It wasn’t exhaustion – we still had energy. It wasn’t depression – we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt a little joyful and pointless. It turns out that there is a name for this: suffering.
Langi is a feeling of stagnation and emptiness. It seems as if you are confusing your days, looking at your life with a foggy windshield. And it could be the dominant emotion of 2021.
While scientists and doctors are working to treat and cure the physical symptoms of long-term Covid, many people are struggling with the emotional long-term pandemic. It hit some of us unprepared as last year’s intense fear and grief disappeared.
In the early uncertain days of the pandemic, probably your brain’s threat detection system – called the amygdala – was very alert for combat or flight. When you found out that masks helped protect us – but not bag rubbing – you probably developed routines that eased your fear. But the pandemic continued, and the acute anguish gave way to constant suffering.
In psychology, we think of mental health in a spectrum from depression to flowering. Blooming is the pinnacle of well-being: You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and importance for others. Depression is the valley of ill health: You feel discouraged, dehydrated and worthless.
Langa is the neglected middle child of mental health. It is the void between depression and flowering – the absence of well-being. You have no symptoms of mental illness, but neither are you the image of mental health. You are not working fully. Limiting hinders your motivation, interrupts your focusing ability and triples the odds that you will reduce work. It seems to be more common than major depression – and in a sense it can be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.
The term was coined by a sociologist named Corey Keyes, who struck that even people who have not been depressed do not thrive. His research suggests that the people most likely to experience major depression and anxiety disorders in the next decade are not the ones with those symptoms today. They are the people who are suffering now. And new evidence from pandemic health workers in Italy shows that those who suffered in spring 2020 were three times more likely than their peers to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Part of the danger is that when you suffer, you may not notice the emptying of joy or the diminution of driving. You don’t catch yourself sliding slowly into solitude; you are indifferent to your indifference. When you can’t see your own suffering, you don’t seek help or even do much to help yourself.
Even if you don’t suffer, you probably know people. A better understanding of it can help you help them.
NAME FOR WHAT YOU FEEL
Psychologists find that one of the best strategies for managing emotions is to name them. Last spring, during the sharp anguish of the pandemic, the most viral poster in Harvard Business Review history was an article describing our collective discomfort as sadness. Along with the loss of loved ones, we mourned the loss of normalcy. “Sadness.” It gave us a familiar vocabulary to understand what felt to me like an unknown experience. Although we have not previously faced a pandemic, most of us have suffered a loss. It has helped us crystallize lessons from our own past resilience – and gain confidence in our ability to face present adversity.
We still have a lot to learn about what causes suffering and how to cure it, but naming it could be a first step. It could help hinder our vision, giving us a clearer window into what was a blurry experience. It might remind us that we are not alone: suffering is common and common.
And it could give us a socially acceptable answer to “How are you?”
Instead of saying “Great!” or “Okay,” imagine if we answered, “Honestly, I’m in pain.” It would be a refreshing sheet for toxic positivity – that basically American pressure to be always optimistic.
When you add suffering to your lexicon, you begin to notice it around you. It shows up when you feel left out from your short afternoon walk. It’s in your kids ’voices when you ask how internet school went. It’s in “The Simpsons” every time a character says, “Meh.”
Last summer, journalist Daphne K. Lee tweeted about a Chinese expression that translates to “revenge procrastination before going to bed.” She described it as waking up late at night to regain the freedom we had missed during the day. I began to wonder if it was not so much retaliation against loss of control as an act of quiet defiance against suffering. It is a search for happiness on a sad day, a bond in a lonely week, or a goal in a perpetual pandemic.
Langa is the neglected middle child of mental health.
ANTIDOTE TO THE LANGUAGE
So what can we do about it? A concept called “flow” may be an antidote to suffering. Flow is that evasive absorbing state in a meaningful challenge or momentary connection where your sense of time, place, and self melt. During the early days of the pandemic, the best prediction of well-being was not optimism or attention – it was a flow. People who delved deeper into their projects managed to avoid suffering and maintained their pre-pandemic happiness.
An early morning pun catapults me into a stream. Netflix’s nocturnal excess is sometimes also tricky – it transports you to a story where you feel connected to the characters and care about their well-being.
Finding new challenges, enjoyable experiences, and meaningful work are all possible remedies to suffering, it’s hard to find a flow when you can’t focus. This was a problem long before the pandemic, when people usually checked email 74 times a day and changed tasks every 10 minutes. In the past year, many of us have also struggled with interruptions from children around the house, colleagues around the world and bosses on a daily basis. Meh.
Fragmented attention is an enemy of commitment and excellence. In a group of 100 people, only two or three will even be able to drive and memorize information at a time without their performance suffering one or both tasks. Computers can be created for parallel processing, but people are better at serial processing.
GIVE YOU SOME UNINTERRUPTED TIME
That means we need to set boundaries. Years ago, a Fortune 500 software company in India tried a simple policy: no interruptions on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday before noon. When engineers managed the limit themselves, 47 percent had above-average productivity. But when the company set a quiet time as an official policy, 65 percent reached above-average productivity. Doing more is not only appropriate for performance at work: We now know that the most important factor in daily joy and motivation is a sense of progress.
I don’t think there’s anything magical about Tuesday, Thursday and Friday before noon. The lesson of this simple idea is to treat uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures to be guarded. It empties constant distractions and gives us the freedom to focus. We can find solace in experiences that capture our full attention.
Focus on a small target
The pandemic was a great loss. To transcend suffering, try to start with small victories, such as the tiny triumph of discovering a whim or the speed of playing a seven-letter word. One of the clearest ways to flow is precisely manageable difficulty: a challenge that extends your skills and increases your decision making. That means cutting out daily time to focus on a challenge that’s important to you – an interesting project, a worthy goal, a meaningful conversation. Sometimes it’s a small step toward regaining some of the energy and enthusiasm you’ve been missing all these months.
Language is not just in our heads – it is in our circumstances. You cannot heal a sick culture with personal bandages. We still live in a world that normalizes physical health challenges but stigmatizes mental health challenges. As we move into a new post-pandemic reality, it’s time to rethink our understanding of mental health and well-being. “Not depressed” doesn’t mean you don’t struggle. “Not burned” does not mean you are fired. Acknowledging that so many of us are suffering, we can begin to give voice to quiet despair and light a way out of the void.
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