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  • Tamra Wright

Do Something Different: Languishing, Flourishing and the Need for Novelty

Part One:

Adam Grant’s recent New York Times article has catapulted a previously little-known psychological term into common discourse. “Languishing”, he explains, “is the neglected middle child of mental health.” If you’re not depressed, and also not flourishing, then you might be languishing:

You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.

Unsurprisingly, languishing appears to have become more prevalent during the pandemic. Drawing on some of the psychological components of flourishing, Grant suggests two antidotes to the boredom, brain fog and low mood associated with languishing:

1) deliberately engage in activities that are conducive to entering the “flow” state and

2) schedule some uninterrupted time so that you can enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes from making progress on your work or leisure projects

This is excellent advice from one of the world’s most influential management thinkers, and aligns well with both Martin Seligman’s PERMA model of human flourishing and Cal Newport’s approach to living a “deep life”. I would suggest, however, that if you want to overcome or avoid languishing, it would also be helpful to do the following:

1) reflect on how you are currently doing on each aspect of PERMA (Positive emotions, Engagement i.e. flow, Relationships, Meaning, Achievement);

2) ask yourself what small steps you can take to enhance each area of flourishing;

and, finally

3) actively seek out ways of introducing novelty into your schedule and activities.

I’m not a social scientist, but my intuition tells me that #3 may be the most important step during the pandemic, which has been described as “a vast uncontrolled experiment – not just in social isolation, which is bad enough, but in the deprivation of novelty”.

Image by ❤️A life without animals is not worth living❤️ from Pixabay

I wrote in a previous post about the ways in which our brains store routine experiences as a single memory. If we don’t do something different, days, weeks and even months can seem to disappear into the black hole of a single “Groundhog Day”. But the value of novelty is not just about building memories and having a richer sense of time. Recent research in self-determination theory suggests that satisfying our need for novelty is a key component of life satisfaction, and that novelty may even be a basic psychological need, alongside the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

I’ve made a few small changes to my lockdown lifestyle in the last couple of weeks. I experimented with working out in the afternoon instead of the morning, but I missed getting that mood boosting rush of endorphins early in the day, and the satisfaction of achieving something important before breakfast.

A more successful experiment was reorganising my home office. I moved my standing desk so that rather than looking out at the same old suburban street view, I can gaze upon a Kandinsky poster to my right, or look at the display of succulents, colourful vases and treasured mementos on the bookcases to my left. I overcame my long-standing scepticism about shopping for shoes online, and ordered a pair of eco-friendly trainers that actually fit and are giving me much joy. Following a tip from one of my fellow Tiny Habits coaches, I joined Toucan and started learning a few words of Italian with each online search. And I’m taking some time off this afternoon to meet a friend for coffee outside one of our local cafés, followed by a brief outing with my husband to a destination of his choice. I’ll keep you posted.

Part Two:

Yesterday’s coffee with my friend led to some completely unforeseen outcomes. Our chat reminded to get back in touch with a mutual friend, and when I spoke with her in the evening she had some great advice about my #CaptainTom100 challenge. (More on that shortly.)

My husband had planned a quick excursion to a pub in St Alban’s, where we sat in the garden and enjoyed our soft drinks and a different view. (We hadn’t been to a pub, café or restaurant together since September 2020.) Then back to my home office and another novel experience: the philosophy seminar I logged into was Zoom bombed. The organisers had to close the meeting, send everyone a new link (mine arrived by a circuitous route so I missed several minutes), and start again. My brain delighted in more novelty: a speaker I had never heard before, new ideas, and unfamiliar faces in those Zoom rectangles. It also turns out that we probably learned more because of the disruption at the beginning. According to Prof Richard A Friedman, studies show that

… exposure to even a little novelty can enhance learning in kids and in adults. For example, researchers at the University of Buenos Aires showed that a simple novel experience, such as a 20-minute new music or science experience one hour before a regular class, could improve long-term memory of the lesson.

So shake things up a bit! Your brain will thank you for it.

p.s. Please consider introducing novelty by participating in my #CaptainTom100 challenge. In just a few minutes a day, you will learn to make positive changes in your life by creating new habits that each take 30 seconds or less to perform. I’ll be on hand to guide you, via email, through this unique programme created by Dr BJ Fogg. Dr Fogg is the director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, and author of the recent bestseller Tiny Habits: Why Starting Small Makes Lasting Change Easy.

Note on Affiliates: Wherever possible I link book titles to my shop on the UK website. If you purchase a book through my link I earn a small commission. Bookshop is a wonderful alternative to Amazon, as it supports local independent bookshops. On their website they explain that “By design, we give away over 75% of our profit margin to stores, publications, authors and others who make up the thriving, inspirational culture around books!”

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