It didn’t burn – we still had energy. It wasn’t depression – we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt a bit out of hand and insignificant. There seems to be a name for that: languishing.
Linguistics is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels like you are mixing through your days, looking at your life through a foggy wind. And maybe it is the dominant emotion of 2021.
As scientists and doctors work to treat and improve the physical symptoms of long-distance Covid, many people struggle with the emotional long-distance of the pandemic. Some of us woke up unprepared as last year’s intense fear and grief faded.
In the early, uncertain days of the pandemic, your brain’s threat detection system – called the amygdala – was probably very wary of fight-or-flight. As you learned that masks helped protect us – but didn’t scrub kits – you probably developed habits that eased your sense of dread. But the pandemic has dragged on, and an acute condition has given way to a chronic state of exhaustion.
In psychology, we think of mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. Flowering is the highlight of well-being: You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and being important to others. Depression is the valley of wellbeing: You feel depressed, drained and worthless.
Languages is the neglected middle child of mental health. This is the void between depression and prosperity – the absence of well-being. You do not have symptoms of mental illness, but you are not the picture of mental health either. You are not acting to the best of his ability. Linguistic spoils your motivation, disrupts your concentration, and triples the odds you cut back on work. It seems to be more common than major depression – and in some ways may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.
The term was coined by a sociologist named Corey Keyes, who was struck that many people who were not depressed were also not thriving. His research suggests that the people most likely to experience major depressive and anxiety disorders in the next decade are not the ones with those symptoms today. They are the people who are starving at the moment. And new evidence from pandemic healthcare workers in Italy shows that those who woke up in spring 2020 were three times more likely than their peers to be diagnosed with PTSD.
Part of the danger is that when you are awake, you may not notice delight fading or driving diminishing. You do not catch yourself slowly slipping into solitude; you are indifferent to your apathy. When you cannot see your own suffering, you are not seeking help or even doing much to help yourself.
Even if you’re not idle, you probably know people who are. Understanding it better can help you.
NAME FOR WHAT YOU FEEL
Psychologists find that one of the best strategies for managing emotions is to name them. Last spring, during the acute panic of the pandemic, the most viral post in the history of Harvard Business Review was an article that described our collective discomfort as grief. Along with the loss of loved ones, we mourned for the loss of normality. “Disease.” It gave us a familiar vocabulary to understand what had felt like an unfamiliar experience. Although we had not faced a pandemic before, most of us had suffered a loss. It helped us to capture lessons from our past resilience – and to build confidence in our ability to face current adversity.
We still have a lot to learn about what causes deterioration and how to cure it, but naming it could be a first step. It could help define our vision, giving us a clearer window into what has been a blurry experience. It might remind us that we are not alone: weakening is common and shared.
And it could give a socially acceptable response to “How are you?”
Instead of saying “Great!” or “Fine,” imagine if we were to answer, “Honestly, I’m idle.” It would be a refreshing foil for toxic positivity – that American pressure to always be better.
When you add languishing to your dictionary, you start to notice all around you. It seems when you feel disappointed by your short afternoon walk. It’s in your children’s voices when you ask how school went online. It’s in “The Simpsons” every time a character says, “Jun.”
Last summer, journalist Daphne K. Lee tweeted about a Chinese expression that translates to “revenge publishing time.” She described it as staying up late at night to claim the freedom we have lost during the day. I have begun to wonder that it is not so much revenge against loss of control as an act of quiet defiance against laziness. It looks for bliss in a bleak day, a connection in a lonely week, or a purpose in a perpetual pandemic.
Languages is the neglected middle child of mental health.
ANTIDOTE IN LANGUAGE
So what can we do about it? A concept called “flow” can be an antidote to lashing out. Flow is that unwanted state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self melts away. In the early days of the pandemic, optimism and mindfulness were not the best predictor of well-being – it was a flow. People who got involved in their projects avoided procrastination and maintained their prepandemic happiness.
An early morning word game gets me in a flow. Binge drinking in late-night Netflix sometimes does the trick too – it transports you to a story where you feel connected to the characters and concerned for their well-being.
While finding new challenges, enjoyable experiences and meaningful work are all possible solutions to procrastination, it is hard to find a flow when you can’t concentrate. This was a problem well before the pandemic, when people usually checked email 74 times a day and changed tasks every 10 minutes. During the past year, many of us have also been struggling with child interference around the house, colleagues around the world and heads around the clock. Meh.
Fragmented attention is an enemy of engagement and excellence. In a group of 100 people, only two or three will even be able to drive and remember information at the same time without their performance suffering on one or both tasks. Computers can be made for parallel processing, but humans are better off serial processing.
PLEASE SEND YOUR SELF TIME
That means we need to set boundaries. Years ago, a Fortune 500 software company in India tested a simple policy: no interruptions Tuesday, Thursday and Friday before noon. When engineers controlled the border themselves, 47 percent had higher than average productivity. But when the company set quiet time as official policy, 65 percent achieved above-average productivity. Achieving more was not just for performance at work: We now know that the most important factor in daily joy and motivation is a sense of progress.
I don’t think there’s anything magical about Tuesday, Thursday and Friday before noon. The lesson of this simple idea is to treat endless blocks of time as treasures to protect. It removes constant distractions and gives us freedom to concentrate. We can find comfort in experiences that hold our full attention.
FOCUS ON A SMALL AIM
The pandemic was a great loss. To go beyond laziness, try starting with small gains, such as the small win of whodunit accounting or the rush of playing a seven-letter word. One of the clearest paths to flow is just a manageable difficulty: a challenge that extends your skills and deepens your solution. That means carving out time each day to focus on a challenge that matters to you – an interesting project, a worthwhile goal, a meaningful conversation. Sometimes it’s a small step towards rediscovering some of the energy and enthusiasm you’ve lost in all these months.
Language is not just in our heads – it is in our circumstances. You cannot cure a sick culture with personal bandages. We still live in a world that normalizes physical health challenges but stigmatizes mental health challenges. As we move into a new post-pandemic reality, it’s time to rethink our understanding of mental health and wellbeing. “Not depressed” does not mean you are not struggling. “Without burning out” does not mean you are fired. By recognizing that so many of us are starving, we can begin to give voice to quiet despair and illuminate a path out of the void.
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