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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Research

“‘The important thing about imagination is that it gives you optimism,’ said Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Positive Psychology Center there.

His work is dedicated to studying human agency, which is predicated on efficacy, optimism and imagination. …

The hours spent fantasizing and daydreaming about future plans are valuable, Dr. Seligman said. They allow people to escape routine, and cultivate hope and resilience. …

‘Imagining the future — we call this skill prospection — and prospection is subserved by a set of brain circuits that juxtapose time and space and get you imagining things well and beyond the here and now,’ Dr. Seligman said. ‘The essence of resilience about the future is: How good a prospector are you?’

And that’s the case regardless of whether one’s imaginings of the future are over-the-top and unbelievable, or seemingly mundane. …

…Dr. April Toure, a psychiatrist who specializes in working with children and adolescents at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn [said] ‘Even though it’s not considered a core symptom of depression, the absence of hope is a common symptom.’ … Future thinking, or “the imagination and belief that something better is coming,” is crucial to getting through hard times.

Tariro Mzezewa, “Go Ahead. Fantasize.” NY Times (January 16, 2021)

What will you do when the pandemic is over?

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“Compound is a new cultural complex in the heart of the Zaferia district of Long Beach. Compound is dedicated to the intersection of art, wellness and community engagement. It is a new space for culture and community to promote connectivity and belonging.”

compoundlb.com

 

I am fascinated by this organization and that it has a Policy of Belonging. Read it—it’s available in several languages:

Policy of Belonging
La Política de Pertenencia
នោលការណ៍ នន “ភាពជាកមមសិទធិ”
Ang Patakaran ng Pagiging Kabilang

Research

See: #BelongingProject: Compound’s Policy of Belonging

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a photo of a neon installation with the text, 'You belong here' in puruple script.' the neon is installed on a waterfront, so it reflects in the water. The photo was taken after sunset.
Tavares Strachan, You Belong Here, 2014, blocked out neon, 9.1 x 24.4 m, installation view, Prospect New Orleans’ triennial, Prospect, Mississippi River, New Orleans, USA // Source: PublicDelivery.org.

“Strachan’s project was a declarative statement and performance that was entitled You Belong Here. The installation featured a 100-foot neon art piece that would be transported from one location to another on a 140- foot barge on the Mississippi River. The barge that carried the neon piece was made visible from different regions and places throughout New Orleans. It was created to pass on a message to the residents of the city, encouraging the city dwellers to examine themselves and what the city of New Orleans means to them and their futures.”

From PublicDelivery.org
Research, Works

See: #BelongingProject: Tavares Strachan’s You Belong Here

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Grace Lau’s 21st Century Types

“Lau’s series of portraits 21st Century Types (2005) reflects the multiplicity of contemporary British society and comments on the Imperialist othering of ‘exotic’ Chinese people and culture. Lau constructed an opulent hybrid Chinese/English portrait studio in Hastings and over six weeks photographed hundreds of passers-by. The resulting images are a monument to place, race, people and the passing of time. The series also acts as a direct statement on the use of photography as unconscious bias, examining the politics of cultural representation and visual ‘archives’ through the genre of contemporary portraiture.”

Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (Manchester, UK), exhibition page for Multiplicites in Flux, October 15, 2020–January 31, 2021.

Still from Eelyn Lee’s Britishness

“Lee’s film Britishness (2019), 57 min, complicates the often indefinable notion of ‘Britishness’. Comprising spoken word poetry, interviews, and group discussions, the work follows young writers from Sheffield as they affirm, reject, and revise their visions of national identity and grapple with the consequences of Britain’s colonial history and their own personal experiences. The film posits ‘Britishness’ as a concept that is constantly in flux, moulded by ever-changing social, economic, political and historical narratives and carrying different significance for each individual. Through this lens, Lee invites viewers to question and re-evaluate their own definition of what it means to be British.”

Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (Manchester, UK), exhibition page for Multiplicites in Flux, October 15, 2020–January 31, 2021.

Research, Works

See: #BelongingProject: Grace Lau’s 21st Century Types and Eelyn Lee’s Britishness

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Research

See: #BelongingProject Intro

A collection of references on belonging.

I first became interested in belonging 2016. In my first project on belonging in 2017, the concept of belonging seemed a little bit abstract and nebulous… Over the years, I’ve noticed belonging pop up more and more, and I think it’s wonderful. Belonging is a deep lens through which many things can be seen: the personal and the political, the subjective and the systematic. I’ll post about art projects and art spaces concerning belonging here on my blog, with tagged #belongingproject.

A photo of a gallery wall with a piece of paper with questions about belonging in it. There are also salmon pink signs that say "What does belonging mean to you?"
A collective brainstorm on questions related to “What does belonging mean to you?” produced during the inaugural artist in residency program at the Sanitary Tortilla Factory in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
A sticky note with handwriting that reads, "Why is it important to feel a sense of belonging? Some people find it important because they want to feel socially accepted and to fit in. To some it can be the only answer to find friends. But also if you're surrounded by the right group of people then you'll feel like yourself and do not have to change to belong."
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Impressions

On Fear, Responsibility, and Intelligence

“Perhaps [Dorothea] Lange’s fears came from a deep consciousness of her responsibility. After documenting nearly a half-century of crises and the lives of those most deeply affected by them, Lange understood, possibly too well, the enormous responsibility that comes with telling any story, but especially the story of other people’s struggles. Fear is an embodied knowledge, an almost physical intuition of possible outcomes learned through past experience. It can spin into paranoia, paralyze us, shock us into impassivity. But it can also be a powerful drive, as I suppose it was for Lange, who with all her “darkroom terrors” was still able to document what many others had not yet seen or wanted to see. Fear allows us to give shape to things that we were unwilling to see or unable to name. Fear is a specific form of intelligence that comes when hindsight, insight, and foresight collide.”

—Valeria Luiselli’s profile of photographer Dorothea Lange, “Things as They Are” in the NY Review of Books (November 19, 2020). 
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On Aging and the Perils of Perfectionism

“I was not quite 40 but felt, in many ways, older. My hair, once as heroically thick as the David’s, had begun to thin visibly, and I felt sad about this, and I also considered my sadness to be its own failure, because I wanted to be the kind of person who didn’t care about superficial, middle-age things….

“My youthful pursuit of David-like perfection had gone, shall we say, not terribly well. I had turned out to be a strange person, not anything like an ideal. My life was littered with awkwardnesses, estrangements, mutual disillusionments, abandoned projects….

“Perfection, it turns out, is no way to try to live. It is a child’s idea, a cartoon — this desire not to be merely good, not to do merely well, but to be faultless, to transcend everything, including the limits of yourself. It is less heroic than neurotic, and it doesn’t take much analysis to get to its ugly side: a lust for control, pseudofascist purity, self-destruction. Perfection makes you flinch at yourself, flinch at the world, flinch at any contact between the two. Soon what you want, above all, is escape: to be gone, elsewhere, annihilated.”

Sam Anderson, “David’s Ankles,” NY Times, August 17, 2016
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