Across the Hudson, Lone Tree

The COVID State of Mental Health: Languishing?

Perhaps you know this feeling: muddling, struggling, dragging. Neither depressed nor flourishing. After a year of this pandemic, many people find themselves in this COVID state of mind. In fact, a global study of mental health in the pandemic lockdown by Andrew Gloster et al found that fully half of the people studied had only moderate mental health. Another ten percent were suffering poor mental health. The remaining 40 percent were enjoying good mental health. Writing in the New York Times,  psychology professor Adam Grant describes the COVID state of mind as languishing:

“Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”

Resonating with Many

Grant struck a nerve. One reader explained:

“For months I told my closest friends ‘I can’t really describe myself as depressed, it seems too strong a word because I am doing fine really. I just don’t care about anything anymore, everything looks pointless, egotistical and shallow.’”

Twitter is teeming with comments like: “Wow never felt a word harder in my life. Languishing.”

A Note of Caution

However, it’s also worth noting that not everyone sees this through the same eyes. “If you’re less of a drama queen, you just call it boredom,” tweets a cynical observer.

So going back to the source that Grant quotes for his definition of languishing, we find he has altered the definition a bit. In 2002, Corey Keys described languishing as one extreme of the mental health continuum. It’s not the middle ground. Using this definition, 12 percent of adults in data from 1995 fit the criteria for languishing. At the other extreme, 17 percent fit the criteria for flourishing. The rest were in that great middle ground of moderate mental health.

Comparing across studies is dangerous, but we can’t help noting that 17 percent flourishing in 1995 does not look better than what Gloster reported in the lockdown – 40 percent flourishing. Perhaps the definitions have shifted.

Pursuing Something Better

What is clear is that many of us want something better than the isolation and angst we’re feeling today. It is hard to quantify. But we hear and read a great deal of dissatisfaction with current circumstances, as well problems we have ignored for too long – disparities, health inequities, and systemic racism.

Yes, many people are feeling flat and unmotivated. But others are going flat out to bring change to circumstances they can no longer stay silent about. This is as good a time as any to do so. Grant suggests finding a challenge to stretch your skills and heighten 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. Sometimes it’s a small step toward rediscovering some of the energy and enthusiasm that you’ve missed during all these months.”

Click here for Grant’s commentary in the Times, here for the 2002 paper by Keyes, and here for the Gloster study.

Across the Hudson, Lone Tree; painting by Leon Dabo / WikiArt

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April 20, 2021