Early in the pandemic, Mission in Motion published a post about a widely read article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.” That piece provided a common vocabulary early in the shared experience of lockdown and identified the need to acknowledge and name our emotions in order to avoid becoming overcome by them. In response to that article, I offered the Ignatian practice of the Examen as a way of getting in touch with our temporary emotions and reflecting on how we might face the challenges of each uncertain day early in the pandemic. More than a year into COVID-19, another widely circulated article has provided an opportunity to explore the Examen as a possible response to a somewhat newly articulated concept of “languishing.”
Adam Grant in the New York Times recently published “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing” about the phenomenon of languishing, which falls on the mental health spectrum between depression and flourishing. Depression, on the one hand, Grant calls “the valley of ill-being: You feel despondent, drained, and worthless,” and flourishing, on the other hand, Grant calls “the peak of well-being: You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery, and mattering to others.” Languishing, a term first articulated by the sociologist Corey Keyes, falls somewhere in between and receives less attention in mental health literature and it refers to the absence of well-being:
“Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health: 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. It appears to be more common than major depression – and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.”
Some of the hallmarks of languishing, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic, include constant distractibility, an inability to focus, and feeling let down by regular experiences that may have once delighted you, like an afternoon walk. And, Grants says, you may not seek help or even try to help yourself because you do not realize that you are suffering. So what, if anything, can be done in response to this common and shared experience of languishing?
The antidote to languishing offered by Grant is the concept of “flow,” a term from the school of positive psychology that means an “elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self melts away.” Mindful that many barriers exist to flow experiences because of the demands of work, childcare, and other obligations, Grant outlines a few suggestions for entering into periods of flow, like giving yourself some uninterrupted time each day, focusing on small goals with a “just-manageable difficulty,” and carving out time to focus on a challenge that matters most to you.
The notion of flow as an antidote to languishing has a clear and relevant link to Ignatian spirituality and the practice of the Examen. In his article “Towards an Ignatian Spirituality of Study” in Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits, the Jesuit Nicholas Austin makes an explicit connection between the Ignatian idea of consolation and the flow concept:
“I would claim that there is indeed an ‘affinity’ between flow and consolation. Most of the essential elements of flow equally characterize experiences of consolation: the sense of effortlessness yet full engagement, a loss of any anxiety or preoccupations, self-forgetfulness during the experience, growth in a sense of self following the experience, a concentrated attentiveness and so on.”
Austin goes on to note that the compatibility between these two ideas is not a perfect match since flow experiences do not necessarily relate to God but Austin concludes that Ignatian spirituality, and the practice of the Examen, welcomes the relationship. Any time an individual increases their awareness of their flow experiences, a possibility arises of noticing at a deeper level, either explicitly or implicitly, the work of the Spirit in one’s life.
Interested in exploring the Examen as a possible response to feelings of languishing that you’ve experienced? Here are two suggestions:
- Check out this piece in Mission in Motion about the Examen and how it can be practiced in daily life: “The Examen: A Resource for Understanding Your Feelings”
- Please consider participating in the SCS Daily Digital Meditation offered Monday through Friday at 12:00 p.m. ET over Zoom (click here to participate). The final meditation of each week, on Friday, is a guided Examen for 10-15 minutes inviting participants in silence to review their experiences of the past week. Please join us!