Languishing: have you been feeling blah lately?

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My dad has always been a role model for me. He wakes up at the crack of dawn and packs his day full to the brink with various activities—reading, working, preparing lunches, door-knocking, gardening, building, going out to visit people—until he goes to sleep at around 11pm each night. He rarely complains or grumbles; he is always cheerful and kind to others and is always the first to volunteer to help a friend, no matter what the task at hand involves. Everyone I know calls him a “legend” and are amazed by the endless energy he has.

He just turned 80.

Meanwhile, my fellow millennials and Gen Z comrades in their 20s are all struggling to find the motivation to just get through their day. It has become a popular phenomenon to complain about how exhausted you are after a full day’s work. People say this exhaustion is “just part of getting older” or that “it is just what happens when you start working full-time”. 

But is it? Is this exhaustion really linked to having a busy schedule or working hard? When I look at my dad, who is at least 50 years older than these young’uns, he works very hard but is never run down or exhausted.

I have always followed in my father’s footsteps, keeping a busy schedule and volunteering for more things than I have the time for. I have found a sense of purpose, liveliness and satisfaction from filling my life with learning, working, challenging myself and striving. But this year, everything changed. I became . . . one of them! I became like the people I had judged: exhausted, run-down and demotivated—living only to nap and binge-watch TV shows. I dreaded the thought of doing anything other than the bare minimum each day and exercising turned from a fun activity into a joke. I felt stagnant, joyless and unfulfilled. I was spending hours a day scrolling through TikTok. I would stay up late to squeeze as much “juice” out of my day as I could, because the day felt unproductive and boring. I really struggled to concentrate and just wasn’t excited about anything. I felt “blah”.

Can you relate to this feeling? You might be experiencing the feeling of languish.

Languishing is a kind of exhaustion which affects your emotional resilience, resulting in feelings of apathy, aimlessness, disengagement, indifference, stagnation and a lack of motivation or concentration. For languishers, the stress of work demands and life commitments may feel much more arduous than to others. This is because this lack of emotional resilience strains your capacity to cope with challenges, so you feel like you have no fuel in the tank at the beginning of the journey. Adam Grant in his article in the New York Times described languishing as being the void between depression and flourishing—an absence of wellbeing—and the dominant emotion of 2021.1

This is a problem.

So, what is causing this widespread expression of languish? Why is everyone so “blah”? Three main factors have been identified as contributors to this feeling: uncertainty, stress and distraction. 

The inability to make plans and set goals to work towards can result in aimlessness and indifference. When circumstances are uncertain and the body is on high alert, your “fight or flight” defence mechanism in the amygdala (part of your brain) can kick into gear. This physiological response pumps your body with adrenaline and noradrenaline to maintain vigilance and be aware of potential threats. However, this experience can become chronic when the uncertainty continues over an extended period and can result in consequences such as migraines, anxiety and exhaustion.2 This wears down your system and reduces your coping mechanisms to stressful and uncertain situations. Many have reported this anxiety following the COVID-19 pandemic due to constantly changing requirements, changes in working environments and uncertainty as to what the future holds. The result of this has been a sense of frenzied aimlessness.

Chronic stress also depletes our personal resources and resilience, resulting in exhaustion and indifference. The conservation of resources model outlines the theory that individuals cope with stress by utilising personal and external resources. These resources can include things such as time, coping strategies, personal resilience, support networks, validation and encouragement from others. When an individual is faced with stressful demands, these resources are used, and need to be replenished to regain the mental and emotional stamina for the next challenge. When these resources are not replenished and restored—when people don’t get the social support or quiet time they need—they experience burnout and a sense of demotivation and exhaustion. 

In addition to uncertainty and stress, distraction is a major contributor to languishing. Constant disturbances prevent us from being able to focus and get into the groove. Distractions and multi-tasking force our mind to juggle multiple tasks, diverting our attention across numerous horizontal planes. While task juggling does have benefits, such as provoking organisation and motivation via stress, it must be balanced with engagement in tasks. Mental and emotional absorption is important for healthy neuron stimulation. When we are absorbed in a task, our sense of time and place dissipates and our minds are opened to creativity, exploring new realms of possibility, and interpreting information and ideas in a new light. This deeper vertical thinking promotes focus, progress and engagement, as well as improved performance, all of which provides enjoyment, purpose and a deep sense of satisfaction. Where interruptions and stress-induced motivation is not mediated by task absorption, languishing is the result. 

Many people of all ages are plagued by languish, particularly following the COVID lockdowns of the past two years, and no longer experience that lemony zest for life. If you have been experiencing languishing, understanding these factors can help you to overcome the pervasive apathy you may be feeling, and help you to experience positive wellbeing and satisfaction in life.

Our mental wellbeing is powerfully linked with our spiritual wellbeing, and just as the impact of languishing can reach beyond work into our personal lives, it can also impact our spiritual lives. In Matthew 24:12,13, Jesus refers to the experience of our emotional resilience being repleted: “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” 

What does it mean for the love of a person to grow cold, except that our emotional responsiveness to God and to others is dimmed? The state of the world is overwhelming to say the least, with pandemics, wars, separation, moral ambiguity, natural disasters, the cost of living and all the other stresses of life. It is easy to be overcome and fall into a state of languish. It is easy to become aimless, apathetic and indifferent to the world. And God knows that this experience isn’t always under our control. That is why He invites us in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Spending time with God and resting upon His faithfulness and promises can offer us the restoration and peace we need.

If you have been experiencing languishing recently, think about ways you can become absorbed in enjoyable tasks or hobbies, and remember to connect with the One who can give us certainty, peace and clarity in our lives. Accept His offer of rest and peace, and be transformed through the renewing of your mind.

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Olivia Fairfax is a production assistant at Adventist Media while finishing Law and Psychology (hon) degrees at Macquarie University. She loves learning, writing, analysing everything, playing piano, laughing with loved ones and cuddling cats.

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