinking and rumination, fostering a more positive outlook that counters the tendencies toward languishing.

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The Impact of Languishing on Mental Health

There is an increasing amount of literature highlighting just how detrimental languishing is for mental health (Iasiello et al., 2019).

Increased risk of developing mental health disorders

The absence of vitality and a sense of stagnation (both of which are characteristics of languishing) can set the stage for more severe mental health issues. People experiencing languishing are not only more susceptible to developing conditions such as anxiety and mood disorders, but also face a higher likelihood of these conditions escalating if left unaddressed (Westerhof & Keyes, 2010).

The relationship between languishing and depression

Languishing individuals are at a higher risk of facing depressive symptoms, with this risk persisting and even increasing over time. For instance, one study revealed that this vulnerability could extend up to 10 years (Keyes et al., 2010).

Other studies have found that within a year, low levels of mental wellbeing could predict an increased risk of depression (Grant et al., 2013; Lamers et al., 2015). These findings were echoed by a more recent study reporting that changes in mental wellbeing (i.e., flourishing; here referred to as positive mental health) over a two-year period were associated with an increased likelihood of depression (Keyes et al., 2020).

Languishing as a barrier to personal growth and fulfillment

Languishing also acts as a significant barrier to personal growth and fulfillment. It can lead to reduced motivation, creativity, and engagement in both personal and professional life (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002).

Besides this, it also stifles the development of a person’s potential, undermining the pursuit of goals and aspirations: As it dims the sense of purpose and enthusiasm, it hampers the capacity for self-improvement and achieving a sense of accomplishment — both critical components of a fulfilling life (Seligman, 2011).

Personal health and overall wellbeing

Languishing has also shown to be an independent risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD), with this risk being particularly notable in individuals with major depressive episodes (Keyes, 2004). Anything less than complete mental health, especially in postmenopausal women, has been shown to correlate with an increased risk for CVD, comparable to traditional risk factors like diabetes and smoking.

This connection is further supported by a more recent study reporting that suboptimal mental health is associated with increased premature mortality (Fuller-Thomson et al., 2020).

Strategies to Help Clients Overcome Languishing

Overcoming languishingThe above research findings highlight the urgency to recognize and address languishing in clients both in clinical and coaching settings (given the coach has appropriate training in applying positive psychology interventions).

Keyes’s (2002) model of flourishing provides a robust framework for mental wellbeing and strategies to support clients to overcome languishing and transition toward flourishing habits.

This model delineates flourishing into three interrelated components:

  1. Emotional wellbeing, characterized by high positive affect, low negative affect, and life satisfaction, reflects the hedonic aspect of wellbeing (Diener et al., 2015).
  2. Psychological wellbeing, defined by Ryff and Keyes’s (1995) six-factor model, includes autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relations, purpose in life, and self-acceptance.
  3. Social wellbeing, with its focus on social coherence, integration, actualization, contribution, and acceptance, reflects individuals’ functioning in their societal context (Keyes, 1998).

This comprehensive model underscores the multifaceted nature of mental health, highlighting the need for strategies that address each of these aspects to facilitate the transition from languishing to flourishing. Here are five practical approaches:

Building social connections

Social wellbeing is crucial in the journey from languishing to flourishing. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, led by Waldinger and Schulz (2010), highlights the significant impact of social relationships on long-term health and happiness.

Aligning with Keyes’s emphasis on social integration, it’s essential to guide clients in nurturing and maintaining strong social ties, taking part in community activities, and developing a sense of social belonging.

Engaging in fulfilling activities

Fulfilling activities play a pivotal role in enhancing psychological wellbeing. According to the theory of flow introduced by Csikszentmihalyi (1997), engaging in activities that challenge and absorb us contributes to a state of flow, boosting happiness and reducing feelings of languishing.

Encouraging clients to identify and engage in such activities, whether they be creative pursuits, hobbies, or work-related tasks, can significantly improve their sense of personal growth and environmental mastery, aspects central to Ryff and Keyes’s (1995) model of psychological wellbeing.

Meaningful goals

Setting and striving toward meaningful goals is a cornerstone of positive psychology, fostering a sense of purpose and direction, key components of flourishing. Locke and Latham’s (2002) goal-setting theory posits that specific and challenging goals enhance motivation and performance.

Assisting clients in setting realistic yet challenging goals that align with their values can promote their psychological wellbeing, particularly their sense of purpose in life and autonomy, further supporting their journey from languishing to flourishing.

Self-care

Self-care encompasses practices that individuals engage in to manage stress, maintain health, and enhance wellbeing. Aspects of self-care such as regular exercise, adequate sleep, and a balanced diet have been linked to higher levels of emotional wellbeing (Ströhle, 2009; Irwin, 2015).

Encouraging clients to adopt a holistic approach to self-care, addressing both physical and mental health needs, is vital for their emotional wellbeing and overall journey toward flourishing.

Stress management techniques

Effective stress management is essential for transitioning from languishing to flourishing. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive-behavioral techniques are effective in reducing stress and improving mental health (Hofmann et al., 2010).

Teaching clients these stress management techniques can help them better manage stress, contributing to improvements in their emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing.

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A Take-Home Message

In the wake of a global pandemic, we’ve confronted a pervasive yet unspoken challenge: languishing.

In reading this article, I hope that one thing has become very clear: Languishing isn’t just a fleeting sense of unease, but a call to action. Similarly, the path from languishing to flourishing isn’t just about overcoming; it’s a radical reawakening to life’s potential.

May this guide serve as an impetus, equipping you with the tools to rekindle your clients’ inner spark and perhaps your own, too. In doing so, you’re not just reclaiming your wellbeing; you’re embarking on a profound journey toward a life that’s not just endured, but richly and passionately lived.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises (PDF) for free.

Frequently Asked Questions

A languishing person is someone who experiences a state of stagnation and emptiness. They may appear to be functioning in their daily life but without a sense of progress or fulfillment (Keyes, 2002).

Examples of languishing can include feelings of restlessness or aimlessness, struggling to find joy or satisfaction in life, and a general sense of indifference about the future. It can manifest in behaviors such as decreased productivity, withdrawing from social interactions, or neglecting hobbies and interests (Keyes, 2007).

Languishing can significantly impact our mental and physical health and wellbeing, acting as a risk factor for the development of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. It can impair the ability to function, affecting performance at work, relationships, and overall life satisfaction. Chronic languishing without intervention may lead to deteriorated wellbeing and can exacerbate existing mental health issues (Keyes, 2005).

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