9 min read

The Big Idea: Are We All Languishing? Plus, The Joyless Age, and What Happens When a World Has Nothing to Look Forward To

The Big Idea: Are We All Languishing? Plus, The Joyless Age, and What Happens When a World Has Nothing to Look Forward To

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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  1. The Toxic Culture at Tesla (A superb read from the Nation, don’t miss.)
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  3. Teen Girls Confront an Epidemic of Deepfake Nudes in Schools (NYT)
  4. Unseasonal wildfires beset midwest: ‘The strangest winter I’ve ever seen’ (The Guardian)
  5. Italy has launched its digital nomad visa: Here’s who is eligible and how to apply (EuroNews)
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Hi! How’s everyone. Happy…Weekend (despite that pretty dire mouthful of a title, sorry about that, here’s a Snowy hug.) One of the reasons I set up The Issue was to introduce you to Big Ideas. So here’s one that I think is a biggie: it’s called languishing.

It’s intimately related to much of what we’ve discussed lately—a world going backwards, the feeling of despair and trauma, a sense of hopelessness. It comes from Corey Keyes, who’s an eminent psychologist—here’s how he puts it

“Languishing is the absence of well-being. It is when people feel they have nothing positive going on in their lives. No meaning. No mattering. No warm, trusting relationships. No happiness or joy. Yet it doesn’t necessarily mean negative emotions like sadness or fear. People who are languishing almost feel nothing. They describe it as being numb or dead inside. I call languishing the neglected middle child of mental health, since it falls between mental illness and mental well-being.”

What a brilliant and beautiful idea. Why do I say that? Think of what I call “the Modern Crisis of Being”: the notion that well-being is in crisis around the globe, and we’ll come back to that. Languishing is sort of the cousin to it. 

Here’s another way to think about it: we often discuss the notion of economic stagnation. Languishing is sort of the humanistic equivalent—or consequence, as we’ll discuss—of it. Just as stagnation is the absence of growth, the real thing, a civilization or society’s surplus growing—and you can see how climate change is eating ours away, as is inequality—so too languishing is the absence of well-being.

I wonder: can you see languishing at work around you? Or are you even languishing?

(Almost) Everybody I Know is…Languishing

Remember the story I told you just the other day? Three young women work at my cafe. It turns out that one’s a lawyer, one’s a recognized artist, and one’s a nurse. I joked that it’s the most educated cafe in the world, but it was funny because it’s so commonplace to find such a situation. Yet such a situation is absurd: such accomplished people should’t be relegated to… serving an idiot like me coffee.

The bright young women working at my little cafe are languishing. Their lives should be devoted to better things—and Cory, who’s a positive psychologist, would call those things meaning and purpose and fulfillment. What are those? Purpose comes to us through the elevation of others, meaning is what we find in our connection to the world, and fulfillment is seeing our lives and those of our loves ones take fruition—we’ll come back to all that, too. 

The girls at the cafe might not like it if I put it that way: if I said they’re languishing. Or maybe they would: one that just quit was an accomplished film-maker, and luckily, she got enough work again not to have to…languish. There’s nothing wrong with making coffee, by the way, if that’s your life’s burning ambition, but for this bunch…it’s emphatically not. It’s what they’ve been forced into, and it feels to them as if their lives are stuck.

Yet if I expand my vision, I realize, pretty quickly, that most people I know are…languishing. Even ones who are very different from the girls at the cafe, who are bright young things. My middle aged friends? A couple made it big—basically, got lucky, in lotteries of careers or startups—but for the most part, they’re deeply frustrated, stuck, and feel awful about…all of it. Two of my friends are a couple, a lawyer and a tech guy, and they had to move from the town we all grew up in—unaffordable. So there they are, in a place they don’t want to live, feeling disoriented—after all, if a doctor and an engineer can’t “make it,” who can?

And that’s what the data say. This isn’t about my friends—they’re just examples of a much, much larger trend. Remember, young people, the majority of them, feel “numb,” “completely overwhelmed,” and “unable to function.” Why? Because they’re languishing. Downward mobility is the norm now, and few expect their kids and grandkids to have better lives then they did. In other words, we’ve come to sort of expect languishing as the predetermined socioeconomic outcome in an age of collapse.

Civilizational Flickering and Human Languishing

Not so long ago, we talked about another Big Idea: flickering, or how systems begin to flicker on and off, just before they go out. Like, of course, a candle. Flickering’s already being observed in some of our earth systems—and I think we can observe in the economy, too, which flickers, instead of providing an upward trajectory of living standards anymore. And as the economy flickers, you can very clearly observe, ominously, democracy itself begin to flicker—Trump-Biden-Trump is sort of literally flickering at a civilizational level.

Languishing is kind of the human counterpart of flickering. Systems flicker—and as they do, people languish. Think of why young people are languishing: they’re bearing the brunt of what’s come to be called polycrisis—everything from stagnant economies to climate change to democracies tearing themselves apart. So because all those systems are flickering, young people’s opportunities are shrinking dramatically and radically—and their lives begin to languish.

