From languishing to flourishing

Think of a line, a continuum or spectrum of feeling with depression on one end and flourishing on the other. In between is something called languishing. And that’s worth some serious consideration, because as Wharton psychologist Adam Grant says, “it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”

This dominance is due to the social effects of the pandemic, the ways it has interrupted and disrupted our lives, communities, work, recreation, and relationships. Still, it’s reassuring to know it isn’t a new phenomenon. Consider this, for example, from the Memoir of William Carey published in 1836 by Carey’s son, Eustace. William Carey (1761-1834) was an extremely gifted man, a linguist, missionary, and educator who accomplished an astonishing number of good things during his life. At the point he entered this in his journal, it seems safe to say he didn’t consider himself in top form:

I am very defective in all duties, both with respect to the matter and manner of them. In prayer I wander, and am formal, not having that lively sense of my wants which is necessary to wrestling with God. I ask for blessings, yet seem almost contented to go without obtaining them. I soon tire; devotion languishes; and I do not walk with God, considering myself always as in his sight. (p. 158)

Full disclosure: this could have been extracted from my journal. If I kept a journal, which I don’t, because experiencing this sort of thing is bad enough without keeping track of it. Christian faith will not keep us from languishing at times or guarantee a continual state of flourishing.

In “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling” (New York Times; 04/19/2021) Grant defines languishing as “a sense of stagnation and emptiness.”

It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield… It’s 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.

“Flourishing,” Grant says in contrast, “is the peak of well-being: You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others.”

Journalist Dani Blum picks up the conversation in “The Other Side of Languishing is Flourishing: Here’s How to Get There,” also in the New York Times (05/04/2021). “Flourishing really is what people are ultimately after,” she quotes Tyler VanderWeele as saying. “It’s living the good life. We usually think about flourishing as living in a state in which all aspects of a person’s life is good.”

This raises lots of fascinating questions that would be delightful to discuss with a group of friends. How would we define flourishing? Since no one can have every aspect of life be fully good, what aspects of life need to be good to qualify as flourishing? And how good do they need to be?

Grant and Blum point to psychological research demonstrating that ordinary people can take ordinary steps to help move themselves from languishing towards flourishing. Blum lists seven things the studies suggest will help:

Assess yourself.
Savor and celebrate small things.
Express gratitude.
Do five good deeds.
Look for communities and connection.
Find purpose in everyday routines.
Try something new.

Grant suggests two others:

Give yourself some uninterrupted time regularly.
Focus on a small goal.

Besides the research indicating these simple actions can help, it seems to me that there is a measure of common sense and an echo of wisdom in them. I tend not to be very impressed with self-help schemes but these suggestions touch on some of what it means to be a person in the world God has made.

Besides assessing ourselves, this suggests significant opportunities to walk alongside and love others. “Even if you are not languishing,” Grant says, “you probably know people who are.”

This means the followers of Jesus should consider—after reading the two articles thoughtfully—what resources Christian faith provides to help people move from languishing to flourishing. I’m not suggesting faith simply solves the problem—I’ve already argued that it doesn’t—and any sort of sentimentality that suggests it does must be rigorously disowned. Still, Christian faith does provide rich resources, including, to mention just three, God’s calling on our lives to provide purpose; worship and prayer as regular expressions of gratitude; and the church as a functioning, living community in word, sacrament, and covenantal relationships. Finally, besides determining how to embrace these resources ourselves, we’ll need to explore how to speak of them in our pluralistic and increasingly post-Christian world. More specifically, how to bring them intentionally and creatively into conversation with our non-Christian friends and neighbors without ending the conversation.

The conversation that begins with sharing a common sense of Blah can soon touch on the deepest questions of life and reality. “There are lots of American adults,” Blum quotes Emory University sociologist Corey Keyes as saying, “that would meet the qualifications of feeling happy, but they don’t feel sense of purpose. Feeling good about life is not enough.”

Sounds rather like something Jesus said.


Photo credit: Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash


For further reading: Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World by Miroslav Volf (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; 2015). In this book, Dr. Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale, addresses a claim that is seriously challenged in our pluralistic world. “The claim is this: far from being a plague on humanity, as many believe and some experience, religions are carriers of compelling visions of flourishing. In this book, I highlight key elements of these visions in world religions, sketch why they are needed in a globalized world, and explore how religions can advocate and embody them peacefully and in concert while taking seriously the claims to truth they make” (p. xi).