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How to move from languishing to flourishing

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So how do we move from languishing to flourishing?

Today, On Point: Sociologist Corey Keyes has spent his career trying to find the answer.


Corey Keyes, professor emeritus of sociology at Emory University. Author of “Languishing: How to feel alive again in a world that wears us down.”


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. In or about 1863, Emily Dickinson penned one of her most challenging poems. It begins:

“My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –

In Corners – till a Day

The Owner passed – identified –

And carried Me away – ”

A loaded gun. It’s such a powerful image. But of what? A life unfulfilled unless triggered by another? A soul trapped in a corner, as she says, useful for nothing in and of itself? Four more stanzas pass, and Dickinson ends the poem this way:

“Thought I than He – may longer Live

He longer must – than I –

For I have but the power to kill,

Without – the power to die –”

It’s a really ambiguous and confrontational poem. And I feel like it’s blurred in something like a miasma of rage? Pointlessness? Rage against what, though? It seems like it’s a really powerless sensation that Dickinson is talking about there. The speaker can kill, but has no power over herself — no power over her own life, even to die. She seems trapped, languishing, but in fury of darkness.

Now, I can’t really claim to understand exactly what Emily Dickinson was trying to communicate there. She is a challenging poet. But Corey Keyes, I wonder, as you hear those stanzas, how do the words fall on your ears?

COREY KEYES: Well, it sounds to me like somebody who is really struggling with living a life that doesn’t quite feel like it’s their own. And I think we’ve all been there. I have myself, when I’ve looked in the mirror some days and looked at that person and not recognized them. And I’d become a person that I’d never thought I would become. And that’s a place where I start to feel empty and lost. And where I feel a sense of no control.

So I suspect, at least my interpretation — that’s a wonderful poem, I’m not familiar with it, Meghna — but she is getting at something to the effect of “I’m suddenly living a life or becoming a person that I no longer recognize, and yet I feel a kind of anger at what has become of me.”

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well Corey, we’re so delighted to have you on the show today. Corey’s author of a book called Languishing: How to Feel Alive Again in a World That Wears Us Down. And he’s also professor emeritus of sociology at Emory University.

And I guess I should call you Professor Keyes here. I just jumped to being very familiar with you by saying Corey — forgive me for that. But you say you have experienced this languishing, if I just use the title of your book, in your own life, and actually, as you write about it, at quite a young age. Can you tell us that story?

KEYES: Yes. The book begins with a disclosure of my own. And the book is in part pieces of memoir of my struggles with various demons, if you will, one of which was languishing has guided my research in my life and my own search for flourishing. But we’ll get to that.

It was, I was 16 years old and I was tuning in, on the FM radio, to a weekly concert called the King Biscuit Flower Hour. And suddenly, Jackson Browne appeared. He was the guest for that evening. And he had just recorded his live album, which is very famous, called Running on Empty, and he played that song.

And as I listened to the lyrics of Running on Empty, it simply spoke to me. For the first time I felt recognized. Because he was describing what life is like on the road, where you pack up and go to one town after another, you give yourself away and then you move on. And I think there is this sense of exhaustion and emptiness, like you’re emptying your creativity and your soul on the road. And that’s what I felt as a very young person at age 16.

And part of the reason for that, Meghna, was, as I describe, at 16, I was finally in a loving and safe home where — my grandparents had adopted myself and my sister and there they were in their retirement. And they took us out of a very violent situation. And once I was free of all that fear and violence, I suddenly was left with this hollow, empty feeling.

And I think that’s what trauma and abuse and all the problems that many of us experience whether it’s all the isms — sexism, homophobia, racism — that what that does to us. It takes away all the things that make life meaningful and good and leaves us empty. So that was where I started. And I must tell you, languishing is kind of a regular guest in my life, almost every afternoon it visits. But now I know why it’s there. And I look at what’s missing and what I need to take care of tomorrow. So yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: If I may, can you tell us a little bit more about your younger years? Because I’d like to see how what you experienced that led to this recurrent sensation or experience of languishing perhaps differs from, I don’t know, the typical state of flux and uncertainty and unknowingness that many teenagers just have, right? Because that’s a part of growth and life in those teen years. But when you said that you had quite a traumatic childhood, are you able to tell us a little bit more about that?

