By Morgan Bielawski
Illustration by Angela Eastman
Spring / Summer 2022 Issue
If you are waiting for a grand re-opening of the universe, you may be waiting indefinitely. Covid-19 shut us in our houses for a long Winter, and it might be time for you to make your own Spring.
The emerging field of Positive Psychology has been studying an emotional state called “flourishing” (or “thriving”) in a clinical petri dish for years now, and they’ve come to understand what makes it grow, what makes it stay, and what it may actually protect you from.
Yes, those untouchable, happy-go-lucky optimists do exist, running around making the rest of us “normal” depressives look like Wynona Ryder in Beetlejuice. But among the people who have crawled out of that ubiquitous pandemic emotion known as “languishing” are those who have done so on purpose, with a plan, and with the science of human happiness to back them.
At the beginning of the pandemic I found myself deeply interested in ceramics. I worked with clay for a few hours daily. I relished the colors that came out of the kiln and how they changed over the textures I designed. I enjoyed the texture of clay (even though it dried my hands out something fierce). One day, I stopped being able to derive pleasure from clay. My interest in working with it ceased. Anhedonia: the loss of pleasure. That is only one of the DSM-5’s nine symptoms of depression (among them vegetative or hyperactive malfunctioning, insomnia or hypersomnia, excessive or inappropriate feelings of guilt or worthlessness, and other serious symptoms).
But before you slide down into depression you hit Languishing. Languishing is not Major Depression. In fact, it is is not all that dissimilar from limbo; Limbo being “a place between heaven and hell for souls who are not damned but are denied joyful eternal life with God in heaven,” and languishing being “emptiness and stagnation,” in which a person is not “hopeless” or directly desirous of death so much as they feel “‘hollow.’”And as Adam Grant pointed out in his New York Times article “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s called Languishing,” this feeling “might be the dominant emotion of 2021.” That same emotion may follow us faithfully into 2022, but it does not have to follow us forever. There are ways we can fortify ourselves against this tarpit of stasis.
It is vital that we do assess ourselves for languishing because, according to researcher Corey Keyes, those of us who are languishing now will be much more likely to suffer from serious depression later.
Flourishing involves six components or “dimensions of psychological well being:” self-acceptance, positive relations with others, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, and autonomy. As Keyes explains, “people are functioning well when they like most parts of themselves, they have warm and trusting relationships, see themselves developing into better people, have a direction in life, are able to shape their environment to satisfy their needs, and have a degree of self-determination.” Easy, right? These dimensions may seem difficult to master when you think of them as something to have, but they are easier to accept if you think of them as something to work on, build, or slowly grow. If you don’t have a myriad of warm, trusting relationships around you, you can’t will yourself into one, or buy one at the grocery store, but you can make a point to call your former housemate, or text that person you sat next to you in Russian Language, or invite your downstairs neighbor to take a walk with you.
One thing that prevents us from making progress in these six domains is immediacy culture—the feeling that leads people to curse their computers for taking two whole, excruciating minutes to boot up. All six of these things require cultivation.
Our culture is very individual-oriented. It is still taboo to move cities for a partner, to leave a professional development opportunity to talk to a friend-in-need on the phone, to skip class because someone you love needs a ride to the airport, et cetera. Our cultural individualism makes the social dimension of mental health particularly important and especially tricky to practice.
For this reason, the second of the six dimensions of psychological well-being is vital. Keyes explains that the social dimension of well-being consists of social coherence, social actualization, social integration, social acceptance, and social contribution: “Individuals are functioning well when they see society as meaningful and understandable, when they see society as possessing potential for growth, when they feel they belong to and are accepted by their communities, when they accept most parts of society, and when they see themselves as contributing to society.” It is important to recognize here that these measures occur internally. That is to say, social wellness is about whether or not the individual feels accepted by her community, not whether or not she is accepted by it. Therefore, you can join as many gardening clubs as you want, but if you constantly convince yourself that everyone hates you there, you won’t reap the benefit of social integration. If you find yourself with this problem, work on accepting yourself, first.
Your interpersonal life is as important to your health as your intrapersonal one. This a scary verdict for many people—quarantine weakened the strength of many relationships, measures of social anxiety are on the rise, social skills have atrophied due to underuse, all of this is true. But, you are not alone in experiencing those setbacks. And, you have a long time to get these dimensions in the place that you want them. Plus, humans are as resilient as any animal I’ve known.
Filling ourselves with positive emotions—optimism, hopeful predictions, forgiving attitudes towards ourselves, flexibility—is actually counter to our “programming,” but it can be managed, and it gets easier the more you do it. Unfortunately for modern man, humans have a “negativity bias;” Nate Klemp PhD and Kaley Klemp explain, “Over the past thirty years, neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists have come to realize that the human brain isn’t wired to see life through the positive lens of appreciation. It’s wired to fixate on the negative—to experience life with a far more pessimistic mindset of vigilance and anxiety.” That makes sense. Our brain has changed very little from the time that we were hunter gatherers, or medieval villagers, and so on. We used to live in a world that required hypervigilance, so scanning for every single thing that could possibly be wrong was advantageous. Now, we are flooded with signals of what is wrong with our life, with our partner, with our apartment, et cetera. The Klemps encourage us to “work against our neurobiology.” What is good about your life, your partner, and your apartment? What do you have right in front of you? The more gratitude you cultivate, the more at ease you will feel. The human mind is reprogrammable.
I’d like to tell you that I’m working with clay every day again. I am not. I am however paying attention to colors and textures, I’m thinking about what I would like to do, instead of what I have to do. I am reaching out to friends and appreciating my life. I am reprogramming myself. I hope you are too. For my fellow skeptical Beetlejuice types, I’d like to offer one last idea: you don’t necessarily have to force your self-talk from negative (“I can’t do this”), all the way to positive (“I can do this”). Try instead a middle road of hopeful-ambiguous self-talk (Maybe I can do this. What if I can do this?). You would be surprised how much snow a “what if” can melt.
Morgan Bielawski is a contributing writer to The Documentarian and a multidisciplinary artist based in Nashville, T.N. They study regrowth through art, writing, and psychology.
“Depressive Disorders.” Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5, American Psychiatric Association, Arlington, VA, 2017, pp. 160–161.
Galen, Gillian, and Blaise A. Aguirre. DBT for Dummies. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2021.
Grant, Adam. “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Apr. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html.
Keyes, Corey L. M. “The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 43, no. 2, [American Sociological Association, Sage Publications, Inc.], 2002, pp. 207–22, https://doi.org/10.2307/3090197.
Klemp, Nate, and Kaley Klemp. 80/80 Marriage. Penguin Publishing Group, 2021.
“Limbo.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/topic/limbo-Roman-Catholic-theology.