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How to Stop Languishing and Start Flourishing

A new book offers ways to ‘feel alive again’ when you’re feeling empty and world-weary

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Feeling indifferent and unmotivated? Lethargic and unfocused? You may be languishing.

So writes sociologist and Emory University professor emeritus Corey Keyes, whose new book, Languishing: How to Feel Alive Again in a World That Wears Us Down, explores why so many of us feel this “sense of low-grade mental weariness,” as he puts it, and suggests ways to transform languishing into flourishing.

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“Languishing goes well beyond single-word descriptions of ‘blah’ or ‘meh,’ ” Keyes, 61, told AARP in a recent interview. “It is the absence of some very fundamental or important things that make life worth living or meaningful, or make you feel like you matter in the world.”

Among the symptoms:

  • You feel emotionally flattened. It’s hard to muster excitement for upcoming milestones and events.
  • Things seem increasingly irrelevant, superficial or boring.
  • You regularly experience brain fog (for example, standing in the shower and trying to remember whether you’ve washed your hair).
  • You procrastinate on tasks as a why-try-anyway attitude sets in.
  • You feel restless, even rootless.

Languishing is not the same as depression, Keyes notes. Depression involves a daily or almost-daily sense of hopelessness or sadness for at least two straight weeks, often accompanied by crying spells, excessive or inadequate sleep and suicidal thoughts. Millions of people are languishing who don’t meet those criteria.

Although languishing is obviously not new, the pandemic intensified those feelings worldwide. In 2021, a New York Times story by organizational psychologist Adam Grant on languishing (“There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing”) became the news site’s most-read story of the year.

“People had significant losses of the things that make their life meaningful, which made it hard to have purpose, belonging, contribution, a sense of acceptance,” Keyes says.

Age can also play a role. Flourishing peaks between ages 60-65, Keyes writes, but starting around 70-75, languishing increases. Reasons can include the loss of mobility, independence and loved ones, accompanied by “ailments and indignities.” Keyes saw this firsthand when a friend reached his 80s. “He was doing so well the first decade of his retirement, and then something shifted,” he says. “He not only started to retreat, he lost his sense of purpose, his sense of personal growth. He thought he was no longer of use. That was the beginning of his spiral into languishing.”

Keyes, too, has languished

Keyes has grappled with periods of languishing in own his life, rooted to infanthood trauma. Roughly a week after he was born, his mother abandoned him and his 2-year-old sister. The pair were alone for several days before his worried grandmother arrived. The newborn Keyes was malnourished and had pneumonia. As children, they lived with his alcoholic father and a physically abusive stepmother. When Keyes was 12, they were adopted by his paternal grandparents, who provided a loving home. The pain, however, persisted. He met his mother for the first time at 16 and was shocked to learn she was remarried with three children. It unleashed a yearning for his mother’s love and attention, which he knew he would never have.

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“Unrequited longing,” he writes in the book, “is the very essence of emptiness and languishing.”

Keyes battled depression and even contemplated suicide, but he persevered, and today he is flourishing, personally and professionally.

“I still go once a week to do therapy, but I spend a lot more time flourishing now,” he says. “The way I describe it is that the bruises are still there, but the black and blue doesn’t show anymore — and it’s not as painful when you touch it.”

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Keyes’ five recommendations for flourishing

1. Learn something.

Whether you earn a PhD, start knitting or simply read articles on new subjects, improving ourselves “is a core component of a positive self-image” and “a surprisingly potent antidote to languishing,” Keyes writes. He tells the story of a 55-year-old female friend who felt prolonged emptiness. After noticing her children’s long-abandoned musical instruments, she began learning to play the violin. Parents gushed at her bravery: Most of the other performers at her first recital were in their teens. “The violin has given her a voice again,” Keyes writes. “It has made her feel younger, more vibrant, more independent, somehow less at the mercy of the world and more in control of her own life.”

2. Build warm relationships.

The quality of our friendships is more important than the quantity, and meaningful relationships — and a sense of belonging — are essential for flourishing. “A true friendship hinges on reciprocity, with both sides giving and receiving freely (and without scorekeeping),” Keyes writes. “For real intimacy to form, it has to be a two-way street.” As we age, we’re more likely to prioritize our relationships based on whether they are emotionally satisfying. “People become more picky and selective about who they spend time with,” he says.

3. Seek spirituality.

“Believing in something bigger than yourself doesn’t necessarily require attendance at religious services or a daily contemplative practice — though if that’s what works for you, by all means, get thee to the closest place of worship or join an ashram,” Keyes writes (he finds peace, he says, through yoga). In one study, satisfaction with life was higher in wealthy nations than in poorer nations, but meaning in life was higher in poor nations. One reason was a disconnect from religion in richer countries. As a nation’s gross domestic product increases, fewer of its citizens say religion is an important part of their daily life, researchers found.

4. Find purpose.

To flourish, we need to feel that our lives matter. That can mean providing a safe home for your children, but once you have an empty nest or retire, your life may lack purpose. People who are unsure of their purpose report lower well-being than those who have purpose, Keyes notes in the book. Conversely, those with a strong sense of purpose report less stress, more positive emotions, fewer daily physical ailments and better overall health. Purpose doesn’t necessarily mean saving the world. Keyes shares the story of a woman who worked in sports television on programming such as Monday Night Football and the Olympics. She’d always loved flowers, and after her children were grown, she gave up stadiums to start a floral business. “That was her purpose: Spreading love and sunshine to those around her, making a moment beautiful and unforgettable in the best way she knew how,” Keyes writes.

5. Make time to play.

Unstructured fun can lower stress and boost well-being in adults. No, that doesn’t necessarily mean a weekly game night where people get “weirdly competitive,” Keyes notes. It can involve anything from cutting your grass in new patterns to “going a little crazy with a charcuterie board.” Emphasize active leisure over passive leisure, he suggests. Instead of watching golf on TV, go hit balls at a driving range. Whatever fun-time activities you choose, play reconnects us to our imagination; adds excitement, energy and humor to our lives; boosts overall life satisfaction; and “reconnects us with key parts of ourselves that get lost in the responsibilities of adulthood. If you still giggle, that child is still alive inside of you.”

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