Editor's Choice

Languishing: How to Feel Alive Again in a World That Wears Us Down

Jasmine Gonzalez

March 07, 2024


Sociologist Corey Keyes demonstrates that flourishing doesn’t require an overhaul of our entire life but a steady practice of interpersonal connection and finding joy in the simple things.

Languishing: How to Feel Alive Again in a World That Wears Us Down by Corey Keyes, Crown 

I recently watched the documentary 20 Days in Mariupol, in which a team of Associated Press reporters documented the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine via the port city of Mariupol. The footage is brutal and heart-wrenching—a masterpiece of film that I’ll likely never watch again.

For several days afterward, I felt a deep sense of despair. With images of war fresh in my mind and news reports from other conflict zones like Gaza constantly popping up on my phone, the abstract and faraway now felt palpable, and I questioned if I was doing enough. My faith in humanity, in the innate goodness of other people, felt shot. I couldn’t help but look around at everything in my life and think, “Does any of this even matter?” 

No surprise, then, that when I came across Corey Keyes’ questionnaire on flourishing in the opening pages of the book Languishing, my scores in the social well-being section—did I think society was a good place, that people are basically good, that I had something important to contribute?—were worryingly low. 

These are the kinds of moments in life where languishing can take hold. “Languishing often sets in slowly and imperceptibly—and then suddenly, you’re engulfed in it,” Keyes writes. Languishing isn’t depression or burnout, although these can coexist at once and look similar. Rather, Keyes describes languishing as “a sense of low-grade mental weariness that can be easy to dismiss,” characterized by a flattening of emotions, apathy towards the people we care about and the activities we usually enjoy, and an overall sense of being without meaning or direction in our lives. 

The concept of languishing went viral when Adam Grant wrote an article for the New York Times in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in which he cited the science of human flourishing that Keyes had “been quietly studying for years. With this book, Keyes presents the full scope of his life’s work, defining the phenomenon of languishing, offering a comprehensive guide on how we can return to and maintain a state of flourishing, and all the while interweaving his life story with moving vulnerability. 

It’s easy to see why Grant’s article on Keyes’ research went viral precisely when it did: Keyes points to systemic social isolation and widespread loneliness as key factors that can cause languishing to take hold. “Prior to the twentieth century,” Keyes writes, “living alone was uncommon, and it remained so until about the last half of the century. Our ancestors slept together, worked together, and fought together.” Our society had already been trending towards increased isolation from friends and family before 2020 when the pandemic magnified it for everyone all at once. Suddenly, we were all primed to languish. 

In American culture, we’ve long attempted to mitigate the effects of loneliness by emphasizing a constant pursuit of happiness. But we’re meant, Keyes notes, to experience a full spectrum of emotions—and even multiple, seemingly conflicting feelings all at once—in response to the inevitable ups and downs the world throws at us. Happiness on its own can’t sustain one’s flourishing, and focusing too rigidly on any one emotion eventually foments the very anxiety and isolation we’re attempting to avoid. 

Keyes positions feelings and emotions more as the results of our state of flourishing rather than the building blocks of it. He instead identifies six domains of human excellence as the contributing factors of flourishing:  

  1. Acceptance: being accepting of our full selves and of others 
  2. Autonomy: being comfortable with independent thinking, decision-making, and expression 
  3. Connection: the ability to exist as part of a larger community and build warm, trusting relationships 
  4. Competence: making sense of a complex world and managing one’s daily existence within it 
  5. Mastery: an ongoing motivation to learn and grow 
  6. Mattering: feeling that one’s life is significant and that one is making a meaningful contribution to the world 

“Functioning well does not mean you have to be perfect, exceptional, or constantly exhibiting qualities of good mental health at the highest levels,” Keyes writes. “For us mere mortals, the real challenge is to exhibit positive qualities in the right amount and in as consistent—over time and context—a manner as possible.” 

Thinking back to the aftermath of watching 20 Days in Mariupol, I can see how my overwhelming sense of grief punched a hole clean through my sense of mattering. Here I was, witnessing one of many deadly conflicts happening in the world, and doing… what, exactly? In that moment, I had no clear answer. The things I usually took comfort in suddenly felt insignificant—how could I sit here and read a book or pause to listen to birds chirping on an unseasonably warm day when multiple wars were raging around the world? 

