I don’t usually have a ton of free time – which is why I knew something was up when I found myself binge watching Season 3 of MTV’s Jersey Shore... coming to the end, then rewatching it all over again.
I have nothing against Snooki and the Jersey Shore gang – but for me re-watching a not-so-great TV show was odd behavior. It wasn’t what I really wanted to be doing with my time. Noticing that I felt gross every time I hit ‘play’ was an alarm bell. What was going on with me?
I ran through a quick checklist. I wasn’t especially tired. I wasn’t clinically depressed. I just didn’t feel right, and this ‘blah’ feeling wasn’t going away. It was hanging on like a stubborn cold – not incapacitating me, but nagging at me throughout my day.
I'm certainly not alone in this. It’s been a tough couple of years for all of us – the pandemic has been sad, scary and disruptive. But feeling the symptoms, and yet not quite understanding the ailment was bugging me.
It took the great Adam Grant to unravel the mystery for me. I follow Adam’s insightful writing on psychology closely, but the headline of an article he wrote in the New York Times hit me like a lightning bolt: ‘There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.’
Adam, it turns out, was a follow sufferer.
“Languishing is almost an absence of emotion,” Adam told me. As a behavioral scientist who like to practice what he preaches, Adam normally keeps to very regular habits – avoiding watching trashy TV and making sure he goes to bed well before midnight.
Suddenly he was breaking those lifelong rules. “I was just kind of zoned out.”
Languishing may not sound serious – feeling ‘blah’ or ‘meh’ isn’t on a par with a life-changing breakdown or mental health crisis – but it’s that middling nature that makes it so dangerous.
“It's just kind of a lingering emotional state, and that means that it doesn't have the same urgency or intensity that we would associate with more serious mental challenges,” says Adam.
Adam shared the guilt I had about feeling ‘blah’ (NB. Read about how guilt can cause us to make bad decisions). “I felt like I was letting myself down,” admits Adam. “And I felt like I was also letting my family down because I know my energy affects the people around me.”
But naming this 'meh' feeling - recognizing that languishing is real and that many of us are suffering from it - is the first step to breaking free from its grip, and to injecting more fun and flourishing and flow into our lives.
Flow is something I’ve touched on in this newsletter before (you can read my article HERE), and it can be a vital tool in bringing more happiness to your day. Unlike watching Jersey Shore on repeat, true flow-inducing activities are entertaining, engaging and a bit challenging. They occupy your mind in ways that make time fly and leaves little room for rumination or feelings of guilt.
To break free from languishing, Adam found his flow in… Mario Kart. Adam’s sister in Chicago suggested that they should all meet virtually for a video games tournament, a seemingly mundane idea, but the effect on Adam was profound.
“I was fired up like I hadn't been pretty much for the whole pandemic,” says Adam, recalling sitting with his sons on the sofa, racing them around the Mario Kart track on the screen. “I was shouting. I don't think my kids have ever seen me trash talk before, but they loved it and my sister was cracking up.”
Mario Kart matches soon became a regular date in the Grant family calendar – both a time for quality social interaction and flow. For Adam it was transformative.
“After a couple weeks of that I did not feel like I was languishing anymore.”
Hearing Adam’s Mario Kart story inspired me. My husband and I dusted off our old Rock Band guitars and started playing again. Like Adam, I began to feel a little better. My husband and I laughed and connected a lot more playing “Kickstart My Heart” on fake plastic guitars than we ever do watching trashy TV.
I won’t pretend that escaping from languishing is as simple as switching on a games console. It’s not. I share these stories because if you are feeling ‘blah’ I want to encourage you to at least explore little ways to inject flow back into your life. That may feel like a tall order given the difficult few years we’ve had, and that's why Adam and I both recommend taking baby steps to getting a bit more flow.
“I think it's reasonable to say: ‘If the world really is stagnating, I don't want to put unrealistic pressure on myself to be flourishing’,” says Adam.
“At the same time, I worried that’s creating a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, saying: ‘Well I'm not capable of flourishing in difficult circumstances and therefore I'm not going to bother to try.’”
So if you’re experiencing a bit of 'blah' these days, I hope you're now encouraged to at least try to end your languishing.
I really hope you're enjoying The Science of Wellbeing, my weekly newsletter looking at the latest research on happiness. If you find the tips and insights useful, please share these articles to help spread the word.