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How to Go From Languishing to Flourishing

5 ways to make the transition back into normal life as the pandemic eases

By Jackson Rainer

As Roger and Georgeanne, both in their late 60s, said on return from their first trip in many months to a favorite seafood restaurant in their hometown of Greenville, S.C., "We didn't expect the ambient noise, the lights, the jostling of the crowd. It just wasn't as easy or as much fun as we expected. After more than a year by ourselves, we didn't realize how sheltered we've been." 

A silhouette of a person walking in nature. Next Avenue, languishing, flourishing
Credit: Holly Mandarich/Unsplash

Welcome back to the world! The pandemic response is moving into its next iteration, centering around re-opening to the larger community. Many of us are like the couple above who find this re-entry challenging.  

Social scientists are discussing and describing the general psychological burden and pain of the last 16 months as a process of languishing. A great deal of conversation is in the public media about this phenomenon. 

Languishing is identified by sociologist Corey Keyes as the absence of well-being, characterized by a dullness to joy, aimlessness indicated by receding motivation, a loss of the ability to focus and concentrate and a generalized indifference and apathy for most activities. 

"Even those who haven't gotten sick or lost a job have been confronted with extraordinary challenges."

As an antidote, there is an emerging body of research focused on assessing and measuring human well-being called flourishing, defined as the peak of wellness, including various aspects of happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, and renewal of meaning and purpose. 

Re-engaging With Others

However, many people continue to feel edgy, to the point of being overwhelmed, by the impact of the behavioral and psychological choices available as the community opens to day-to-day activities. As anxious as we are to put the pandemic behind us, there are reasonable and helpful steps to be taken as we re-engage with others and the world.

According to the 2020 Harvard University Flourishing Project, "Flourishing is a matter of internal perspective as well as external circumstance: Even those who haven't gotten sick or lost a job have been confronted with extraordinary challenges." 

Most of us know that regular physical activity and good nutrition are benchmarks for good health.  To recover and recharge our emotional and cognitive batteries and reorient to fulfillment, purpose and happiness, several thoughtful and mindful considerations may be taken to neutralize the nuance of languishing.

How to Adjust to 'Normal'

Here are 5 suggestions:

1. Go off-screen. As relaxing as scrolling through social media might sometimes feel, it is actually a guaranteed way to drain mental resources. If your goal is to rejuvenate, put devices aside so they are unavailable by sight or sound for a designated period of time each day. 

Georgeanne said, "I finally gave up most of Facebook. I just didn't need to read the political diatribes anymore. I've limited my friends' online network and asked that we use social media only for collegial and companionable correspondence, not political opinion."

2. Spend time outside. The science data is well-known in its truth that the experience of nature restores those cognitive resources depleted by everyday activities. Psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, in their 1989 book "The Experience of Nature:  A Psychological Perspective," report that going outdoors for a change of scenery brings new meaning to the metaphor of "a breath of fresh air." 

A day at the beach, a walk in the woods or a stroll along an urban beltline orients the brain toward replenishment by reducing the release of stress-related chemicals in the body. Solitary outdoor activities also allow for focus and attention to those smaller, new things found in natural abundance.


3. Choose the right type of downtime.The effectiveness of a break in the day depends on the type of work you've been doing. Restorative timeouts usually complement individual stressors. Downtime does not equate to doing nothing, though. Rather, it means engaging in activity that feels soothing, to quiet the routinized activity of the day. 

Check in with personal stress, satisfaction levels and emotional responses evoked by movement back into the world.

As Roger said, "I thought it would be a good idea to learn a foreign language. Throughout the pandemic, I immersed myself in Italian. I could get deeply and over-involved in my studies if I let myself go at too quick of a pace. I needed to take breaks and would return to English language crossword puzzles just to get a bit of distance from conjugating Italian verbs. I learned the language more effectively and had more fun as I acquired facility."

4. Expect "normal" to be something different. Roger continued, saying, "I still can't go back to shaking hands with anyone. I recently met a friend I hadn't seen during the shutdown. We automatically stuck our hands out, grabbed each other, and stopped – just looking at our hands like we had just done something wrong. We laughed, let go, and commented on how awkward the physical contact was." 

Consider similar social transitions and transactions, such as making physical contact, paying cash for services and gathering for face-to-face meetings without assumptions of what "should be."  Think about what feels right, genuine and congruent. Look before you leap.

5. Ease back in. Check in with personal stress, satisfaction levels and emotional responses evoked from movement back into the world. If the experience of languishing lingers, make a deliberate and thoughtful decision that defines the activity's meaning and what purpose it serves. Languishing relies on staying on psychological autopilot which challenges a person's abilities see what really matters. 

Approach the experience of languishing as a low-level physical illness, like getting over a bad cold.  Remember that recovery takes time, and deliberate, ongoing care is needed to fully return to a baseline of personal satisfaction and happiness.

Jackson Rainer
Jackson Rainer is a board-certified clinical psychologist practicing with CHRIS 180 Counseling Center DeKalb in Atlanta. He may be contacted at [email protected]. Read More
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