The New York Times recently released an article all about languishing, describing it as “that sense of bleh” many of us have experienced—especially throughout the treachery of COVID-19. The term “languishing” has consequently become a new buzzword, although the concept has been around for almost two decades. First introduced by Corey Keyes in 2002, languish represents one end of a continuum which describes one’s state of being. Keyes’ continuum proposes that life can be quantified in terms of mental health (good or poor) and goal-striving behavior: with languishing on one end, flourishing in the other, and acquiescence somewhere in-between (Keyes, 2002; Grant, 2020). While the experience of languishing is normal—and we’ve probably all been there at least once or twice—our sights really ought to be set on the other end of the spectrum.
The feeling of languish, as mentioned above, is often described as simply “bleh.” In more precise terms, languishing is a state of being characterized by a generally disinterested or dreary affect, minimal goal-seeking behaviors, and the perception of poor social support systems (Knoesen & Naudé, 2018). Throughout COVID-19 as many of us have found ourselves physically distant from those we hold dear, we might in turn experience a sense of separation within our social bonds. The cancellation of big events, travel plans, or even employment opportunities may leave us feeling sort of blank and purposeless. Of course, in spite of its newfound popularity in association with COVID-19, the experience of languishing can be brought about by a number of things. Studies have shown that major transitions, experience with failure or setback, or a disruption in some area of life are all things that can lead to feelings of languish (Kuettel et al., 2021).
On the other hand, of course, is what we all hope to attain: flourishing. In contrast to a sense of languish, flourishing is characterized by positive affect, feelings of purpose and fulfillment in life, overall well-being, perceived strength in social relationships, and ambitious/goal-seeking behavior. Flourishing is often associated with a sense of balance between social, personal, and professional life, all three of which bring their own sense of joy and purpose to an individual (Grant, 2020). In this way, flourishing is somewhat synonymous with reaching a state of mental stability—studies have shown that individuals who find themselves on the flourishing end of the continuum are nearly 6 times less likely to experience a major depressive episode than those who were characterized as languishing (Keyes, 2002). Working to reach a state of flourishing, then, both improves your immediate state of being as well as protects your mental health down the road.
Somewhat more recently, the term acquiescence has been used to describe a state of being in between that of languishing and that of flourishing (Grant, 2020). Unlike languish, acquiescence is characterized by generally good mental health. However, unlike flourishing, acquiescence is not associated with such strength of goal-striving behavior. Acquiescence, then, is rather a state of being in which you’re not in despair or feeling “blah,” but you’re lacking a sense of drive or motivation to find progress in your goals. In other words, acquiescence is being “content to remain,” for some amount of time being. Acquiescence, of course, is better than languishing, but it causes a sense of stagnation in your life that is not to be taken lightly. We can all use a break once in a while to appreciate the progress we’ve made to the present moment, but there comes a time when we probably ought to be working towards something that propels us forward with purpose.
Understanding the continuum a little better ultimately begs the question of “well, how do I flourish?” The answer is not necessarily simple, but there are a number of ways to promote a sense of flourishing in your everyday life. In 2020, a group of researchers proposed that there are four pillars to well-being: awareness, connection, insight, and purpose (Dahl et al.). All four of these components are, therefore, implicated in flourishing as well. Flourishing really represents a holistic sense of well-being, and the measures which assess one’s “level of flourishing” get at these pillars by investigating factors like happiness, health (mental and physical), meaning/purpose, character, social relationships, and stability (VanderWeele et al., 2019). Engaging in a little bit of self-reflection in these six areas, then, might be a great first step to understanding what more you need from yourself and those around you to reach a state of flourishing.
Now, many of us don’t do well with a simple prompt to reflect expecting that, following reflection, our lives will somehow change for the better. For anyone that falls into that category, it might be more valuable to understand some of the factors that more directly influence one’s “ability to flourish,” so to speak. Some work has shown that parenting styles can affect the ability of children to flourish later in life (and into adulthood) (Chen et al., 2019). Additionally, familial relationships have actually been shown to promote flourishing and resilience in the face of childhood adversity, underscoring the benefits of connection mentioned before (Bethell et al., 2019). However, most people don’t have the fortune of choosing who raised them, and there isn’t much to be done about how you were parented once you’ve grown old enough to even realize there might have been a problem. Some theories behind how parenting styles influence flourishing are based in attachment theory and coping mechanisms, both of which tend to develop early as a result of parental interactions (Faulk et al., 2013; Law et al., 2020). Though we can’t go back and re-grow-up, becoming aware of how our own personal coping and attachment styles impact ourselves can help us to make a change moving forward.
