If you've been feeling off—but can't exactly call it depression—you could very well be languishing. Similar to burnout, more and more people are experiencing this phenomenon on a global scale. So, we asked experts what languishing really is, plus how to deal with it.
What is languishing?
In modern psychology, languishing is thought of as the opposite of flourishing. It is both the "absence of mental health and mental illness," according to psychologist Corey L.M. Keyes, Ph.D., who coined the term in his 2002 research titled "The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life."
Basically, it's a lack of positive mental well-being without a diagnosable mental illness or a major depressive episode, for instance.
With the rise of mental health challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the term is receiving a resurgence of attention. As associate professor of human development and self-compassion expert Kristin Neff, Ph.D., tells mbg, languishing is similar to burnout in that it can contribute to feelings of numbness, lack of motivation, and exhaustion. "You're just kinda stuck—and I think the reason [languishing] is getting so much attention now is because again I think the whole world is."
Common symptoms of languishing:
Feeling like you're going through the motions
A feeling of "going through the motions" is a telltale sign of languishing. As Carmichael notes, this can even look like having no specific goals set or no challenges to face. "You're just kind drifting through on a day-to-day-type of level," she explains. "But human beings are kind of wired to have challenges [with] a natural, healthy need to be growing rather than languishing."
Similar to going through the motions, languishing can result in a numb feeling: not really sad or upset but definitely not happy or enthusiastic. "Underlying the languishing is this feeling of numbness and burnout and lack of motivation," Neff says. "You can't get up out of bed, you don't really know what to do, you feel like you're in a fog, in a haze—like you're treading water."
As Carmichael explains, low self-worth and languishing can become a cyclical problem. People who are languishing can start to "almost embrace an attitude about their life that isn't focused on growth or worth, or even good self-care," she says. "So then you're starting to behaviorally degrade your sense of self-worth." That behavioral degradation can look like struggling with basic tasks, which brings us to our next point.
Struggling with basic tasks
The kind of numbness, lack of motivation, and low self-worth seen in people who are languishing can manifest as difficulty with basic tasks, and namely hygiene. "Maybe you haven't been showering as much, and hygiene is very much tied to mood," Carmichael says.
According to Neff, restlessness is another characteristic of languishing. She describes it as feeling restless but not knowing what to do with the energy, "like a hamster on a wheel."
And lastly, according to Keyes' original research, languishing is associated with a high likelihood of a "severe" number of lost days of work (six or more a month) and work cutback that the study participants attributed to their mental health.
Languishing vs. depression.
Despite their similarities, there are distinctions between languishing and depression. Depression is a mental illness that is diagnosed by a mental health professional, where languishing can be thought of more as a state of being or a feeling. "I can see where languishing could become a slippery slope," Carmichael says, but notes, "I would definitely say depression is a whole other beast."
She adds that feelings of being stuck and unmotivated don't necessarily mean you're depressed but rather you're dealing with "a kind of lower-grade type of depressive feeling."
To expand on that, one of Keyes' conclusions from his research was, in fact, that "mental illness and mental health are highly correlated but belong to separate continua, and therefore the prevention and treatment of mental illnesses will not necessarily result in more mentally healthy individuals."
In short: Just because someone doesn't have a diagnosed mental illness does not mean their mental health is good.
The research concluded that "languishing and depression were associated with significant psychosocial impairment in terms of perceived emotional health, limitations of activities of daily living, and workdays lost or cutback," Keyes writes.
And for what it's worth, he also found that the risk of a major depressive episode was nearly six times higher for languishing participants compared to those flourishing (and two times more likely for languishing participants than those who were "moderately mentally healthy").
How to cope:
Ask for outside help.
Isolating yourself can be a natural inclination when you're languishing, but Carmichael and Neff agree, if you're feeling down, it's always a good idea to ask for help, whether from a professional or loved ones.
"I don't think you need to be mentally ill to seek therapy—I think even if you're coping fairly well it's a really good resource," Neff notes, adding therapy is definitely the right move if your mood is starting to interfere with your ability to cope in your daily life. "But why wait until it gets to that point? Therapy is a proactive way of caring for yourself," she says. There are different types of therapy that can be appropriate for people who are dealing with languishing.
And if you feel you don't quite need the help of a mental health professional, it can still help to reach out to loved ones for support.
According to Carmichael, exercise is a really great way to jump-start the body and the mind. While harnessing the motivation to actually do it can feel like a struggle, once you do, it rejuvenates your sense of self-efficacy, or "your belief that you're able to do what you say you're going to do," Carmichael explains.
"Sometimes doing hard things with your body helps you to realize that you can do hard things, in general—that you do have that basic sense of control about yourself," she adds. And of course, any form of exercise that works for you applies here, whether that's a hike, a HIIT class, or simply taking a walk.
Neff, who is a leading expert in the field of self-compassion, stresses the importance of giving yourself grace when going through a languishing period. "Compassion, in general, is concerned with the alleviation of suffering, so warmth, kindness, support—and so self-compassion is just turning that inward," she explains.
Self-compassion allows us to relate to all the difficulties we face in life in a way that doesn't sugarcoat things or deny reality but rather offers us a sense of warmth and care because it's so difficult, Neff explains. It's about acknowledging that, "Yeah, this hurts. And it's difficult. It's painful," she adds.
Self-compassion consists of three main factors: mindfulness, kindness toward yourself, and relating your experience to the shared human experience. When we frame our experiences in light of our shared human experience, Neff adds, "It helps just to remember this is part of the human condition, sometimes things like this happen, and there's nothing wrong with me for feeling this way."
Plan a getaway.
"Sometimes you're languishing because there's just a bunch of low-grade dysfunction in your life that [you don't even notice] because you've been around it for so long," Carmichael says. So what do you do? Get away. Whether it's a retreat, a vacation, or even a staycation, she adds that giving yourself a chance to be deliberately reflective and curious, and going within for insight, can be really informative with regard to what you really need.
Try self-help audiobooks.
Lastly, Carmichael recommends self-help books, and particularly audiobooks, to help you feel more self-reflective and proactive in your life. "There's a lot to be said about uplifting audiobooks," she explains, adding that listening to another human voice can feel particularly supportive.
If you feel like you are languishing, know you're far from alone. As Neff says, there's nothing wrong with you for feeling this way. In fact, it's to be expected given all that's happening in the world. With that said, it's also important to seek help when you need it (or even before you "need" it) and take care of yourself as best you can.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, as well as a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.