Finding Our Proverbial Sunrooms

This post was originally featured in ARRS InPractice.

Feeling stuck, joyless, or “meh?” You, like many others, might be languishing. In fact, it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.

Sociologist Corey Keyes describes mental health as a continuum: ranging from flourishing, that state of wellbeing we all seek to achieve, to languishing, the absence of wellbeing, and a lower state of mental health. Languishing is distinct from depression, yet individuals who are languishing are at a higher risk of future mental illness (such as depression and anxiety disorders), as shown by Keyes et al..

Simply put, languishing is a series of emotions, rather than a mental illness. Adam Grant, writing in the New York Times, refers to languishing as “the neglected middle child of mental health” and “the void between depression and flourishing.” Given the negative impacts on productivity, morale, innovation, team building, retention, and engagement, nonprofit organizations and corporations alike must take this widespread state seriously.

The pandemic has impacted almost every structural framework of our lives, such as socializing, working, vacationing, traveling, and exercising—and, in turn, compromised our sources of joy. With no clear path as to when and how our “future state” will present itself, we continue to exist in an ongoing and indefinite interim state. As uncertainties persist and routines remain in flux, many people are being shuffled into a state of languishing.

You Might Be Languishing if You Are:

  • overwhelmed or emotionally numb
  • distracted and unfocused
  • depleted, empty, and/or disinterested
  • unmotivated or procrastinating
  • not functioning at your full capacity
  • unable to feel excited about upcoming events
  • cynical about your colleagues and leaders

How Can We Shift From Languishing to Flourishing?

Below, I share a compilation of suggestions from the experiences of many. If the symptoms of languishing seem familiar to you, perhaps one or more of these strategies might help. If even one person finds solace in these ideas, it would bring me joy.

  • Prioritize your health: Do your best to eat healthily, drink plenty of water, sleep well, and incorporate movement into your life. Schedule and keep your annual health appointments. Consider alternative medicine modalities, such as acupuncture and chiropractic medicine. Find moments to sit in silence and simply breathe. Use your personal time and plan vacations, including memorable “staycations.” Disconnect from work and social media during your time off. Set boundaries and learn how to respectfully say “no,” when needed. Take your first small step toward doing something you’ve always wanted to do for your health today.
  • Protect your time: Manage your time intentionally and purposefully. Detach, disconnect, and learn how to engage your personal reset button. You might try scheduling uninterrupted time for yourself to recharge your batteries, even if this means “doing nothing.” Limit social media scrolling and email checking. Consider recapturing your prepandemic experiences; for example, create a virtual “commute” that includes a home spin class, podcast episodes, reading, music, or another element that helps you transition from the waking to working hours.
  • Make positive connections: Reengage or recreate your personal and professional network. Recall who once might have lifted you up. Walk and chat, gather and eat, find and embrace, and explore commonalities with positive people. When possible, spend less time with those who drain your energy and spirits. Seek a peer support buddy with whom you can share your experiences and feelings. Look for authentic and uplifting connections to replenish yourself emotionally.
  • Reflect on the current situation: Acknowledge the loss and anxiety and frustrations and grief. What have you lost? What have others lost? What has everybody lost? Recognize that you’re not alone here.
  • And then, practice gratitude: Recognize what you do have, rather than focusing on what you don’t. Appreciate what is working, rather than focusing on what isn’t. Try keeping a daily gratitude journal or using a meditation app, like Calm or Headspace, for guided gratitude practices.
  • Find flow and motivation: What’s on your music playlist, and when did you last update the content? Step out of your comfort zone by trying a new recipe, exercise, podcast, app, or online class. Get better at something, whether it’s dance, yoga, art, reading, writing, meditation, music, composting, or gardening. Explore mindful crafting, photography, collecting, and other hobbies. Reconnect with and walk barefoot in nature for additional grounding.
  • Celebrate small successes: Rethink what constitutes success, however small. It may be someone else’s success or happiness that you contributed to. When overwhelmed, rethink your goal-setting strategy. Set simpler goals that are achievable, and enjoy the successes that you are contributing to. It’s OK to start small. Perhaps also schedule achievable self-care activities each day.
  • Rethink your possessions: What would you like to keep or surround yourself with? These items might include things that bring you joy, inspiration, hope, confidence, or calm. Consider decluttering a room or maybe even your entire living space over a period of time. According to a recent Psychology Today article, decluttering can be very beneficial.
  • Change your scenery: Breaking from a stagnant routine is challenging. I encourage all of us to find ways to get out of our emotional basement and head up to our proverbial sunroom. Take a stroll through your memory banks to recall what may have once ignited your passions. Learn the art of introspection—what does your perfect day look like?—and consciously do something new or different to refresh your spirits. Check out your local museum, gallery, or library with a friend. Sign up for an online class or enjoy a virtual comedy show. You never know what you may discover.
  • Find joy in giving: When did you last wrap a small gift? Who can you help today? What causes would you like to reengage with? Have you discussed and explored different options with your friends and family? Try to get back to your talents and gifts. Learn to be a peer supporter. Research volunteer opportunities in your community. Contemplate your purpose and remember what truly drives you. Helping others can bring a tremendous sense of inner fulfillment.
  • Activate your personal coping strategies: For some, the average workday may seem filled with one stressful encounter after another. Meetings may not go as planned. Your workflow may be interrupted. The dominant sentiment might be that this is just another tough day. Is it possible that you are being too hard on yourself and in your judgments? For example, while you may feel that a meeting, interaction, or event didn’t quite go as planned, perhaps that is from your perspective. Maybe others had a different perspective and felt more positive about the encounter. Activate your personal coping strategies to decompress, relax, boost your energy, stay focused, gain perspective, and reflect on the bigger picture.
  • Explore therapy. It’s a strength to recognize when we need professional help. According to a recent Value Penguin survey of more than 1,300 US adults, “nearly 30% of Americans have seen a therapist during the coronavirus pandemic, and 86% say it’s helped them cope.” Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, therapists, and other licensed practitioners are trained to help patients construct a personal repertoire of coping strategies. There are many forms of therapy to consider, including psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, dialectical behavioral, mindfulness-based, and art. One or more of these modalities could help you address and manage stressful life events.

The journey from languishing to flourishing is of indeterminate length, and some of the “travel aids” listed above may be more effective than others. What we need is a means of sharing best practices—what worked well and what didn’t—multigenerational preferences and impacts, as well as other solutions that have been identified along the path. I can only wish each of you who may be experiencing a state of languishing a very safe, healthy, memorable, and rewarding trip back!

About the Author
Jonathan Kruskal

Melvin E. Clouse Professor of Radiology, Harvard Medical School
Chair, Department of Radiology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

The opinions expressed on RadTeams are those of the author(s); they do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or position of the editors, reviewers, or publisher.