But it’s hardly just young people. Middle-aged people find themselves stuck in careers which seem to offer no upward mobility. Aging people who expected to retire comfortably find themselves less and less able to do it. Parents who just wanted to raise kids and now find the costs of university and so forth completely devastating—another example. All of these are lead to the emptiness and despair of languishing, too.

The Joyless Age

So languishing is what happens as living standards stagnate and begin to fall—and that’s the hallmark of this age. We’ve had such a dramatic upwards rise, an explosion, in living standards, that we came to expect such progress was “natural,” and would last forever. Today, we’re finding out the hard way that no such thing is the case.

Cory’s focus is on the psychological dimensions of languishing—as he says, people can feel nothing. Think about that for a moment. Doesn’t this age seem kind of, well, joyless to you? It does to me. It’s a time of spite, conflict, bile, and rage—one where happiness and its overt expressions seem almost out of place. 

People seem to be the walking wounded these days, and it’s not too hard to understand why. As living standards decline, they face “stressors”—a sort of explosion of them. So today, people face this dizzying array of stressors—finances, the future, politics, keeping a career going, providing for the family, all stuff that didn’t used to be so stressful not too long ago. And atop that comes an implosion in social bonds, which adds to the distress, creating stressors of loneliness, emptiness, and a lack of friends to turn to. 

I think all that’s why this age is so joyless, or at least the beginnings of it. Then there’s the future. We used to celebrate the future. Look forward to it, not just personally, but socioculturally, waiting for the now-proverbial “flying cars” or what have you—by that, we meant we expected further near-miraculous rises in living standards. But the future didn’t turn out that way. Now, thinking about is profoundly stressful, in both personal and social terms. Nobody I know much enjoys pondering their own future, in this uncertain time, and when they’re forced to think about everyone’s future, they sort of can’t bring themselves to, or joke bleakly about how we don’t have one and we’re “all going to die,” and so forth and so on. 

What do we look forward to now? Not much of anything, so far as I can see. Not the next election—who really wants a Biden-Trump rematch? Not the economy, which is going to deliver stagflation until the forests burn out. Society, pitted at its own throat? How about technology—once, that used to be sort of a source of joy and optimism. Today, it’s AI waging war, and coming for your job. We don’t have much left to look forward to, and that’s not a call for you to strain to produce some sort of list of forced optimism—it’s just an observation, whose examples are endless these days. 

Here’s another one: the demagogues, micro and macro, and that means not just Trump, but the crazy kind on YouTube, too, who promote violence against women or what have you, precisely because people have nothing to look forward to anymore. And so hey, why not take the rage out on some innocent social group? Just give me someone to hate, because my life feels…


What Happens When a World Has Nothing to Look Forward To?

Cory, being a positive psychologist, highlights meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. And in our age, the swift decline in living standards is producing a kind of explosive decrease in all those those. Think about how much harder it is today to find, be, give, create, share all those things than it was just a decade ago. Think of how joyless that makes life feel. 

And then think of how having nothing much to look forward to creates a kind of existential fear and rage, even in people like you and me, who are civilized and tolerant and kind. Now think of what it does to people who aren’t as strong as us—who are morally, socially, emotionally weaker. You begin to understand just why the world is in such a dark, dire place, not just psychologically, but politically and socially, too.

For all those reasons, and many more, I think languishing is a Big Idea. Like Cory, I’m sort of a pioneer in well-being too—in economics. And in more formal terms, what Cory’s done is provide us a sort of way to begin making a paradigm shift. “An absence of well-being” gives us a lot to chew on.

Like what? Cory provides, if you read the article, five recommendations not to languish. They’re micro-recommendations, in the sense that if you do these things, like helping people, or finding spirituality, and so forth, you’ll feel more meaning and purpose. But the question is the one that ever rises when psychology and society collide. 

If this tidal wave of languishing is produced by broken systems and institutions, then to what extent is the solution to it individual? To what extent can the solution to it be? That’s an unfair question, because of course, Cory’s goal isn’t fixing the system, just aiding people in their quest for well-being. But when we have these discussions, the sort of elephant in the room is: if our world is broken because our systems and institutions are, if they can’t provide us stable careers, social bonds, financial security, a sense that we matter, the recognition that we count, and much, much more—then to what extent will we just…languish…more and more…no matter our daily habits?

That’s a tough question. The economist in me has a tough answer, too. We have to reinvent and reform our systems. One failure was when they couldn’t generate higher living standards, and generations fell into downwards mobility. But today we stand atop the rubble of another failure, which is that having consigned people to languish, those groups turned, in their despair, meaninglessness, emptiness, and lack of purpose, to demagogues, and now the pillar of civilization, democracy itself, is imperiled around the globe. We need to fix our systems, as I’ve always said, for eudaimonia, which is the presence of well-being, because right now, they’re producing languishing, which is its opposite.

I hope that helped you make sense of this troubled age a little bit. Cory’s idea, like I said, is a brilliant and beautiful one—just the kind we need if we’re to make the paradigm shifts we need to get out of the mess we’re in. Thanks for reading, comment away, let me know if you’re languishing, if you can see it in your friends, loved ones, the world around you, and what you think about it all (and thanks, Cory, for this breakthrough in human thought.)

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