As 2021 rolled in (rather unceremoniously) and we were all putting in the finishing touches to our holidays and preparing to head back to work, I started noticing a pattern all around me.
It was subtle at first.
And then, in a flash, a whole four months had gone by.
And upon closer inspection, the patterns I am referring to started to appear less subtle.
During catch-ups with my friends at our local pub for example, I started noticing that they all often spoke about how they were struggling to concentrate on work and feeling a lack of drive. (A lawyer, a seasoned tradie, a public servant, and an IT Professional all sitting around the same table identifying with the same lack of concentration seemed interesting to me).
On Sunday nights, I noticed my wife started staying up later into the evening (she is normally in bed by 9:30pm on Sundays), putting off the inevitable “end to the weekend” as she called it, by watching content on Netflix that she already knows by heart.
While doing one-on-one monthly catch-ups with my clients, I noticed it too. Something I can’t quite put a finger on. A sort of sluggishness in energy. A sort of matter-of-fact “going through the motions” stamped everywhere. Not all the time of course, and not any one client. But enough times and with enough different clients for one to be able to notice.
And I noticed it in myself too.
I am normally out of bed by 5:30am, at the gym by 6am. In the shower by 7am and meditating by 7:30am in preparation for the workday ahead.
But lately, I am occasionally still in bed at 7:30am scrolling through Instagram, contemplating putting on some coffee. Not always. But more often than I’d care to admit.
I still meditate before work… but the gym sessions have been fewer and further apart!
(And well, I have a new waistline to “performance-manage” as a result).
It didn’t feel like burnout.
No these were all intelligent, motivated, energetic people who were still performing well at their chosen fields.
Certainly did not feel like depression either.
Like I said, I couldn’t even put a finger on it. But if I were to try to put it into words, I would say there was a collective… “lack of joy”.
Not all the time. But enough times for my brain to tentatively reach for the word “pattern”.
I stumbled upon a paper recently which appeared in the Journal of Health and Social Research: “The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life” by sociologist Corie M. Keyes.
Turns out there is a name for this feeling. It’s called “Languishing”.
It seems to fall somewhere in between the known polar extremes of mental health. Somewhere between complete despair and abundant, thriving wellness.
It was characterised as a mild feeling of emptiness where one feels like they are going through the motions of their life in a kind of a fog and a sense of aimlessness.
Researchers much smarter than me have suggested that this might be the dominant emotion of 2021 so far.
I personally have reservations about sweeping conclusions like that.
But I must admit, I have seen signs of it in the minds and words of my near and dear ones in these recent times.
And what’s tricky about this specific state of mind, is your mind’s natural flight-or-flight responses are not triggered. It’s not like you are anticipating any imminent existential threat. Most times, it’s just a slump in energy levels. And you don’t always notice the “dullings” and the “dwindlings” of joy, or drive. Or appreciate how that could accumulate over time.
If left unresolved, languishing can quite easily develop into mental health problems down the track as evidenced by a study which was conducted among front-line healthcare workers in Italy which suggested that those who were suffering from this state of Languishing in the spring of 2020 were three times more likely to develop signs of Mental Health problems.
So how do we battle this feeling?
Well, it seems “giving it a name” is very helpful.
There was this brilliant article last year that surfaced on the Harvard Business Review and went viral.
The article identified that a collective feeling of “discomfort” we were all feeling during the height of the global pandemic, was, in fact, “Grief”. We were grieving – (the loss of loved ones; the loss of our freedoms; the loss of normalcy).
Soon as we learned to identify it as “Grief”, we were able to put a face to it.
And as much as we were on uncharted waters when it came to navigating the real-life implications of living through a pandemic, we were able to leverage our own personal narratives of grief and loss and rely on those lessons we learnt from those experiences to try and navigate this new form of grief. And for most, that helped.
Adding “Languishing” to our lexicon would enable us to be more mindful to it’s day to day incursions into our lives and the lives of the ones we care about.
You would pick it up in the voices of your teenage kids, or perhaps while you are doing an end-of-quarter report while working from home (still in your PJs) or listening to your best friend talk quietly about something he is completely disconnected from while slumping at your dinner table (staring off into space a little).
It would be wonderful if we were all open to talking about it more.
Instead of the well-rehearsed “I’m doing very well, how are you doing today?” which is symptomatic of toxic positivity and a need to appear upbeat all the time, maybe we could all foster a collective environment of openness and compassion when it comes to talking about how we are really feeling.
Exercising the elusive Flow state:
We have all heard of this. That elusive flow state.
Professional athletes, artists, performers often talk about this.
But we all have the capacity to feel a state of flow. And with some practice, harness it’s healing effects on our psyche.
You don’t need to represent Australia at the next Olympics to feel immersed in a state of “flow”.
We all feel it when engaged in meaningful pursuits or experience a momentary bond where one’s sense of space and time melts away.
Listening to a brilliant piece of music perhaps. Or watching a beautiful movie on the big screen or reading a bed-time tale to your little ones. Or doing something creative.
Focus on the small wins:
Problem with finding a state of flow, is lack of focus.
Limited attention spans were a problem long before the pandemic came along.
We often equate efficiency with how “Busy” we are or appear to be.
The answer is not focusing on a whole bunch of problems all at the same time and shifting your focus on different tasks every ten minutes.
What helped me personally, is to allow uninterrupted time for singular activities.
As much as we would all love to multitask, sometimes serial tasking can be the answer to our woeful attention spans.
I also try and focus on the small wins.
The happiness derived from writing an article for the monthly LG newsletter (which I have been putting off for a while) for example 😊!
Or winning in an online game of chess with my colleague.
Finally getting around to wall-mounting my guitars in my personal study/music room.
Completing that cardio session at the gym for the third time in the same week.
Having a meaningful exchange with those in my life I should spend more time with, rather than retreating into a mindless Television show.
Sometimes, it just comes down to taking the time to work out a meaningful pursuit to immerse yourself in, each day. Something that matters to you.
Doesn’t have to be monumental. But each small win may end up taking you one step closer to finding your “joy” and rediscovering some of that energy and enthusiasm you may have lost a little, along the way.