Research

Languishing in 2021

Learning a new psychological concept, over year into the pandemic.

I related to this article so much! I thought getting my vaccine shot would change everything. The pandemic is still dampening many aspects of life, and I’m still stuck in my own head, for better or worse. Learning to name this feeling of languishing—and see that it is a normal, common reaction—is helpful. It’s also great to be reminded of the importance of flow, a concept I learned about and wanted to share via my Positive Signs drawings from about 10 years ago.

“Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness….

…[as] the pandemic has dragged on, and the acute state of anguish has given way to a chronic condition of languish….

…In psychology, we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. Flourishing is the peak of well-being: You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others. Depression is the valley of ill-being: You feel despondent, drained and worthless. Languishing is … the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being….

—Adam Grant, ”There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing,“ NY Times, April 19, 2021

I am guilty of thinking in this duality between anxiety/depression and flourishing. This is a 5-part Venn diagram I made inspired by Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory of flourishing.

a drawing in gel pen with a five-part Venn diagram inspired by Martin Seligman's PERMA theory about flourishing.
Positive Signs: United Theories, 2012, gel pen on vellum, 32 x 40 inches unframed / 35.5 x 43.5 x 1.5 inches framed / 81.2 x 101.6 cm unframed / 90 x 110.5 x 3.8 cm framed. Supported by Lucas Artists Program at the Montalvo Arts Center.

…when you’re languishing, you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive….

So much of my artwork inspired by positive psychology is about noticing your feelings!

Christine Wong Yap, take charge of your happiness, 2011, ~83 × 24 × 1 in / 211 × 61 × 2.5 cm.
Christine Wong Yap, take charge of your happiness, 2011, ~83 × 24 × 1 in / 211 × 61 × 2.5 cm.

Not to mention my work that aspires to delight.

4 photos documenting a flag procession and raising ceremony. the flags are colorful patterns without representational symbols.
Irrational Exuberance Flags, 2012–13, five flags and five sashes; flagpoles, bases; participation; flags: 48 x 48 up to 48 x 80 inches each, poles: 8 to 30 feet each. Supported by Lucas Artists Program at the Montalvo Arts Center. Photos: Susan O’Malley.

…When you can’t see your own suffering, you don’t seek help or even do much to help yourself….

I just remarked how hard it is to ask for help—to allow yourself be held in support by others.

Photo of calligraphy that reads, "I feel most in control when I can feel comfortable being interdependent, which is to say out of control and held in support by, of, and for my friends, family and community."
Detail from an installation of drawings on interdependence and my artists’ personal impacts survey, 2015, ink on vellum, 12 × 9 inches / 30.5 × 22.8 cm.

Or, as psychologist Jenny Wang put it, “to let others love you better.”

It’s really neat to see how the answer may be in finding flow.

…“flow” may be an antidote to languishing. Flow is that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self melts away. During the early days of the pandemic, the best predictor of well-being wasn’t optimism or mindfulness — it was flow….

Fragmented attention is an enemy of engagement and excellence….

This really resonates with my takeaways from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow.

drawing about pleasure and enjoyment
Positive Signs #49, 2011, glitter and fluorescent pen on gridded vellum, 8.5 × 11 in / 21.5 × 28 cm.

We now know that the most important factor in daily joy and motivation is a sense of progress….

This is a revelation to me. I sometimes think I’m addicted to work. Often, when I write in my journal about what went well in my day, it’s often a list of accomplishments. I try to fight this urge to overvalue productivity. But it is very satisfying to know that you’re making progress.

…treat uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures to guard.

I know, during work from home and remote learning, having uninterrupted time is a huge privilege. I try not to take it for granted. I try to schedule my work day bearing in mind that I’m my most focused and creative in the mornings. Learning how to single-task, rather than multitask, is an ongoing challenge.

One of the clearest paths to flow is a just-manageable difficulty: a challenge that stretches your skills and heightens your resolve. That means carving out daily time to focus on a challenge that matters to you — an interesting project, a worthwhile goal, a meaningful conversation.

I think it’s so wonderful that a “meaningful conversation” is included here. Having deeper conversations is always important, but may be more so than ever, for combating isolation and pandemic-fatigue.

We still live in a world that normalizes physical health challenges but stigmatizes mental health challenges.

May is mental health awareness month. In a time of so much disruption and upheaval, it’s so important to normalize mental health as part of our everyday experience, and de-stigmatize caring for one’s own mental wellbeing.

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