Written by Alannah Casey 

Given our area of work, we often meet and support people who are really struggling in their lives, yet do not meet criteria for a mental illness such as depression. Despite the absence of a diagnosis, these individuals don’t experience life as fulfilling, satisfying or even enjoyable most of the time. Research into mental health, and especially a concept called “languishing”, is helping us to better understand and support these people.

Psychologist Corey Keyes describes languishing as “emptiness and stagnation, constituting a life of quiet despair … individuals who describe themselves and life as hollow, empty, a shell, and a void.” In Keyes’ research, 17% of the researched population were found to be languishing, which we think is too high a percentage.

Languishing has been associated with poorer functioning, including absenteeism from work and being unable to manage life’s daily activities (e.g.  completing exercise or household tasks). Languishing is also a known risk factor for mental illness.

Unfortunately, people who are languishing often “fall through the cracks” as their symptoms aren’t “clinically significant” enough to access much support and intervention. Medication like antidepressants may be prescribed but as the person isn’t clinically depressed, these medications may result in little noticeable improvement.

What can we do? Keyes suggests that helping people move from languishing to flourishing can help. “Flourishing” is at the other end of the mental health continuum from languishing, defined by Keyes as “a state where people experience positive emotions, positive psychological functioning and positive social functioning, most of the time”.

Psychological research has identified 6 core components of psychological wellbeing that influence where someone falls on this continuum (Keyes, 2002). How might you help yourself and others move from languishing towards flourishing in these areas?

  1. Self-acceptance – we are able to like most things about ourselves.
  2. Positive relationships with others – we can form and maintain supportive, warm, and trusting relationships with others.
  3. Personal growth – we see ourselves as becoming better people.
  4. Purpose in life – we have a sense of direction or meaning in life.
  5. Environmental mastery – we believe that we are able to shape the world around us (at least to some extent) to meet our needs.
  6. Autonomy – we believe that we are reasonably in control of what happens to us (i.e. rather than others, fate, or luck being totally in charge).

Wider social factors, not just our psychological functioning, also affect our ability to flourish, such asthe degree to which we see our society as understandable and meaningful, feel that we belong and are accepted by society (and accept others, too) and see ourselves as contributing to society.

Importantly, to be considered flourishing, we do not need to be highly rated on all areas of life at once. Similar to diagnostic systems for mental illness, the presence of the majority of symptoms of mental health is sufficient for a “diagnosis” of flourishing.

While it is encouraging to see more and more organisations discussing mental illness in the workplace, a pattern we see often in our work is that issues around employees’ mental health are often not discussed until things have deteriorated significantly. Understanding and identifying languishing helps us all to shift this focus and have these conversations earlier so that people are supported back to positive mental health sooner and more efficiently.

Likewise, taking a proactive approach to fostering flourishing is equally important. In our mental health training, we make sure we cover both ends of the continuum. Contact us to find out more about our programmes.