Languishing, in a psychology context, describes a lack of mental health.
Psychologist Corey Keyes first introduced the concept of languishing in 2002. In an effort to create a more nuanced understanding of mental health besides “good” or “bad,” he divided mental health into four levels:
- flourishing, or good mental health
- moderate mental health
- languishing, or poor mental health
Languishing typically marks a decline in your mental health, though you can still function in your day-to-day life. Maybe you’re not going through a major mental health crisis or experiencing overwhelming distress, but your life may not involve much happiness or fulfillment either.
A state of languishing can leave you with a neutral or flat mindset, one where you have few strong emotions. Instead of feeling sadness, joy, anger, or enthusiasm, you simply remain in a state of “meh.”
Wondering whether languishing might explain why you feel unsatisfied with your life lately? Read on to learn how to recognize languishing, why it happens, and how to work through it.
Languishing isn’t a psychiatric diagnosis with specific criteria. Rather, you can think of languishing as the absence of emotional, psychological, or social well-being.
Languishing vs. flourishing
If you’re flourishing, you probably feel as if you’re thriving in life.
- feel happy, capable, and loved more often than not
- find it possible to follow your passions
- enjoy deep, mutually supportive relationships
In short, even when things go wrong, you can bounce back to keep moving on.
Some emotional signs of languishing:
- You miss the joy, excitement, and passion you used to have.
- Your life seems filled with small nuisances and long stretches of boredom.
- You don’t particularly care about the future.
- You feel your life is missing a certain something, but you don’t know what.
Some psychological signs of languishing:
- You feel like you have “peaked” in life and no longer have room to grow.
- You’re disappointed in the person you’ve become.
- Problems and life challenges seem to pile up so fast you can’t seem to catch your breath.
- You rarely have strong opinions, so you’re often influenced by people who do.
Some social signs of languishing:
- You find it difficult to get close to other people.
- You don’t feel connected to any community or greater cause.
- Your job seems pointless, in the grand scheme of things.
- You believe you can’t rely on anyone other than yourself.
Keep in mind, too, that you can experience languishing without reaching an extreme low.
Reaching key milestones — graduating from college, forming a romantic commitment, or landing a great job — doesn’t automatically guarantee happiness. So, even if you have a prestigious career, your dream apartment, or a large family, you could still feel like you’re just going through the motions of life.
Languishing may not directly translate to depression, or any other psychiatric diagnosis, but it can still affect your emotional health and well-being.
What’s more, a continued state of languishing can increase your chances of developing depression or anxiety down the line.
What’s the difference between languishing and depression?
Like depression, languishing can lead to emotional numbness and listlessness. It can sap your motivation and prompt you to isolate yourself and avoid your loved ones.
Neither state does much good for your mood. But depression tends to affect your emotions more severely. While languishing can dampen your joy, engaging in fun hobbies or earning a reward can usually boost your mood. To contrast, many people with depression have trouble feeling happiness in any context.
Plus, depression usually affects more than your emotions. It can also:
- disrupt your sleeping and eating patterns
- make it more difficult to concentrate or remember details
- cause physical symptoms, including stomach distress and muscle tension or pain
By definition, you can’t experience both languishing and depression at the same time. If you’ve had an episode of depression in the last year, a low mood may suggest returning depression, rather than languishing.
Can languishing cause mental health symptoms?
Languishing doesn’t automatically cause mental health conditions. That said, you do have a higher chance of experiencing mental health concerns when you’re languishing than when you’re flourishing.
One 2021 study considered 3,600 participants from early, middle, and late adulthood. People in a languishing state at the start of the study were more likely to develop depression or anxiety within 4 years, regardless of their age group.
The study authors used languishing as a baseline. But using moderate well-being and flourishing as baselines helps illustrate this increase risk more clearly.
Compared to people with moderate well-being, languishing participants had a:
- 27 to 38 percent greater risk of developing anxiety
- 32 to 49 percent greater risk of developing depression
Compared to flourishing participants, languishing participants had a:
- 67 to 89 percent greater risk of developing anxiety.
- 104 to 117 percent greater risk of developing depression.
Languishing can affect all aspects of your life, from your romantic relationships to your career path. As such, it rarely has one specific cause.
