Feeling Meh

I wrote a draft earlier about how we need to cut ourselves some slack when our days don’t go as expected. While we may have planned to do our work, it doesn’t quite materialize for one reason or another, and that’s okay. If the feeling persists, maybe it’s our body or mind telling us something. Rather than trying to force ourselves to make things happen, the wise thing would be to heed what our bodies are telling us. I wrote:

Wallow in being unproductive. Stop beating yourself up for not doing enough. Enjoy the relief of getting nothing done today. It’s okay to take a day (or more) off. Sometimes, that’s the best thing you can do. You can always come back to your work later, or the following morning, or whenever you’re feeling refreshed again. Give yourself permission to not feel guilty about it.

I was reminded of this after reading psychologist Adam Grant’s recent piece in the Times, where he described languishing as the neglected middle child of mental health. He mentioned it was Corey Keyes, a sociologist who coined the term, ‘languishing‘. Keyes found in his research there were many people who were neither depressed nor thriving. Based on this observation, he has predicted these people will experience major depression and anxiety disorders in the next decade or so.

Grant described ‘languishing’ in his piece as the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being:

You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work.

It’s when we feel aimless and/or even joyless. It feels meh in many ways. It’s a state where we may not be at our worst, but we aren’t at our best either. It doesn’t feel proactive, but it doesn’t feel quite reactive either. It’s just meh. It’s when we are unable to give our complete attention to anything we do or with anyone. It feels like this:

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.

Naming this feeling is a great first step. Grant writes:

It could help to defog our vision, giving us a clearer window into what had been a blurry experience. It could remind us that we aren’t alone: languishing is common and shared.

Of course, the flip side is as soon as we name something, we tend to see it everywhere at the risk of missing everything else around it. Even then, I believe giving it a name far outweighs the cons. That said, I find calling it dormancy is more neutral than calling it languishing, but more on this below.

I’m grateful we have a word for this state because it’s a good starting point to understanding it better, plus now we have something we can point to. In fact, when asked in the future how I am feeling, I can totally see myself saying “meh” as a potential response knowing that that single word sums up this state in a way the other person simply gets it without having to go into any detail. Of course, that assumes this becomes part of the popular culture.

Writer Austin Kleon writes why he isn’t a fan of calling this state languishing:

I’m not languishing because I’m not trying to flourish.

He cites Ada Palmer’s work, who points out history is full of people who have had to put their work on hold for one reason or another.

The more important point Kleon makes is like seasons, we can’t be expected to flourish all the time. There is winter, spring, summer, and fall. For instance, winter is the time for rest and retreat. To this effect, writer Sam Radford reminds us:

We’ve been seduced into believing that we are meant to be productive all the time. We have separated our lives from the cyclical truth that seasons teach us. There are seasons to thrive and there are seasons to rest, recover, and replenish.

Author Katherine May shares with us:

Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.

In fact, Kleon likens the way we work to gardening. He points out not unlike gardeners, we need to cultivate the wisdom of knowing when to do things. He says:

It is a mistake and a misreading of nature to think that you, a living creature, will be flourishing all the days of your life.

Just because we are dormant is not to say things are not happening inside us, Kleon talks about Corita Kent describing one of her dormant periods. We may be dormant whilst things are slowly but surely brewing inside us, the outcome of which we will see only in due time. We can’t rush the process, but trust ourselves that it may lead to something worthwhile.

Last year, a few months into the pandemic, I wrote about how we can not only survive but thrive during these challenging times. I wrote:

It’s easy to get depressed about this ever-worsening situation. Our lives are challenging as it is, let alone in a pandemic. To be confined to our homes, and to be with our families 24/7 without having the space needed for our well-being to function optimally, can be stressful for some. It’s no surprise that things will likely get worse before they get better anytime soon.

Thriving aside, I have had my share of emotional ups and downs during the past year. There have been times when I’ve lost my center a few times and regretted it afterward. But for the most part, I’ve been okay. I suspect that’s in no small part due to accepting the situation for what it is. For me, it meant accepting what we can do right now, what we can’t, and operating within its confines. Instead of thinking of it as a limitation of some kind, I actively embrace it as a wonderful constraint and I’m making the best of it however long it lasts. It’s about realizing (and internalizing) unless we fully embrace the reality of our existing situation, there is little we can do about it. Complaining about it won’t help. The other thing is, why fight what we can’t change? Why not figure out what we can do given the circumstances we find ourselves in, which is largely out of our control? Why not simply do our best with what we have got with where we are now and leave it at that?

The other thing I found myself doing was lowering my expectations of what I could do under the circumstance, as it related to self, work, or the relationships in my life. I needed to be realistic with my expectations around what I could or couldn’t do and began to cut myself some slack for the same. This meant I needed to be okay about not being at my best. There were (non-consecutive) days where meh was my default state and I found myself being okay with it. For me, that involved putting certain projects on hold. It meant accepting that it was going to take me longer to complete existing projects and that was okay. It also meant working without imposing any false deadlines to make myself do things quickly in a way that would seem forced.

I found myself absorbed most days doing creative work in the morning, which was both challenging and rewarding, as anything worth pursuing should be. I’d take some time in the evenings to reflect on my day, celebrate my progress, and do the gratitude exercise.

I have tried to keep myself physically and mentally fit most days. That meant having a weekly exercise plan for doing my workouts indoors and skipping to a minimum. It meant taking an hour to read books on weeknights. Closing my day by watching an episode of a sitcom on weeknights helped me keep my sanity. Watching a movie on the weekend; listening to music; and playing Nintendo also provided the necessary renewal.

The pandemic hasn’t affected my work all that much from the point of working remotely. Not unlike most of us, about the only thing I miss is going out, doing cardio workouts, meeting friends, and doing things of interest. That said, having regular phone calls and keeping in touch with people seems to have made up for it in the interim as part of maintaining my social well-being.

It’s been a difficult year for all of us. Even then, we have done our best to stay afloat. I suspect most of us have felt meh one way or another. Some of us have struggled, while others have been able to adapt to it better. Yet we have somehow managed to hang in there. As they say, this too shall pass.

I am grateful to Corey for doing the research, to Adam for bringing this into the limelight, and to Austin for reminding us about dormancy. Now we know how we feel when we feel languished/dormant, and better yet, we have a way to describe it. And that it’s totally okay to feel and respond with “meh” when we are feeling this way. I can only imagine we will be able to understand this better from here on out.

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