The Dominant Emotion of 2021? Languishing. The Best Antidote? Getting into the “Flow State”

By Thierry Malleret, economist 

In 2021, the most-read NYT article (published on April 19) was about ‘languishing’ – the ennui caused by the pandemic, which the organizational psychologist Adam Grant described as “the void between depression and flourishing…a sense of stagnation and emptiness…the absence of wellbeing.” The joyless and aimless sentiment of languishing may be remembered as the dominant emotion of 2021, a common affliction shared by so many individuals and that could well endure into 2022 and beyond.  

What’s the best antidote? Grant recommends ‘flow’–the rather elusive state of absorption where one’s sense of place, self, and time melts away. Academic research suggests that, during the early days of the pandemic, flow, rather than optimism or mindfulness, was the best predictor of wellbeing. People who became more immersed in their projects managed to avoid languishing and maintained their pre-pandemic happiness. 

If flow is so important, it follows that being the master of our own time matters considerably. To be able to benefit from uninterrupted time is priceless: It offers us the chance to focus and not to fall prey to distraction (which is not only the enemy of productivity but also of mental wellbeing). But mastering our own time doesn’t equate to managing it obsessively with the unattainable goal of achieving total control. As Olivier Burkman just demonstrated in his recently published Four Thousand Weeks – Time Management for Mortals, the more we try to control time, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life becomes 

As ever-increasing academic evidence continues to confirm that overly-long working hours and time productivity techniques destroy wellbeing, we might reflect on the central question of Four Thousand Weeks (the average human life span): how would we spend a week if we knew it were our last? It’s much more than a hypothetical question and one that the wellness industry ought to address head-on. 

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