• Dr Maike Neuhaus

What Does it Mean to Languish?

Am I depressed, burnt out or languishing?


The dictionary definition of ‘languishing’ (an adjective) is: “failure to make progress or be successful” – like “he was languishing in the same job he had held for 15 years.” Yikes.


Closely followed by the shorter but equally brutal verb, to ‘languish’, which is defined as: “to become feeble, weak, or enervated” – such as “The entire population began to languish as the pandemic swept through the world, no matter how many times they ‘pivoted.’”


Without a doubt, languishing is the buzzword of 2021 (with good reason). Corey Keys first coined the term in 2002, and this year organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote an article for the New York Times calling languishing the “dominant emotion of 2021.”


But what exactly does it feel like and how do you know you're langushing?



Synonyms for languishing include:

  • Deteriorating

  • Dwindling

  • Wilting

  • Rotting

  • Withering

But to be honest, if I were to use another word instead of languishing, it would be: Blah.


Yep, blah. The total resignation of anything positive, with no dire negative emotional states or responses. Just…blah.


While no synonyms can replace languishing exactly, if you use the above words and apply them to an image of your own brain/mind/wellbeing, then you probably have a reasonable representation of what it means to languish.


What does languishing feel like?


Languishing can be described as having a lack of direction, a sense of apathy and stagnation, and a deep knowing you are not operating at your full capacity. If you’re languishing, you may feel ‘neutral’ or ‘numb’ rather than positive or thriving, but not have any symptoms of more serious mental health conditions or diagnoses (such as persistent negative thinking patterns and emotional states).


Your general response to ideas or plans is ‘Meh’, and while you know you ‘could’ do more, you lack the motivation and drive to do much of anything. Disconnected, indifferent…blah.


As Adam Grant puts it, “It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless… a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.”


So how do I know if I am languishing?


Languishing thoughts can sound like

  • 'I can’t be bothered'

  • 'I’ll do it tomorrow…maybe'

  • 'This wasn’t as good as I thought it would be'

Languishing emotions can feel like

  • Flat

  • Unmotivated

  • Apathetic

  • Indifferent

Languishing behaviours can look like

  • Avoiding work you have to do in favour of distractions

  • A lack of routine or positive habits

  • Reduced progress/activity in your day and difficulty focusing.


Is languishing a mental illness?


In short, no: Languishing is not a mental illness. This may be why it has not readily been spoken about until recently. Generally, people think of mental health as either ‘having a mental illness’ or ‘not having a mental illness’. However, in order to be mentally healthy, we need two things: the absence of mental illness AND the presence of mental wellbeing. Read that again.


Languishing and mental illness are related, but on a different scale. Existing in a state of languishing can potentially predispose us to mental health conditions, particularly if we experience ongoing negative life events or circumstances while we are languishing.


Mental illness is addressed (and sought to be eliminated) by clinical or traditional psychology. Mental wellbeing (and sought to be moved from languishing to flourishing) is addressed by positive psychology - all the goodness you find on this blog, my socials, resources & tools, and in my online programs.


What is the difference between languishing and other states such as depression and burnout?


Languishing is different from depression in that people who are languishing generally don’t experience the emotional distress of depression. You don’t feel sad, worried, or fearful, and you don’t have intrusive thoughts or pervasive changes to your thinking or behaviour. You generally feel pretty apathetic.


Burnout tends to relate to work, and encompasses feelings of stress and overwhelm. Languishing is applicable to all areas of your life – not just work-related. So, while your work and productivity may be affected, it is not the root cause or solution to your languishing.


If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms of poor mental health, please reach out to your GP or healthcare professional to access support.


Languishing and the impact of COVID-19


Along with “unprecedented times,” the term “languishing” can help to encapsulate the experience that has been COVID-19. Going on almost TWO YEARS now, you’re not alone if languishing has emerged in your life ever so slightly…or like a beast with three heads.

Of course, you’d languish if:

  • You’re separated from family/friends/loved ones

  • With no definitive timeframe of when life will return back to “normal”

  • With restrictions to your environment and community

  • Also experiencing financial changes/stressors

  • Maybe also a little worried about the state of your health/the world at large

  • And have limited control over these external circumstances

Talking openly about languishing can help to acknowledge the commonality of our collective experiences during this time, and normalize our responses to something that has been so persistently present in our lives.


How do I move from languishing to flourishing?


The million-dollar question, and one that positive psychology helps us to understand and answer. Because the brain is amazing and humans are adaptable creatures, we have the capacity to shift ourselves into a higher state of mental wellbeing while enduring circumstances which are less than optimal.


While we may not hit the high points of flourishing straight away, we can certainly prime ourselves for this and use strategies that help to stop languishing in its tracks.


Read our 7 strategies to overcome languishing in our next article.


Maike x


Do you need motivation and inspiration to counteract your languishing? Or just want to feel connected to others with positive vibes? Join our socials – we’d love to have you. While you’re there, don’t forget to sign up to my monthly newsletter and get free access to our most recent free self-leadership resource.


If you need a reset or a friendly nudge in the right direction to help you overcome languishing, join our next FRESH START intake - due to open in January 2022. Don’t let apathy get the better of you - make 2022 your year to flourish!


And if you just can’t get enough about languishing, read more, including our reference articles, below:


Corey L. M. Keyes. (2002). The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 43(2), 207–222.


https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/languish

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html

https://www.verywellmind.com/languishing-is-the-mood-of-2021-5180999