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Nowadays whenever I call up a friend or speak to my sister, all I hear is "I feel so tired" (without engaging in any taxing task), "I feel blah" (unexplainable feeling of void) or "I don't know what's going on" (losing interest in work, play or any situation). I 'am not surprised to hear this because I feel the same, and I too am not sure what I do call this feeling. We are all still grappling with the horror and remnants of 2020, and before we could even digest or absorb the fact that 2020 was an actual year that we had to live by, the disastrous sight of death and pain in 2021 is knocking at our doors with news reports flashing 24X7 on lack of oxygen, hospital beds, ventilators, dying patients, crying families, footpath cremation and the list goes on. I read somewhere that it is almost like people are waiting for their 'turn to die' because that seems to be the inevitable fate of people living in India now!
So what is this feeling of 'meh', 'blah', or 'I can't care anymore' actually called?
An article published in the New York Times by Adam Grant (Wharton Organizational Psychologist) titled, 'There's a Name for the Blah you're Feeling: It's Called Languishing', beautifully explains the mental mess that people have been experiencing lately. Sociologist Corey Keyes coined the term, as he understood that many people who weren't depressed also weren't thriving. Keyes research suggested those most likely to experience major depression and anxiety disorders in the next decade are the people who are languishing right now. Keyes defined languishing as "A state in which an individual is devoid of positive emotion toward life, and is not functioning well either psychologically or socially, and has not been depressed during the past year". It means that you are neither mentally ill nor mentally healthy, you are somewhere in the middle, however not at either extreme.
I know for a fact that I' am languishing, and there are many more languishers like me, who feel lost in this current pandemic-stricken world, more so with the Covid surge in India right now. I had shared the article by Grant with my friends and colleagues and many of them related to every word of it, and said they didn't know that there was a word for that feeling! Experts have even said that 'languishing' might be the dominant emotion of 2021, and honestly, no one should be surprised.
The word and the idea have come to the forefront and mainstream discussion only now when the world is hit by a pandemic, but it is not like people did not experience this before. We experience it every time we feel a little less joyful and a little more aimless, stay in bed an extra hour not just because we are lazy but because we just don't feel like going through the day or not excited about things like we once were. Grant describes languishing as the neglected middle child of mental health, as a middle stop between depression and flourishing.
According to Professor and Psychologist Cary Cooper (Manchester Business School), this feeling is so prevalent now because of the lack of real-time social contact with friends and family and lack of control and certainty about the future. It becomes extremely important at this point to understand and correctly label the feeling that most people are collectively experiencing and find effective ways to deal with it.
Whether or not one has been diagnosed with a mental illness (depression and anxiety among others) it is important to realize that people languish at different points in time and more so now than ever. This is an important indicator for the growing issues of mental illness and the more we normalize it in our conversations and call it by its name thus giving it a space in our vocabulary, we do not just remove the stigma around genuine mental health discussions and make way for treatments, but also make it possible to have authentic conversations with people who may be feeling the same or worse.
Grant says that one of the antidotes to languishing is 'flow'. Positive Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, considered one of the cofounders of positive psychology, was the first to identify and research flow. According to Mihaly (1990), "The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times... The best moments usually occur if a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile".
The state of flow cannot be achieved when there is a constant distraction around us. For us to truly be in a state of flow, we need to stay away from distracters that disengage us from our activity at hand. When we engage in a challenging activity and have the required skill set for it, then flow is likely to be induced in that situation otherwise the mismatch between challenging tasks and skillsets leaves one either anxious and stress or bored and distracted. The fine balance between the skill sets and challenging tasks is the key point for flow (Nakamura et al., 2009).
As we move on with our lives in this pandemic stricken world and try our best to keep up with these extremely challenging times, I hope we all are compassionate, empathetic and kind towards one another and also realize that there is a world full of people who are quietly struggling and simply 'getting by' their days without us having a single clue about it. Being aware, alert and acknowledging such feelings in us and others can help us walk towards a path of well-being and recovery.