Had I held on too long to my grief, it’s feasible—and I say this both from experience and in light of what I’ve learned from Keyes’ research—that I might have withdrawn further into myself and started to severely languish. My senses of connection and acceptance could suffer if I started to see all people as inherently flawed and evil. My sense of competence could decline if I figured, “The world is a bad place—why bother doing more than the bare minimum to make it through the day?” And my sense of mastery would certainly have suffered—after all, it was the pursuit of knowledge that exposed me to this pain. If I chose to never seek out the unknown again, maybe I’d never feel this bad again, right? 

I believe things happen for a reason, however, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I was about to start reading this book soon after watching that documentary. When my foundations of wellbeing were at risk of destabilizing, I had a much clearer path for how to stay grounded. 

In the second half of the book, Keyes presents The Five Vitamins of Flourishing. These are the activities—often small yet impactful—that Keyes argues can guide us out of languishing when practiced often and in conjunction with each other. These Five Vitamins are:  

  1. Following your curiosity to learn something new 
  2. Building warm and trusting relationships 
  3. Moving closer to the sacred, the divine, and the infinite 
  4. Having and living your purpose 
  5. Playing 

Reading through Keyes’ analysis of each vitamin—in which Keyes skillfully pulls together deep interdisciplinary research bolstered by meaningful and relatable anecdotes—my first impression was that these solutions felt strangely simple, perhaps even conventional. Strengthen my social ties? Find something bigger than myself to believe in? Play? Hadn’t I heard this before? Don’t I instinctively know that these things will make me feel better? 

But this is, in fact, the genius of Keyes’ work. There is no gimmick to the guidance Keyes offers in these pages. There are no promises of shortcuts. The path out of languishing and towards flourishing doesn’t require an overhaul of our entire selves, but a steady, renewed practice of what we already know is good for us. It’s the spiritual equivalent of eating our fruits and vegetables rather than seeking a quick fix in a shiny new package. 

In order to flourish, we must train our minds to focus on what matters, to make conscious choices about how to best respond to the challenges and trials of life, to achieve a better balance of prioritizing feeling good with functioning well, and to be compassionate, both toward others and toward ourselves.

In the book’s final pages, Keyes reveals the full scope of childhood abuse and trauma he’d experienced, which he hints at throughout the book as the impetus for his lifelong dedication to the study of human flourishing. “The research that ultimately formed this book was a form of ‘me search.’ I wanted to turn my own emptiness and invisibility into something of substance that was meaningful, that would help others like me.”  

And indeed, Keyes’ efforts have paid off. Reading this book helped me to understand that all the small things that brought me joy, the daily moments of wonder that I’d wanted to dismiss as frivolous in the face of deep sadness, were in fact the things that I needed to find solace in, that would keep me going in the long run. As I started to write this review, I decided to revisit the questionnaire on flourishing that opened the book, and I was surprised to see that my scores had already gone up—in fact, I was only one point away from being able to say I was back to a state of proper flourishing.  

We live in a world where ugly things happen, where people are driven by their greed, their egos, and their own psychic wounds to inflict harm upon others. There is no justification for it—if only we could live in a world where no one suffered trauma of any sort. But instead of letting despair take hold, we can commit to creating small pockets of hope and joy in the world around us. “Let us always cherish, that in all things broken,” Keyes writes, “there is the possibility for healing, growth, discovery, and gifts.” 

In the aftermath of all of this—of watching the documentary that shook me to my core, of reading this book, of starting down the path of taking my Vitamins of Flourishing every day—I came across an article about beauty salons in wartime Ukraine. Even under the constant threat of death and destruction, there are Ukrainians who have turned their flourishing into a form of resistance, choosing to keep nourishing their community bonds and to care for one another in a circumstance meant to break their spirits. It’s proof that in the face of the seemingly insurmountable, we can always craft hope for ourselves. We can keep dedicating ourselves to fostering our own sense of flourishing and trust that every small effort we take for ourselves will eventually ripple far beyond us and make the world a slightly better place. 

“Fight for your flourishing,” Keyes writes in the final page of the book. “Trust that there is something beautifuller and beautifuller around every corner ahead. Flourishing, and no less, is what you deserve.” 


About Jasmine Gonzalez

Jasmine Gonzalez has been a part of the Porchlight marketing and editorial team since 2022. The youngest daughter of a high school history teacher and a local business leader, one of her earliest memories involves toddling over to the living room bookshelf and reading aloud all of the titles on the book spines. She’s been voraciously reading and writing in English and Spanish ever since. Outside of work, you can find her cooking intricate recipes, playing video games on vintage consoles, and fulfilling her role as the very cool aunt that gives books and Rolling Stones vinyls as gifts. Yes, she would like to befriend your dog.

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