Rather, a combination of factors often leads to languishing. A few potential contributors include:
Denial of basic needs
All humans have basic needs like food, shelter, and safety.
Anyone who’s had a bout of hanger probably knows how difficult it can be to feel cheerful on an empty stomach. And you’re unlikely to feel very connected to your community if you have to find a new place to sleep each night. In short, when your basic needs consistently go unmet, your mental health can tank quickly.
The upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic made it hard for many people to fulfill their basic needs, which had a pretty big impact on mental health. In an international study of over 9,500 people, roughly
Poorer outcomes were more likely for people who had financial troubles or difficulty getting daily necessities, who tended to report high stress levels, negative emotions, and low overall well-being. The study authors found consistent results across all 78 countries included in the study.
When you feel overwhelmed, that stress can bleed out into other parts of your life. For example, burnout at work can make it hard to relax later at home. You may not have the bandwidth to pursue other things that make you feel fulfilled, such as artistic projects or family bonding.
A 2013 study found a strong link between languishing and stress. The authors examined 200 postdoctoral fellows, a group with high levels of work stress compared to the general population. Over half (58 percent) of study participants were languishing. This prevalence was much higher than the 12 percent prevalence found in Keyes’ original study.
In addition, the languishing participants had higher average stress scores (15 out of 40 points) than their flourishing peers (12 points). But in line with Keyes’ original model, the languishing group had less stress than the depressed group (20 points).
Most people need at least some level of social connection for their emotional health. Love and friendship can provide a sense of profound joy that you might not find in many other places.
Social bonds aren’t just vital for happiness. They can also provide greater purpose in life. This makes sense, if you think about it. You could be the funniest person in the world, but if no one laughs at your jokes, how would you know you’re funny? Other people can help put your goals in context and praise your accomplishments.
People who nurture healthy, positive relationships and engage with their community tend to experience greater well-being. People in a state of languishing, however, might focus most of their attention on themselves. When your daily activities only affect your own small world, you may feel less satisfaction than if your work tangibly benefits others.
Mismatch between values and goals
Values refer to the things you find important in life, like romance or knowledge. Goals include the achievements you work toward, such as getting a fancy car or publishing a best-selling novel. When your goals don’t line up with your values, you may find progress less motivating.
For example, say you put in extra hours at your difficult job in order to get a promotion. If you want the promotion to provide a better life for your children, that goal may line up with your value: family. But if you’re just working overtime because everyone in the office does, you may resent the extra labor and dread waking up in the morning.
Some people in a languishing state know they’re unhappy, but they endure because they think the stress and exhaustion will pay off in the end. But it’s usually not sustainable to delay gratification indefinitely. Even if you do reach the finish line, your success may feel underwhelming compared to everything you denied yourself on the way.
If you find yourself in an emotional rut, you may need outside help to climb out. This support could come from loved ones, a life coach, a therapist, or whoever you feel could best understand your needs.
How therapy can help
You don’t have to wait for a crisis to get professional support. A therapist can offer guidance at any time.
When to reach out
It’s generally best to connect with a professional sooner rather than later if you often:
- feel trapped or stuck in your daily routine
- wish you could feel “alive” again
- feel deeply lonely or isolated
- try to avoid thinking about where you are in life or where you want to go
A therapist can offer support as you work to improve your emotional state. They might, for example, help you explore ways to connect with others and capitalize on your personal strengths.
Therapy approaches that address your concerns in a holistic way can be especially useful to promote flourishing.
If you want to try therapy for languishing, you may want to check out research-supported interventions like:
- Well-being therapy. This approach has you identify what makes you feel happy and fulfilled and practice more of those behaviors.
- Life-review therapy. This approach can help you find value and meaning in your life to date and create a sense of hope for the future.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy. This therapy helps you accept negative feelings like regret and commit to pursuing your goals — even when you don’t feel completely enthusiastic about them.
- Positive psychological interventions. This approach can help you create goals that support your values and passions and then use your talents to reach those goals.
Languishing, in a nutshell, serves as a sort of limbo state between average mental health and clinical mental health conditions. You may feel numb or ambivalent, as if life is something happening to you, rather than something you actively participate in.
You don’t have to languish forever, though. Therapy and social support offer helpful options for striking a spark back into your daily routine. It’s always possible to work toward building a life you feel excited to live.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.