Feeling blah? Here's the cure...
(Delightfully blah cover image thanks to Nick Fewings, Unsplash)
Are you languishing? You're not alone. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant struck a deadened nerve when he declared in The New York Times that languishing is the dominant emotion of 2021. Neither burnout, nor depression, Grant describes languishing as a feeling of joyless aimlessness in which you're “muddling through your days, looking at life through a foggy windshield.” I created a quick LinkedIn poll that confirmed Grant’s observation: 55 percent of respondents reported languishing as their dominant emotion.
As you can see from the check mark, I voted for “partyticipation,” but maybe I’m like the woman who responded to my survey with sword-wielding emoticons, insisting that only victims would admit to languishing. She has chosen “flourishing” as her dominant emotion, and all defeatist emotions will be denied admittance at the door of her mindset. Perhaps, when I insist that anticipating the post-pandemic parties to come is my dominant 2021 emotion, I’m stuffing a bouquet of toxic positivity down my throat like an emotional dominatrix. If I’m honest, I can relate to feelings of stagnant despondency that typically hit me on Sunday afternoon. Which brings me to the question: What can you do when you feel like you’re languishing? Grant recommends finding activities that put you into a flow state, carving out free time to make progress in something meaningful to you, and setting small goals. I decided to try out his advice and experiment with a couple of other potential blah-busting strategies. First, I thought I’d tap into the invigorating power of anticipation that choreographer Twyla Tharp promotes as “a skill that needs constant tending” in her wonderful book, Keep It Moving. Tharp suggests that you expect one instance of elegance or beauty from the world each day. This wasn't enough anticipation for me, so I took out a whiteboard and wrote down the date along with a list of all the activities I was looking forward to (or felt I should look forward to): Greek with Nefeli Elliptical disco Tuna fish sandwich with coleslaw for lunch Lentil soup and crusty bread for dinner Movie night: The Courier starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Rather than uplift me, my whiteboard deflated me. It reminded me of a whiteboard I’d seen at a nursing station in a long-term care facility. Languishing loves it when you try too hard to keep languishing away. Anticipating something positive is a proven ingredient in wellbeing, but you don’t need to overdose with a daily billboard of anticipation like I did. If I had a highway billboard, it would feature an elderly couple happily hula hooping with the caption Physical Activity is a Miracle Drug! Could languishing, like depression, respond to physical activity? Pre-pandemic I would do some work in the morning then work out before lunch. The pandemic upended this routine and my workout, unmoored, began to drift later and later into the day, until it found a resting place butted up against dinner. This week I made an effort to exercise earlier in the day. Not only did it feel good to move my body, but I also got a feeling of accomplishment that catapulted me into completing my taxes, a feat that I recognized with the reward of some Cold War Benedict Cumberbatch. Strangely, my taxes were a portal into the blissful flow state that Adam Grant promotes as the main antidote to languishing. When you’re in flow you're immersed in a challenging activity in which you lose all sense of time and self. The opposite of flow is the default mode network, the ME channel of the wandering mind that flips from one self-absorbed story to another. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind” is the conclusion of researchers who have studied the default mode network where people spend, on average, half their lives. Languishing broadcasts on the default mode network, and you can change the channel with flow. Like a public service announcement interrupting the programming on your default mode network, here are Five Ways to Beat the Blahs. 1. Get moving. Languishing blooms in clusters of little blah buds when your body is limp as a noodle in a bowl of macaroni and cheese. Going for a brisk walk outdoors has become a pandemic cliché, but there’s a reason why this advice is so ubiquitous. Because it works. 2. Set a small goal that is a first step toward a bigger goal. When I decided to do my taxes I set a small goal of gathering information on the first three months of 2020 and plugging it into a spreadsheet. The momentum that these few steps created carried me through the rest of the year to the finish line. 3. Lose yourself in flow. I wish I could give you directions to your flow state, but your flow is unique to you. It involves challenge, meaning and a connection to something larger than yourself, something big and ineffable, like the tax code. 4. Anticipate. The anticipation of small rewards is like a trail of bread crumbs that can lead you out of languishing. Visualizing the reward of a favorite TV show, a sporting event or tasty meal has lured me toward and through many a tough to-do. Anticipating the party that awaits you when the pandemic is over isn't a bad idea either. “Anticipation is such a valuable source of pleasure,” says Elizabeth Dunn, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, who has studied anticipation and happiness. 5. Make progress. Psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Sheier found that mood is most influenced, not by success or failure or what a person has, but by progress toward a goal. Many rich, healthy, and admired people languish. You can lift your mood and ward off languishing when you make progress toward a goal that is meaningful to you.
Links to lift you out of languishing:
Don't Wish for Happiness. Work for It. The Atlantic
I am no longer weakened by the weekend Austin Kleon
Harvard Researchers Say This Mindset Matters Most: Follow the Rule of 3 Questions to Be More Likable Inc
Wishing you a blah-free day, Lynne