Sam Radford

April 22, 2021

Languishing: the neglected middle child of mental health

I wrote last week about the need to acknowledge and recover from the trauma inflicted on us all thanks to Covid.

In a similar vein, Psychologist Adam Grant has an insightful article in the New York Times on what is being called ‘languishing’. 

Here’s how Grant describes it: 
Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. 

Ah. Yes. Now that does sound familiar! Not all the time. But there have been periods throughout this last year where that description chimes squarely with how I’ve felt. 

Grant goes on to say that languishing is, ’the neglected middle child of mental health’. Adding: 

It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.

Grant writes about the work of Corey Keyes, the sociologist who coined the term ‘languishing’, saying: 

[Keyes’s] research suggests that the people most likely to experience major depression and anxiety disorders in the next decade aren’t the ones with those symptoms today. They’re the people who are languishing right now. And new evidence from pandemic health care workers in Italy shows that those who were languishing in the spring of 2020 were three times more likely than their peers to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

That’s pretty alarming! And further justifies the need for us to take the time to replenish our reserves.

How though do we escape from languishing’s clutches?

Getting into a state of flow helps, Grant suggests. Flow being, ‘that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self melts away’.

In other words, we need to find activities we can immerse ourselves in. Things that transport us mentally and emotionally to another place. Books can help here. So too great movies and TV shows. In short, anything that absorbs us, captivates us, and makes us forget about our phones, our unread emails, and any other distraction.

Grant says we need to guard uninterrupted time like treasure too. Why? Because, ‘it clears out constant distractions and gives us the freedom to focus. We can find solace in experiences that capture our full attention.’

Carving out time to focus on something meaningful – whether at work or home – will make a difference to how we feel. As Grant reminds us, ‘we now know that the most important factor in daily joy and motivation is a sense of progress.’

Linked to this, focussing on small goals can make a difference. This isn’t the time for big, hairy, audacious goals! Look for things that’ll be small wins.

I have plenty of my own thoughts about this too. At the back end of last year, I was undeniably languishing – even if I didn’t have that word for it then. But I made a series of changes to my daily routine that have made a big difference. I’ll share some more about those tomorrow.

What about you? Would you say you’ve been languishing through periods of this last year? How’s that affected you? How does having a name for it help? Are there an practices you’ve found helpful for avoiding getting stuck in a languishing state? I'd love to hear from you – just hit reply or drop me a note


Prefer to listen to these articles? They’re now available as a podcast.

@samradford |

About Sam Radford

Husband, father, lover of books, writer, tech geek, and pragmatic idealist exploring what it means to be human.