KEYES: Sure. I write about it somewhat in the book. And I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader in particular. But there was an article that was done in the Guardian Observer magazine that got very specific. And I decided to tell the details of the story because I think a lot of us who — there are a lot of people with significant trauma in their lives, often that come in childhood. And I don’t think we feel comfortable telling our stories to the world and our struggles and how it’s informed our search for something good. And how it led to something that many might call it an accomplishment.

So yeah, there was regular daily abuse, very physical and very violent. And it was so overwhelming that the only way I could adapt as a child — and I saw this in my sister, too — was we shut down. And psychiatrists call it — you dissociate, you go inside. And you put up, I think of it as a turtle, sort of, where you create this really tough exterior. You pull in your legs and your head as if that’s the last thing that you want them to take from you. And you put a lot of energy into sort of taking the abuse.

And what you do is you spend most of your days living in fear, waiting for the next bad thing to happen. And so it takes so much energy to survive in those kinds of environments that you don’t realize that, until you’re away from it, how exhausted and empty — it creates that empty hole in you.

And so if you were to — maybe your listeners are familiar with the Adverse Childhood Experiences study. And typically, the ACEs study measures and looks at the number of ACEs, and the highest level is four or more. And typically, adults who have had a childhood of adversity at levels four or more, typically have some pretty undesirable outcomes in adulthood. My ACE score was seven, just to put it into context.


KEYES: So I don’t know how my sister and I survived. But we’re not the only survivors. People find a way to get through these things, but it takes a toll. And what it did for me was take the person that I was to become and replaced it with something that was a ghost. And I had to rebuild myself once I was adopted.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. So this acute, very acute, hyper-aware survival mode as a child, which, as you very correctly put it, consumes all the energy of a human being, right? When you were in a safer place years later, as you described, the receding tide of the abuse left behind this sense of languishing that you shared, that sort of was made manifest when you were 16 or you realized it. So how would you define then more broadly from that experience when we’re talking about languishing, what exactly are we talking about?

KEYES: Well, we can talk about it in two ways. In the way people sort of describe it, we’ll call that sort of the existential version. And then we can talk about the way in which as a scientist, I came to measure and actually diagnose it.

But existentially what people — the words that people use to describe this condition is rather haunting to me. Some talk about it as a piercing void in their soul. It’s interesting, a lot of people use , reference that it’s a problem with their soul, which I take to be their spirit has gone missing. Another version that’s very haunting to me — and I’ve felt this — it’s as if you’re alive, of course, but you feel like you’re dying inside, like you’re half alive. Or that you’re stuck or stagnant, another very common description.

And of course, the canonical one is this sense of emptiness. And by that, if you probe people, what they’re talking about is that they don’t feel anything good or not much of it, but they don’t feel anything bad or much negative.


KEYES: And I refer to Em Beihold’s, you know, Numb Little Bug, the song, in the book. And it’s that sense that you’ve become numb emotionally.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Keyes, what I’d love to do is sort of touch down on recent history and explore with you why this sense of languishing seems to have really resurfaced broadly amongst people. And then also go back in time. Because I think the sensation of languishing has been called many different things over many centuries.

So let’s start with the recent times — and you talk about this extensively. I believe there was a survey done somewhere, I don’t remember where, but New York Times, maybe, about what were people feeling or sensing in themselves during the pandemic, and particularly, the lockdown period of the pandemic. And languishing was one of the most popular responses, if I remember correctly?

KEYES: Yes. And in fact, the New York Times article that the organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote about his own experience with languishing was the most read article in 2021 — not just in the United States, globally. So that was, it was a remarkable moment. I never imagined that it would take a pandemic or that I would even experience a pandemic for that matter, but that it would take a pandemic to raise awareness of this what seems to be an invisible condition that’s now out of the closet, if you will.

CHAKRABARTI: So he wrote about — but so what was it about the pandemic that made people feel like they were languishing?

KEYES: Well, I think what happened was that people who would not have normally been at risk for this condition, if you will — people who love their jobs, who are engaged at work, engaged with life, they’re part of their community and so forth, they had a lot of good things going on — were suddenly put in a situation where all those things were taken from them.


