An article in The New York Times recently proclaimed (rather proudly) that the elusive ‘meh’ feeling known by all, can now be formally known as ‘languishing’. Google the term, and it is defined as ‘failing to make progress or be successful’. NY Times calls this the ‘middle child of mental health’ which can ‘dull your motivation and focus’.

Now there are many pieces advising on: ‘How to tell you’re languishing and what to do about it’. There’s even a quiz to answer the question: ‘Are you Flourishing?’ Despite the revelatory tone of the discourse surrounding languishing, there’s nothing new about it, and I’d be careful to add yet another word to the burgeoning mental health glossary. Equally as bad as not being able to describe a feeling, is to fall into deep introspection about every possible feeling, especially when it is arguably an entirely normal experience.


Languishing is presented as the middle ground; the unspecified bit in between being depressed, and thriving. But is this not the state in which we exist most of our lives? The hype around our collective languishing has come about, mostly, as a result of the pandemic and the enforced purgatory it has led to. It’s understandable for people to be experiencing this prolonged feeling of emptiness and lack of direction. Lives are on hold, there has been unimaginable human suffering across the globe, and hopes and plans have been upended. But languishing is not just a byproduct of the pandemic. In fact, it has existed for some time.

Just middle-class catastrophising?

The term was first coined by sociologist Corey Keyes in 2002. His studies suggested that up to 12 per cent of the population he researched met the criteria for languishing. Some have referred to it as a ‘hidden epidemic’. Here is where we need some perspective. No doubt, languishing is a very real feeling. As many point out, although symptoms may not be clinically significant, they can become a risk factor for developing future mental illness. After all, if it is the ‘middle ground’ of the mental health spectrum, then it is very possible for it to tilt the wrong way and lead to anxiety and mood disorders. Many of the symptoms of languishing — lack of motivation, difficulty focusing, brain fog, boredom — overlap with depression. The key thing is determining to what extent these symptoms are interfering with your daily functioning.

Languishing raises questions. Namely, should we be concerned? For instance, being able to function but not feeling like you’re ‘nailing it’, difficulty getting creatively inspired and not feeling passionate about work — are these alarming indicators of a looming mental catastrophe?

Without wanting to trivialise people’s valid feelings and concerns, the issues of feeling ‘creatively inspired’ or ‘passionate about work’, seem to be privileged dilemmas. It’s not to say that they’re not legitimate and potentially distressing problems, but they’re not something everyone has the luxury of indulging in. Doing this invokes the romantic stereotype of the ‘tortured, depressed artist’ or the ‘troubled genius. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not denying such people exist; but languishing does seem to share similar traits to other middle-class pursuits, like bread baking.

Whilst some have been furloughed or have been working from home, many others like shop workers, bus drivers and nurses, have been stretched to the limit. ONS figures show that 70 per cent of all staff in the borough of Richmond upon Thames said that they had already worked from home before the pandemic, whereas it was 13 per cent for those in Burnley. Those in a professional occupation were most likely to work from home. The point is that the term ‘languishing’, to me, is redundant. Ask a manual worker in Burnley on their way back from a night shift if they feel they are languishing, and they will probably give you a blank expression. This is all speculative, of course, but they will perhaps have other things on their mind, like putting food on the table. Someone on the minimum wage may never get the chance to ‘nail it’ or be ‘passionate about their work’, but they need the money all the same so will grin and bear it.

Through a multitude of complex factors, many people will not get the chance to ‘thrive’, out of the need to merely survive. Does that mean they’re permanently languishing? Some may indeed describe themselves this way, but others may be offended at the notion that just because they’re not excelling, they’re somehow failing.

Contrast this with those who have had, in some ways, a more ‘comfortable’ pandemic. But be careful, working from home is no get-out-of-jail free card either. Rates of burnout and stress have increased as the boundaries between people’s personal and professional lives have been blurred. However, whilst anyone and everyone can experience languishing, it seems to be a term more applicable to those with the time and resources to ponder about their lives. How so? Well, the idea of languishing presupposes (inaccurately) that you have the means and right conditions to thrive, yet somehow you’re not. But what about those who don’t, and will never be able to ‘thrive’? Even if you can afford to make languishing your muse, should you?

Is it languishing, or just living?

