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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Dealing with Ennui: From Languishing to Flourishing

'As we teeter between the hope of an end to the pandemic and the horror of continuing losses, we must learn to deal with our new “not entirely normal.”'

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It’s the first week of May 2021. Counting from the first lockdown in March 2020, we have been living with COVID-19 for over a year. As we deal with the continuing second wave in the country and watch the horrors of the surge in India, we struggle.

In my inbox this week was a direct message reacting to the COVID-19 statistics that I had taken to posting on my page. It was from a friend lamenting a sense of desensitization to the current situation. Fog, listlessness. I had taken to calling it ennui, what Google defines as “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.”

And then I remembered. In the third week of April, my daughter sent me a link to a New York Times article by Adam Grant that put a name to that general struggle: languishing. Grant describes it as a feeling of “muddling through,” of being “joyless and aimless.” The term comes from a 2002 paper by Corey Keyes.


It is easy to understand the absence of joy.

As we marked the one-year anniversary of entering lockdown in mid-March, we were also looking at daily new cases (4,427 as of the 16th) which had tripled in a month (1,386 as of 16 February). By the 26th of March, an announcement was made that Metro Manila would be back in ECQ, the strictest level of local quarantine. By this time, daily new cases had topped 9,000.

April was a month of ups and downs on the COVID-19 front. On the one hand, the vaccine was being rolled out and it was extremely encouraging to see so many of our friends getting vaccinated. On the other hand, daily new cases increased, at one point topping 12,000. By mid-April, daily new cases began to drop but continued to remain frustratingly in the 7 to 9,000 range. Total COVID-19 cases in the country topped a million but total active cases, which at one point had topped 125,000, dropped steadily but remained over 50,000.

This second surge struck hard, with daily new cases double the country’s experience from its first wave in August to September of 2020. For many of us, the disease was striking much closer to home. It was taking family and friends, people we had grown up with. Heartbreakingly, this time it was taking younger people. Parents were burying children.

We scroll through news feeds full of black rectangle profile pictures and images of flickering candle flames. The losses are compounded by our inability to gather to say our goodbyes. If we are lucky and have a wide enough circle of friends, we can find refuge in the small celebrations of life as it continues, the birthdays, the anniversaries, graduations and new babies. But it is all somehow overshadowed by the fact that these are lonely celebrations, bereft of the large gatherings that is the custom in our culture.

As we teeter between the hope of an end to the pandemic and the horror of continuing losses, we realize we are not feeling entirely normal. Of course, some of us, especially those in the front-lines, are burned out, they are desperately trying to find fresh reserves of energy. Some are depressed, dealing with feelings of deep grief and hopelessness. And then there are the rest of us, finding a way to deal with our current “not exactly normal.”

In a world devoid of our normal rhythms, when escaping the confines of the day-to-day is complicated if not impossible, we must find ways to deal.


Before Keyes’ 2002 paper, there was language for describing mental illness. For example, there was language to describe the different types of depression. However, there was not enough language to describe the mental health of those who were not mentally ill.

As a response, Keyes proposed a mental health continuum with languishing at one end and flourishing at the other. Essentially, if depression is the lowest end of the continuum and flourishing is the top end, then languishing is somewhere in the middle.

In an online article for, Sarah Fielding calls languishing the mood of 2021. Unlike the high energy “fight or flight” initial response to the pandemic, which was motivated by fear, languishing is characterized by apathy and listlessness.

Why is this important? First, if you are languishing, you are far from your ideal state. Second, in individuals prone to mental illness, languishing is often a prelude to worse conditions. Third, and most importantly, even if it is not a mental illness, there are ways to deal with languishing.

From Languishing to Flourishing

First, let’s talk about the goal: flourishing.

Keyes explains that mental health can be described using subjective well-being, a person’s perceptions of their own lives. This evaluation includes affective states or emotions, their psychological and social functioning, and their general sense of satisfaction about their life.

For those of us who are managers, it is important to remember that subjective well-being has been shown to have a positive correlation with improved functioning, including work performance. In fact, subjective well-being, includes the absence or presence of positive functioning.

Keyes explains that positive functioning involves six dimensions of psychological well-being: self-acceptance, positive relationships with others, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery and autonomy.

Looking at these six dimensions, it is clear how this pandemic has damaged our psychological well-being. It has taken away our sense of mastery over our environment and has certainly taken away much of our autonomy. Many of our freedoms have been taken away.

Now what? First, determine if you are languishing. If you are, do something about it. In her article, Fielding proposes methods for dealing with languishing: giving yourself some time off, engaging in activities you enjoy, and looking into therapy. Finally, she says getting vaccinated is a positive step towards taking back some mastery over your environment.

Looking at the six dimensions of psychological well-being, there are a few things we can add to this. Reach out to your family and friends. Find new things to engage in. Give yourself little wins. Learn something new. Get in touch with yourself. Reconnect to what is truly important. At the end of the day, flourishing begins with happiness. And happiness is about joy and about meaning. What gives you joy? What is meaningful to you? Find those things and find ways to engage in them. Take a deep breath. Grasp your joy.

Readers can email Maya at Or visit her site at


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