KEYES: And I think for many people, that was quite shocking because what it did to them, it put them in this place where they’d never felt before or have never gone. And as I said in other interviews, the pandemic was the great equalizer. People who were much more likely and had experienced languishing quite often were now joined with people who had never or rarely experienced it. And suddenly there was this uprising, if you will, or upswelling of people talking about it or wanting to know, well, what is this condition?

I found it interesting. A lot of people say, “Well, I know I’m not depressed. I’m not sad. I don’t want to, you know, I’ve not lost all interest in life. But something is missing. Something has gone astray.” And so I think the pandemic was the great equalizer. And it didn’t matter what kind of country you were living in, what culture, it happened to everyone in one form or another.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So you touched on something very important because I wanted to ask you how to differentiate between, you know, diagnosable clinical depression, which has a definition in the DSM, right, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. And that versus languishing.  Just to go over some of the terms here, like depression is diagnosed through a combination of symptoms over a period of several weeks.

If you’re a caregiver or a medical professional and trying to diagnose it, right, there’s that depressed mood, as you talked about, which can be marked by a lot of different things. I mean, sadness is one of them. There’s also emptiness, hopelessness — which sounds a little bit like languishing. Loss of interest or pleasure in basically anything that defined you in life.

KEYES: Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: There’s insomnia, hypersomnia, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, decreased concentration, and, of course, suicidal ideation. So a combination of those things can lead to a diagnosis of depression. But you’re saying clearly that languishing is different than that, because it’s less of a void of happiness and more just a sense of emptiness without the chronic sadness or worthlessness?

KEYES: Well, here’s where it gets a little tricky. Let’s see if I can thread this needle. One difference between the two is that depression, the list of symptoms are all framed negatively, right? There’s a loss of pleasure. There’s the presence of sadness that’s persistent. You’re sleeping — your sleep patterns have changed such that you’re sleeping too much, too little. Your eating habits have changed such as you’re overeating, or you’re not eating enough suddenly.

And languishing is the absence of a host of things that are framed in terms of questions positively. Like, does your life have a sense of purpose or direction? Are you being challenged to grow and become a better person? I’m just giving you some examples of these. Do you like most parts of your personality? Are you able to manage the daily responsibilities of your life? Do you feel happy, satisfied or interested in life? And isn’t it interesting that there is one overlapping question that’s about interest in life, or the loss of interest or pleasure.


KEYES: But languishing is the absence of positive qualities, if you will. It’s not necessarily — just because you don’t have a — let’s just talk about it in a framework of a typical day. Many of us have had a day where nothing good has happened. But just because of nothing good has happened, it doesn’t mean that everything was terrible or that you felt angry or sad.

And conversely, I mean, you could have, many of us have had days where nothing bad has happened. We didn’t feel angry, sad or — but it doesn’t mean that a whole bunch of really good things happened either. And so languishing, for many people, it can be the absence of these positive qualities, but it doesn’t necessarily blur into the presence of all those negative qualities that define depression.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. You know, I’m looking at — because you had refocused my mind that it was Adam Grant, right, in the New York Times — and I just pulled up his 2021 article. And here’s how he described it. It’s exactly along the lines of what you’re saying, Professor Keyes. He calls languishing “the neglected middle child of mental health.” And he calls it “the void between depression and flourishing. You don’t have to have all the symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either.”

KEYES: Exactly.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, so it’s really fascinating. And you know, actually, there are — I don’t want to equate the two, obviously — but there are tiny echoes between what Grant describes may have afflicted people during the pandemic and what you told us about your own life history, Professor Keyes. Because he talks about how, you know, in the first weeks or even months of the COVID lockdowns, people were very much in a sense of fight or flight, essentially. Because of what you said, that everyone’s routines, the things that grounded us had been removed by virtue of being in the lockdowns. And that can put you in a sense of self protection, right?


CHAKRABARTI: And then he says, “But as that wore on, that heightened emotional awareness gave way to the dread of nothingness” because we weren’t quickly returned to those things, the people that gave us meaning. Does that sound right?

KEYES: It sounds quite familiar to what I described in terms of my childhood, which was much more prolonged. But I think many people went through an intense and somewhat prolonged period of fear and uncertainty that created this hypervigilance that you talked about — and that I experienced myself — that required a kind of dedication of all your energy to try to understand and figure out what was going on.

