How to Reconnect with Your Potential When the World Starts to Feel Empty
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How to Reconnect with Your Potential When the World Starts to Feel Empty

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How to Reconnect with Your Potential When the World Starts to Feel Empty

Corey Keyes is a professor emeritus of Sociology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, where he held the Winship Distinguished Research Professorship. He was a member of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Aging. He has been called on to participate in several U.S. National Academies of Science initiatives and has been selected to give several honorary lectureships.

Below, Corey shares five key insights from his new book, Languishing: How to Feel Alive Again in a World That Wears Us Down. Listen to the audio version—read by Corey himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

Languishing Corey Keyes Next Big Idea Club

1. We are born into a world where others have defined what is and what is not important.

What is considered important gets our attention. What is deemed unimportant remains invisible. Nobody studied mental health before me. What serious scholars studied was mental illness. Mental health was the absence of mental illness. Mental health was an empty category that was, therefore, invisible.

Astronomers launch satellites with better telescopes to discover what’s never seen before. We social scientists make discoveries when we create measurement tools to observe and study what was invisible to prior generations. Over 20 years ago, I created a measurement tool with 14 questions to diagnose the presence and absence of good mental health, which I called flourishing and languishing. Both need more of our attention if we ever hope to solve the growing crisis of mental illness.

2. Languishing has been described as feeling “meh” or being “blah.”

Such descriptions don’t do it justice. So, let me give you a sampling of some of the 14 questions in my measurement tool.

People who languish don’t feel they belong to a community, aren’t making much of a contribution to the world, don’t like most parts of their personality, don’t have warm and trusting relationships, aren’t being challenged to become a better person, aren’t confident to think or express their own ideas and opinions, their life has no meaning or direction, and they don’t feel happy or satisfied with their life.

“To languish is to lose or never have many of the good things in life that make our lives matter and meaningful.”

It’s not one of those things, it’s the whole combination. You have to have the absence of at least seven of the 14 signs of flourishing. To languish is to lose or never have many of the good things in life that make our lives matter and meaningful. This is why people who languish sometimes describe themselves as “dead or dying inside.” If you stay there too long, languishing will put you at risk for a whole host of problems, not the least of which is depression.

3. Languishing is as important and serious as mental illness.

Languishing could be even more important than something as serious as clinical depression.
There are 13 reasons you will want to protect against the loss of flourishing if you or your loved ones are flourishing.

Flourishing protects against the following problems: suicide attempts and suicidality, self-harm other than suicide, addiction, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, relapse of mental illness, reduced work productivity, and premature death.

We could prevent and reduce the amount of problems like depression and anxiety if we take languishing and good mental health far more seriously. Why would you wait to let something as valuable as your mental health breakdown when there is nothing society can do to fix it once you become another mental illness statistic?

4. Flourishing is so much more than happiness.

We need to stop prioritizing happiness alone. I conducted a study to investigate how much young people prioritized each of the 14 signs of flourishing, asking them to rate how important each aspect of flourishing was to them and for their lives. Feeling good came in first place. Young people said happiness and satisfaction were the most important elements in their lives.

There are two aspects of functioning well when it comes to flourishing. One is called psychological well-being, which includes things like purpose in life, acceptance of yourself, personal growth, and positive relationships with others. All six aspects of psychological well-being came in second place in terms of importance.

“We need to prioritize functioning well over feeling happy.”

The other aspect of functioning well is called social well-being because it includes things like feeling integrated into a community, making a contribution to society, and being able to accept other people. All five aspects of social well-being were considered the least important.

Here is why that matters. People who are flourishing have the lowest rate of mental illnesses like depression. There is a sizeable group of young people who are flourishing when it comes to feeling good, meaning they feel happy or satisfied much of the time, but they are languishing when it comes to functioning well. The group that feels happy but isn’t functioning well has over five times the rate of depression than the group that is flourishing.

When happiness is not tethered to life where you have purpose, belonging, acceptance, personal growth, and other aspects of functioning well, it is not a very healthy form of happiness. It is like eating Cheetos all the time—it feels good but lacks any nutrition. A life that feels good but has no meaning or mattering lacks any substance. We need to prioritize functioning well over feeling happy.

5. There are five activities that flourishing individuals do more of each day, each week.

Those five activities are:

  • help others
  • learn something new
  • socialize
  • play
  • participate in spiritual or religious activities

These five activities are the five behavioral vitamins for a flourishing deficiency. Flourishers did more of each of those five activities, and as a result, they stayed flourishing.

The good news is that people who were depressed and those who were languishing moved closer and closer to flourishing when they did more of the five behavioral vitamins. The even better news is that you don’t need to reach flourishing before you experience the benefits of each movement up the continuum.

Some people see the world as it is and ask why. Some of us dreamed things that never were and asked why not. Do not be content to know why you are languishing. Dream of something that could be, and ask yourself, “Why not me?” Flourishing: Why not you?

To listen to the audio version read by author Corey Keyes, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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