Since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic we were forced to retreat into our homes causing a series of significant shifts in our psyche. We started living with uncertainty and longing for clarity, but as we disconnected from society, we also started disengaging with ourselves. Organizational psychologist and author Adam Grant points out that people began to experience feeling aimless and joyless, and no longer feeling excited. The term for this feeling is languishing, a term that was coined by a sociologist named Corey Keyes. Grant points out “[Keyes] was struck that many people who weren’t depressed also weren’t thriving and describes languishing as a sense of emptiness and stagnation. When you’re languishing, it feels like you’re muddling through your days looking through your life through a foggy windshield.” By that definition a resounding familiarity may have sparked in your thoughts, whether you’ve personally felt it or observed it in the behaviour of someone close to you. If you continued working or learning from home or online, or used to pandemic to change paths, start over and reinvent yourself, there was an undeniable shift in our level of motivation and focus, and we became further isolated from reality without even realizing it. We looked for ways to spend our time, keep our minds full, and our hands busy.
From engaging in home renovations, binge watching television shows, or experimenting with new culinary creations, we were in search of temporary solutions to keep us motivated and focused, but underneath, is it possible that we may not have noticed a much larger reveal? Grant delves deeper into this, noting “In the early days of COVID-19 a lot of us were struggling with fear, grief and isolation. But as the pandemic dragged on with no end in sight, our acute anguish gave way to chronic languish. Languishing is not unique to the pandemic. It’s part of the human condition. It can disrupt your focus and dampen your motivation and it’s a risk factor for depression because languishing often lurks beneath the surface. You’re indifferent to your own indifference which means you don’t seek help or might not do anything to help yourself.”
So how do we escape the deep undercurrent of languishing and resurface? Grant breaks this down for us. “The best predictor of well-being was not optimism but flow. Flow is that feeling of being in the zone, that state of total absorption in activity. Where you lose track of time and maybe of yourself. It’s a temporary escape. Peak flow depends on active participation in the real world. If languishing is stagnation, then flow involves momentum. Peak flow has three conditions – mastery, mindfulness and mattering. Mastery doesn’t have to be a big accomplishment it can be small wins. Mastery depends on a second condition for flow – mindfulness, which is focusing your full attention on a single task. Switching tasks creates time confetti where we take what could be meaningful moments of our lives and shred them. If we need to find flow, we needs better boundaries. We need to treat uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures to guard. We can find solace in experiences that capture our full attention. Mastery and mindfulness will get you to flow but a third condition turns it into a peak experience to get it to flow – mattering. Mattering is knowing that you make a difference to other people and being absorbed in a meaningful purpose. Our peak moments of flow are having fun with the people we love.”
Higher education institutions and leaders are undoubtedly experiencing languishing. They are seeing their teams and their students feeling helpless, unmotivated and lacking focus. And they are likely feeling it themselves as well. Think about the organizational structure, all of the countless policies and procedures and academic plans put in place, the planning of physical spaces, with countless hours put in so that the operations of the institution run smoothly and that the students get the most out of what they have to offer. But throw in isolation, adopting and imparting new learning structures and mediums, and taking away the human connection and it’s easy to suddenly feel helpless. Grant addressed mattering through the people in our lives and poses the question “who are the people that make your work matter?” In higher education it is the leaders and administrators we work with but also the students affected by the work we do and the decisions we make. For those in leadership positions, it is the people carrying out the tasks and the people benefitting from the overall productivity and accomplishments needed to make those leaders feel a sense of pride, that they have been influential, and that they have been supportive, that they have created safe and inclusive learning spaces while creating positive and lasting effects on the students they serve and the institutional reputation they are responsible for.
And how are the students affected? Grant notes that “even if you’re not languishing, you probably know people who are. Understanding it better can help you help them.” Students look to their higher education institutions to prepare them for their future careers. But that preparation also relies on being nurtured through social and emotional leadership. There has to be a level of empathy and care from those we look to for guidance in our higher learning institutions. Our leaders need to take bold action to embrace mastery, mindfulness and mattering into campus life. And creating understanding and care within the shared spaces will help students realize all of the conditions Grant outlined to reach their peak flow. Giving opportunities to demonstrate their mastery, tasks and activities to focus their attention on, and recognizing them as individuals that matter all contribute to the well-being of the students and a positive academic culture and experience. More than ever higher education and the leaders within play a critical role in pulling students out of their state of languishing to return and apply themselves as their best selves.
To be positive, hopeful, and more than okay pre pandemic would have been a huge ask. Throw in isolation, take away access to shared space, and mix it with uncertainty. This can only result in a decline of our well-being. People are constantly searching to matter and belong and creating the spaces to connect with other people and reconnect with ourselves is just as vital in our inner most personal road to recovery.