Feeling Blah? The Mood of the Year: Languishing

Languishing is apathy, a sense of annoyance or feeling floating, or an overall lack of interest in life or the things that typically bring you joy and happiness.

Sociologist Corey Keyes first coined the term languishing in a paper, as the antithesis of flourishing, a pervasive ‘meh’ feeling that dulls our motivation.

Languishing is apathy, a sense of restlessness or feeling unsettled or an overall lack of interest in life or the things that typically bring you joy, says Shemiah Derrick, a licensed professional counsellor.

Unlike a panic disorder or depression, languishing is a series of emotions, not a mental illness. 

Languishing encompasses distressing feelings of stagnation, monotony, and emptiness, says Leela R. Magavi, MD, a Johns Hopkins-trained adult, adolescent, and child psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, California’s largest outpatient mental health organization.

Organizational psychologist Dr. Adam Grant has explained languishing as a sense of feeling “stuck” and empty about your life. “It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy wind shield,” Grant said in a 2021 New York Times article.

When you are languishing, you might even say that you’re just feeling kind of “blah.”


Languishing in a state of not being at your best version, despite the lack of an acute stressor. While nothing is wrong, exactly, nothing’s right either. 

Languishers tend to feel aimless. 

They scroll on social media, staring at the television, or watch the clock instead of actively engaging in life. 

Those suffering from languishing may want to do something, but lack the energy or the conviction that it’s worth the effort. 

In fact, lack of energy is one of the biggest side effects of languishing.

According to Oliver Burkeman, all of our efforts to be more productive backfire, and only make us feel even busier and more stressed. 

Most of us have experienced this creeping sense of being overwhelmed: the feeling not merely that our lives are full of activity – that can be exhilarating – but that time is slipping out of our control, says Burkeman.

Even the concept of Inbox Zero and “digital productivity” created by Merlin Mann has maybe caused more mental issues than real solutions, something that Mann agrees with when he says in an interview to Oliver Burkeman that his career as a productivity guru had begun with an inner conflict.

“I started making pretty good money from it” – from speaking and consulting about productivity – “but I also started to feel terrible, this topic of productivity induces the worst kind of procrastination because it feels like you’re doing work, but I was producing stuff that had the express purpose of saying to people, ‘Look, come and see how to do your work, rather than doing your work!’”

Taylorism first crossed the threshold into personal productivity when Charles Schwab, the president of Bethlehem Steel, asked another consultant, a businessman named Ivy Lee, to improve his executives’ efficiency as well. Lee advised those white-collar workers to make nightly to-do lists, arranging tomorrow’s six most important tasks by priority, then to start at the top of the list next morning, working down. It’s a stretch to imagine that nobody had thought of this before. But the story goes that when Lee told Schwab to test it for three months, then pay him what he thought it was worth, the steel magnate wrote him a cheque worth more than $400,000 in today’s money – and the time management industry was up and running. 

If you are suffering from languishing, the normal stressors of work and life may feel like they hit harder. 

Languish depletes your energy and your ability to resile back from challenges.

Languishing includes: 

  • Feeling disconnected from your colleagues
  • Inability to get excited about your projects
  • Difficulty focusing or remembering 
  • Cynicism about your career
  • Procrastination or lack of motivation
  • An absence of well-being even though you’re not sick
  • Feeling as if there’s nothing to look forward to
  • Feeling as if you’re just going through the motions

According to an article at BetterUp, languishing, depression, and burnout share many symptoms, but they differ in cause and severity. Many symptoms overlap between the three, such as a lack of energy, difficulty focusing, and not feeling hopeful about the future:

Burnout is specifically a work-related phenomenon. It arises from a poor work-life balance or doing work that isn’t a good match for one’s values and skills. Languish, on the other hand, is an overall state that affects every area of life. People who are languishing don’t meet the criteria for a mental health disorder. However, they lack a certain degree of vitality and optimism associated with true well-being. Languishing may be such a common feeling now because of its unpredictability. People move in and out of a state of languishing over a period of days or weeks. Languishing is most concerning when people get “stuck” in the feeling and don’t have the tools to get themselves out. Depression, by contrast, is a clinical condition that is more severe than languishing. Depression extends into all aspects of life, and it doesn’t come and go. Depression must last at least six months to be diagnosed and requires professional help to treat it. However, those experiencing languish or burnout are at higher risk of becoming depressed. In fact, the feelings that come with languish and burnout are a predictor for anxiety disorders and depression later. 

But what we can do? According to Adam Grant again, a concept called flow may be an antidote to languishing. Flow is that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place, and self melts away. 

According to Dr. Martin Seligman’s research on flourishing, the best way to move from languishing to flourishing is the PERMA model. Seligman developed PERMA as a shorthand to explain the components of what leads to flourishing. It stands for:

Positive emotions

People who became more immersed in their projects managed to avoid languishing. To transcend languishing, try starting with small wins in your day. 

Languishing has been common during these critical pandemic times, but you can start to discover strategies to start flourishing and live your best version.

References, inspirations, or recommendations:

People Mentioned:

  • Corey Keyes
  • Shemiah Derrick
  • Leela R. Magavi
  • Adam Grant
  • Oliver Burkeman
  • Merlin Mann
  • Martin Seligman

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