• Despite having more technology and choices than ever before, many of us feel stuck and unmotivated

  • Mike James Ross, Sekoul Theodor Krastev and Dan Pilat explore the phenomenon of languishing

  • If you are feeling stuck, we have therapists available to help here

There’s a powerful gravity to modern life, pulling us toward routine, passivity, and meaningless actions. We’ve all been victims of this force. It lures us to the couch when we should go for a run. It tempts us to watch TV instead of starting that creative project. It hinders us from taking a chance on love, taking control of our lives, and living up to our true potential.

In short, a staple of modern life is being in a state of languish. Neither mentally healthy nor mentally ill, just in a generalised “blahness.” Coined by Corey Keyes in the early 2000s, languish is an emptiness and stagnation, constituting “a life of quiet despair.” People who languish describe themselves and their lives as “hollow,” “empty,” “a shell,” and “a void.” As eloquently expressed by Adam Grant in his widely read New York Times piece, languishing comes with “the dulling of delight and the dwindling of drive.”

How did we get here? 

How is it possible that in an era that has blessed us with longer life expectancy, and in societies with unprecedented comfort and security, we find ourselves grappling with escalating depression, anxiety, and suicide rates

Why is it that the same modern technology and tools that have made us almost godlike compared to our ancestors leave many of us feeling powerless? 

How is it that workplaces, that have never cared so much about fostering purpose and meaning, feel meaningless and empty? 

And why is it that more people than ever express a sense of disengagement or loss of interest and motivation?

The root of this disengagement is tremendously complex. One reason is that many of us live in an era of ease and convenience, where everything is taken care of. And in our work, we strive for higher and higher levels of specialisation. So we can be more efficient. So we can be more successful. But while we were busy delegating the mundane to gain that success, we also delegated our agency along with it. We’ve created a world where each of us has limitless options and no real choices, and our answer to that is to disengage and stop fully participating in our lives.

As far as the eye can see

Now for the good news: languishing and disengagement aren’t necessarily signs of personal failure. They’re often consequences of our environment. Think of the last time you felt that you weren’t where you should be, and instead of making the effort to change your circumstance, you felt there was no hope. When we languish, we feel a combination of “I need to get out of here” and “meh, not likely,” and too often we then opt not to act.

While it’s tempting to blame the rise of the internet and our increasing lack of community, languishing isn’t entirely new. In the late 1800s, Émile Durkheim used anomie to describe the sense of disconnection that modern production lines created in industrial laborers. Even Plato identified a similar feeling in akrasia: a strong sense of “I should,” followed by acting against our better judgment and not doing anything.

Languishing isn’t limited to western society either—take Japan’s hikikomori movement. The country’s economic stagnation in the 1990s, combined with social pressure and mental health challenges, resulted in a modern-day hermit movement. Up to a million Japanese citizens live as recluses, remaining at home while avoiding work and personal connections. Hikikomori is even thought to be growing, not just in Japan, but globally.

Languishing and self-destruction

In response to our loss of agency, we find ways to take control of our lives. But our usual responses tend to cause more harm than help. There are extremes, like the abuse of alcohol or drugs, but also small day-to-day behaviours: bingeing meaningless television shows, neglecting our physical health, eating too much sugar, or failing to make time for quality connections.

Why do we turn to self-destructive choices? Edgar Allen Poe explained our tendency to procrastinate when we know we shouldn’t, calling this The Imp of the Perverse:

We have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action. We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work, with the anticipation of whose glorious result our whole souls are on fire. It must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off until to-morrow, and why?

Our self-destructive choices are evidence of how our deep-seated drive for agency manifests itself wherever it can. Sometimes it feels like the only decisions we get to make are bad ones. Take the modern phenomenon of bàofùxìng áoyè, or as it’s translated from Chinese, “revenge bedtime procrastination.” Journalist Daphne K. Lee used the term to describe what happens when individuals “who don’t have much control over their daytime life refuse to sleep early in order to regain some sense of freedom during late-night hours.”If you’ve ever done something that you know is bad for you just to feel free, you’ll understand this.

Suggestions for overcoming bad bedtime habits generally come in the form of establishing rules for better sleep discipline, like avoiding technology before bed. But revenge bedtime procrastinators know the tips and tricks for better sleep and still choose to stay up. As one bedtime procrastinator put it, “It’s a way of revolting against all the obligations that you have. Because, well, my life, and I think the life of most adults, consists of lots and lots of obligations.” 

These procrastinators are simply reclaiming freedom via one of the only outlets they have. We don’t need a reminder to put down our phone before bedtime. We need space to make choices for ourselves. We need to exercise the basic human need to decide our own destiny. If you relate to the bedtime procrastinator—perhaps to a lesser extreme or in another domain—you’re not alone. In our survey, 63% of people agreed they sometimes do things that are bad for them just to feel like they’re in control. 

So, the next time you find yourself scrolling rather than sleeping, realise that part of the reason you’re doing so is that you want to feel free to choose (and that maybe there’s a healthier way to feel that).

Mike James Ross, Sekoul Theodor Krastev and Dan Pilat are the authors of Intention: The Surprising Psychology of High Performers 

Further reading

What stops us from changing?

Feel busy all the time? You might have more control than you think

What counselling (and lobsters) can teach us about change and vulnerability

Is it time to stop holding yourself back?

Why self-compassion is the key to success


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2. Grant, A. (2021, December 3). Feeling blah during the pandemic? It’s called languishing. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html.

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8. Poe, E. A. (2021). The imp of the perverse. Lindhardt og Ringhof.

9. Liang, L. (2022, February 25). The psychology behind “revenge bedtime procrastination.” BBC. https://www.bbc.co.uk/worklife/article/20201123-the-psychology-behind-revenge-bedtime-procrastination.

10. Nauts, S., Kamphorst, B. A., Stut, W., De Ridder, D. T., & Anderson, J. H. (2019). The explanations people give for going to bed late: A qualitative study of the varieties of bedtime procrastination. Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 17(6), 753–762.