And I think people were willing to go there and try to invest so much energy because they thought this might not persist. And we were getting messages, “Well, this, this is going to be temporary.” And then suddenly as it wore on, I think we took our foot off the gas pedals. And as we slowed down, it was just like what I experienced when I was finally adopted. When I slowed down, suddenly it caught up with me: that emptiness, that feeling, that weariness, that exhaustion.

And so what’s tricky about languishing is the following. And it’s important to know that all my studies and the studies that have been done on languishing, we do measure clinical depression as well as anxiety and other disorders, mental disorders, so that we can make sure that we’re truly separating those with clinical depression and those who are languishing without it. But here’s why I said it’s a little tricky. Because we found in our research — and others have done the research on this — that languishing, if you stay there too long, it is a gateway into mental disorders like depression and anxiety.


KEYES: It’s a risk factor. And languishing doesn’t cease to exist suddenly when you slide into depression, it comes along with you. So you can be languishing on top of having depression. And here is what’s amazing. Your degree or severity of languishing will add to the problems that you experience along with your depression. So, if you’re languishing severely with depression, you are doing worse than somebody who is depressed but is languishing moderately or mildly. So your level of languishing is determining, to some degree, how problematic your depression is. And that’s why some people with depression will suddenly start talking in ways that sound like languishing. And suddenly you think, “Well, depression is languishing.” No, languishing happens along with a lot of mental disorders.


KEYES: We just don’t recognize it that it’s there because most clinicians haven’t really sort of taken this line of work as seriously as I think they should. That’s, you know, I don’t want to poke the bear. I’m not anti-psychiatric. I have my own mental disorders. And I was so glad when finally, mental disorders like depression and anxiety came out of the closet and were taken far more serious.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. You know, it suddenly occurs to me that it’s not by accident that my mind keeps wandering to how poets and writers and artists have depicted this state of languishing over years, decades and centuries. And another one that popped up to me as I was doing some reading to prepare for our conversation today, Professor Keyes, actually comes from Aldous Huxley. So fascinating. One of my favorite writers.

KEYES: Ooh, yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: Because he wrote an essay, obviously near the first half of the 20th century where he writes this: “Other epochs have witnessed disasters, have had to suffer disillusionment; but in no century have the disillusionments followed on one another’s heels with such unintermitted rapidity as in the twentieth, for the good reason that in no century has change been so rapid and so profound.”

“The mal du siècle,” — that ennui that people often talk about — “was an inevitable evil; indeed, we can claim with a certain pride that we have a right to our” — And here’s the word, I don’t know if I’m going to pronounce it correctly — “accidie.”

Accidie.” I think it’s an ancient Greek word.

KEYES: Yes, it is.

CHAKRABARTI: And that’s the title of his essay. Now this takes us way back. Because this sense of languishing has been called many things throughout history, and I think it dates back, I think the first time it was maybe identified — and correct me if I’m wrong — at least in religious literature, was as far back as the 5th or 4th centuries.

KEYES: Yes. In Christianity, and that literature is called the Desert Monks. And I’ve written, I’ve explored this, because before I go down any path, I want to look at history and see if it’s been, if there’s instances where what I’m thinking exists today has been with us. And I was I would say shocked when I learned that there used to be eight deadly sins. Now, some people might be aware of that. I was unaware of that as a young scholar. And I was like, “I’m only aware of seven deadly sins. Well, what is this eighth deadly sin?”

And it goes under the name of “acedia,” or in the ancient Greek, “acedia.” And some people have written about it as if it’s depression. I think the author Andrew Solomon wrote a book on his depression and depression in general.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, The Noonday Demon.

KEYES: Noonday Demon. And he used acedia as an example of depression. But I would love to have a conversation with him. I would beg to differ. Because when I read the accounts of the Desert Monks writing about this state of acedia, they weren’t talking about sadness. They were talking about a longing for something good that they’ve lost. What some have described as a “want of interest in life.”

And it sounds a lot to me like a form of emptiness that would happen to them after they had gone through their morning rituals and had done a lot of work. And suddenly, they would take a break and they would experience this sense of emptiness that was quite haunting and was uncomfortable. It would lead them to do things that led them astray from their path, their religious path.  And isn’t it interesting that same problem of seeking ways to distract yourself from this condition happens today?


KEYES: And I think it was considered sinful precisely because it led people to do things that led them away from their spiritual, religious path and devotion.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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