Book review: Languishing by Dr Corey Keyes

Feeling demotivated and as if you are running on empty? A new book looks at the rise of languishing and investigates what can be done to counter it.

Illustration showing three women with batteries running low


Many of us have felt like we’ve been running on empty in the last few years. We’re not exactly depressed or burnt out in that we can still function, but we may be finding it difficult to focus and feel a sense of weariness that is hard to shake. 

A new book hones in on that feeling. Languishing by Dr Corey Keyes, professor emeritus at Emory University, is based on an article he wrote in the New York Times which was the paper’s most read, most shared and most cited article of 2021. It identifies the symptoms and prescribes a way of addressing them. Those symptoms include a sense of emotional flatness, brain fog and inevitability, procrastination, disconnection and pointlessness. Languishing differs from depression and burnout, but there are crossovers. Burnout, for instance, can lead to languishing. And languishing can be a gateway, argues Dr Keyes, to serious mental illness.

Dr Keyes comes at languishing from the perspective of years spent investigating what makes for good mental health, or flourishing. For him there has been too much of a focus on diagnosing and treating mental illness and not enough on what makes us flourish. He sees languishing as the absence of wellbeing. By putting a name to the feeling that so many of us have these days, he says we can start to understand what causes it, how it impacts us and what we can do about it. The book looks at the myriad ways our society conspires to encourage languishing and says we have set things up perfectly to allow it to grow.

Promoting wellbeing

For Dr Keyes, languishing is likely to occur at three main transition points in our lives – when we transition to adulthood, when we start careers and families and in old age.

Factors that increase a sense of languishing in that middle transition period include a lack of support in high-stress work environments, but many are interlinked, from a loss of purpose and a lack of autonomy to a sense of loneliness. These then open people up to other problems, given those who have a higher sense of wellbeing are more resilient to episodes of stress and adversity. While society is in part to blame for the problem, it takes both societal and individual effort to counter it, argues Dr Keyes.

That means doing the work to understand yourself and your reactions to different stresses and attempting to change these as well as tackling inequality and rampant individualism in order to create the conditions for people to build meaningful social connections.

Dr Keyes states: “Good mental health is not a null category; it is filled with the ingredients of flourishing: purpose in life, belonging, contribution to society, acceptance on oneself, acceptance of others, warm and trusting relationships, autonomy, personal growth, and more. Flourishing is filled with the things that make life worth living, that bring quality to whatever quantity of life we are granted.”

And he ends the book with a rallying cry: “Fight for your flourishing.”

*Languishing: How to feel alive again in a world that wears us down by Dr Corey Keyes is published this month by Penguin.

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