How Are You?

I see the faces, or rather the eyes behind the masks of people on the street and in the grocery store. Those are my only interactions with the world these days and though limited, those eyes tell the story of our collective sense of being. We are weary. Not every day perhaps, but many days. This new wave, that feels like a tsunami, has flatted the sense of hope for many of us, has crushed the intention of making plans. I watch people drag their feet around the grocery store, as though they feel invisible behind their masks. Some days, I feel suspended, disconnected, a bit like a marionette where Covid is holding the strings. It has become almost impossible to look ahead. Adam Grant borrows a term for what people might be feeling – languishing.

Languishing is the “neglected middle child of mental health,” says Adam Grant in a New York Times piece published April 2021. Grant is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in organizational psychology. I should have taken his class. I have no organizational talents, psychologically or otherwise. Grant has spent his career studying motivation. I recently listened to Grant’s Ted talk recorded September 7, 2021 – How to stop languishing and start finding flow. His suggestions made good sense to me. Check it out if you have time on your hands.

Grant says languishing, an expression coined by psychologist Corey Keyes, is stagnation with a sense of being aimless and joyless. The opposite of stagnation is flow or momentum. To create flow, Grant says we need three things – mastery, mindfulness, and mattering. Mastery can be small wins, doing something well. Mindfulness is staying on one task for a prolonged period with focused attention. When we can’t do things in a mindful manner, we are shredding what could have been meaningful moments into small and useless pieces, or time confetti. Some days I feel my brain is spinning, and I can’t slow it down. Grant says long periods of time away from devices and without interruption is essential for our well-being. Mattering may be the most important element to counteract languishing, the need to feel we are making a difference with what we are doing. We need to know we matter, especially to those we love.

The importance of naming languishing and the overwhelming response Grant received for his writing on the subject is it helped people to recognize how they were feeling because, as he says, we can be “indifferent to our indifference” and it can also be hard to talk about. People expect us to be positive and optimistic and if we aren’t feeling that way people are inclined to tell us to count our blessings. Researchers found early on in the pandemic, that optimism or as Grant calls it, toxic positivity, does not indicate emotional well-being. Flow is the indicator, and flow happens when we are absorbed in whatever it is we are doing be it knitting or going for a walk or folding laundry or shovelling the driveway or solving world poverty.

How can we know we are making a difference? How are you is not a throw away greeting phrase; it means something. When you use those words, wait for a response, let the sound of your voice tell the person you want to know how they are. Look at them directly and pause. We can no longer share smiles with most of our face covered by a mask, but our eyes smile and smiling at one another has never been more important.

This morning I put my feet purposefully on the floor when I got out of bed, determined to do battle with this sense of languishing. The sun is shining today as I write this, and I am going to gently work on my state of mind. A sunny day seems a good time to start. How are you?