The ‘meh’ feeling that encompasses languishing, is universally recognised, but such is life. People will experience languishing to varying degrees, and it will impact some more than others. Arguably, do we not all experience it to some extent, every day?

Is waking up and ‘not really feeling it’ a sign of languishing? Is being in a ‘rut’ the same as languishing? The term is as murky as the feeling it describes. With something that obscure, do we really need to bring it into focus? Why is ‘rut’ not sufficient to describe this feeling? Is it not flowery enough, perhaps, for the contemplative class raving about it? I can imagine Instagram influencers ‘checking in’ with their followers, posting a poll with the options:

Great!

Not too good 🙁

Languishing :/

Even aside from the questionable need for languishing to be a category mental state, the new focus on it paints it in a negative light. Although it’s being presented as a relatable, commonly shared feeling, there’s still some implication that it’s somehow ‘abnormal’ — and so needs remedying. One could argue that languishing is an unavoidable, and indeed sizeable part of everyday life. Most people, as they go about their daily existence, are not thriving. But that doesn’t mean they are depressed (a word that is thrown around too often these days to describe normal human feelings and responses). You wouldn’t say you are languishing simply because work is boring you one day. You have to look at the bigger picture and think about the length of time you’ve been feeling a certain way. Nobody should be put off seeking support or sharing their feelings when they need or want to. But, aside from this caveat, are we unnecessarily drawing attention to a feeling that could reasonably be referred to as the mundanity of life? Are we not adding to people’s misery by pathologising humdrum, everyday feelings?

Take the term ‘vanilla’, for instance. This is generally used either to insult someone’s boring and monotonous preferences or life, or in a self-deprecating way, to mock oneself for their ‘predictable’ tastes. Similar to being ‘so vanilla’, one person’s ‘languishing’ may be another person’s conscious choice. Of course the emphasis is on how you feel, not how others perceive you to be feeling. But that ‘meh’ feeling experienced by so many isn’t a guaranteed bad thing. The idea that you have to be permanently on the go, striving for and achieving goals, is harmful. People already feel pressure to keep reaching milestones, exceeding targets and so on. For some, the chaos of being at either end of the spectrum (thriving or depressed) means that languishing, far from being the mediocre nightmare it evokes, provides welcome respite. Whilst languishing may be intended to comfort those unable to pinpoint what exactly they’re feeling — there’s nothing worse than a state of limbo — highlighting, defining, and creating quizzes to identify this feeling, only amplifies it. Once you’ve identified something, it becomes harder to move out of a state that you’re acutely aware of.

For those with ADHD or Autism, they are already always acutely aware of something similar. Many neurodivergent people experience an amplified version of what could be classified as languishing: lacking focus, losing interest in tasks and feeling bored but finding that doing things is too much of an effort. They may roll their eyes at neurotypicals giving themselves a new term to describe what they experience throughout their lives, and for which they are scolded by a society that does not accommodate them.

To be grateful or angry?

Having made light of the articles advising people on how to move out of the languishing state, I’m going to make my own proposal. But, where I feel it differs, is its outward focus.

It could be reasonably argued that languishing comes about from being very inward looking. When I talk of the worker in Burnley not having time for languishing, that most definitely doesn’t mean that only a certain class of people have the insight or emotional intelligence to be susceptible to languishing. What we should all instead focus on, is the world around and beyond ourselves. I hate it when I have a dilemma and somebody tells me it’s because ‘you’re a perfectionist’ or ‘you have impossibly high standards’, as the implication is that you should ‘settle’. That’s why I won’t for one moment suggest this as a remedy for languishing. Being grateful, and practising gratitude, however, doesn’t mean settling. It simply means acknowledging what you already have — and not just the material items. Then, for the broadest perspective, we should look to what we truly need as a society.

We should turn that hollow sense of languishing into anger that galvanises us. Why are the only alternatives to languishing seen as being depressed, or thriving and perky? Anger is a precious and overlooked emotion. We should be angry about the culture that has distorted our view of success, and what life is about. We should be angry about the invisible ideas and beliefs that have led us to this catch-22, where you’re either surviving in hostile conditions or so disillusioned by the need to do more than survive, that you’re just adrift.

Embrace your languishing and it will reward you.