In order to develop healthier coping mechanisms and emotion regulation skills (both of which are vital to reaching a state of flourishing), there are a number of practices one can easily integrate into daily life. The first involves becoming more aware of your emotions and what brings them about—an important piece of practicing mindfulness and self-awareness. Much like the key to physical health is understanding what makes your body feel good or bad (and why), understanding the types of people and situations that bring positive emotions into your headspace acts as a guide to finding your own sense of flourishing (Barber et al., 2010). There are two main elements to developing mindful awareness of the self: identifying and responding to emotions brought about by all kinds of situations. Getting emotionally granular can help you really find the roots of how you’re feeling and figure out how to get out of your “rut” when you’re feeling blah. Further, being able to react to your emotions with something other than complacency allows for the opportunity to learn about yourself, your feelings, and how you can address more negative thoughts and feelings.
A number of intentional activities have been found to impact one’s state of flourishing. Creative outlets are especially beneficial when it comes to finding a state of flourishing because they not only act as an outlet for emotional expression and interpretation, but they also tend to be stimulating for the brain. This stimulation can be helpful when we find ourselves slipping into a rut of languishing, as the sense of accomplishment and pride that comes with creating something (whether a journal entry, a piece of art or music, a choreography, or anything else) acts as a sort of reminder to your brain that doing something feels good, and it breaks that fog of “blah” (Conner et al., 2018). Interestingly, interacting with endeavors related to Humanities and The Arts are also associated with higher levels of flourishing; the nature of these types of studies, activities, or experiences inherently tend to involve a sense of immersion, embeddedness, social discussion, and reflection, which facilitate the sense of connection, curiosity, and motivation characteristic of flourishing (Tay et al., 2018). Whether you add a course in these areas to your education plan, join a book club, or simply begin exploring art or literature, engaging with creations by other human beings elicits such sentiments as one would expect when moving towards a flourishing life.
One other crucial aspect of facilitating flourishing is establishing security in your social networks. Languishing, as mentioned before, tends to be accompanied by a sense of disconnect or distrust between the individual and their typical social group such that they feel isolated or unimportant to those around them (Knoesen & Naudé, 2018). This sense of isolation actually tends to lead to other negative consequences—studies have shown that people experiencing a state of languishing leads to a more self-centered worldview whereas people experiencing the connectedness associated with flourishing are often more other-oriented and focused on the greater good (Wissing et al., 2021). This implies that flourishing and social health are reciprocally related such that improvement in one area improves the other, and the cycle continues on and on. If you take only one step towards cultivating a sense of flourishing in your own life, foster your social connections. Reach out to someone you haven’t spoken to in awhile, join a club or community group, or even just spend some time with family. Fostering these connections in turn leads to increased happiness and stability, and gives you someone to lean on when you find yourself falling into “blah.”
LIFE Intelligence is a self-development and self-care app, your one-stop-shop to foster your own sense of flourishing. A DIY therapy and coaching app, LIFE offers 9 Missions to teach skills that facilitate health in all areas—from personal to social to professional development, and more! Sound familiar? It should, because flourishing is reliant on finding holistic balance in all domains of life, which is precisely what LIFE Intelligence is designed to provide. You can work on getting emotionally granular using the mood tracker, and in utilizing this tool to help identify and label your feelings, you’ll also be provided with strategies to manage and reframe more difficult or negative emotions. Combining this tool with Mission 1 “Master your mind,” your emotion regulation and coping skills can be developed and improved, getting you one step closer to a life of flourishing. In Missions 2 and 3, you can learn self-awareness and determine what it is that makes you feel fulfilled by defining your why through reflection and telling your own story. Missions 6 and 7 focus on social health and some of the general well-being associated with stability in your social life, providing information about relationships, social interactions, attachment style, and connection. Flourishing is dependent on these areas and more, promoting a sense of ease and contentment in all aspects of life. LIFE Intelligence is here to do the same, providing you with the skills you need to improve your own state of being and allow you to thrive.
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Wissing, M. P., Schutte, L., Liversage, C., Entwisle, B., Gericke, M., Keyes, C. (2021). Important Goals, Meanings, and Relationships in Flourishing and Languishing States: Towards Patterns of Well-being. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 16, 573-609. doi: 10.1007/s11482-019-09771-8