Shaking Off The ‘Meh’, with Dr Amanda Wallis from Umbrella Wellbeing

Shaking off the ‘meh’ and moving towards flourishing

Have you felt a bit ‘off’ or ‘meh’ at times over the last few weeks? Us too – you’re not alone. As the winter chill sets in and we juggle all the commitments we have up in the air, it’s not surprising that some of us have fallen into a state that psychologists call ‘languishing’. Luckily, there’s an alternative state that is built through our small, everyday habits: ‘flourishing’.

Languishing exists on a separate dimension from disorders like depression or generalised anxiety. We usually notice it when we have bouts of feeling “meh”, uninspired and stagnant, low mood and largely joy-less.

Flourishing, on the other hand, is when we feel good and function well – with that reassuring sense that life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. Flourishing operates at the top end of the mental health continuum with languishing operating at the bottom end. We know from research that it’s possible to experience languishing and, in the same hour, day or week, move up the continuum towards flourishing (and back again!)

We might notice feeling a bit glum over breakfast while checking the news, which tips us into a bad mood when the traffic is backed up on our way into the office. Perhaps it stays that way, or perhaps a colleague takes us out for a coffee, leading us to feel connected and energised. This then helps us tick off our work tasks and leaves us in a good mood when we get home to our whānau. So, we find ourselves at the end of the day feeling good and flourishing.

Fortunately, for most of us, it’s the small things, our everyday habits and rituals, that we can use to create those nudges towards flourishing when we need them. A team of psychology researchers from around the world recently described these habits as buffering and bolstering mental health.

Buffering bad mood with flow

We live in a time where we are experiencing the news “live”, alongside a constant barrage of notifications, not just once a day or once a week but every hour or every minute. As a result, our brains can feel like they are always on, always processing, and always alert to threat.

This alertness can also lead to our mood being dictated by the alerts on our devices. We can help to combat this by setting boundaries around device use – not checking work emails after we sign off, for example, or leaving our phones in another room when we are trying to relax.

The other downside of being constantly ‘available’ and susceptible to the emotional roller-coaster of our notifications, is that we miss out on experiencing that sweet spot psychologists call being in “flow”.

We are in flow when our abilities match the challenge of the task – leading us to a state where we feel focused and engaged, whether that’s alone or with others. Flow shakes off that sometimes heavy sense of self-consciousness that we carry with us, and we lose track of time altogether.

Depending on who you are, you might find your flow state when you are running, writing, cooking, having a deep chat with a friend, playing video games or even cleaning. It’s important to note that you don’t need to be an expert in any one of those things – you can achieve flow on a gentle run around the block just as easily as a seasoned marathon runner might.

Experiencing a flow state helps to buffer low mood because it shifts our focus away from what we can’t control, and towards what we can. It keeps our minds (and usually our hands) engaged, and doing more of it, more of the time, can bring us back in touch with the things that bring us joy and, therefore, help us to flourish.

Bolstering mental health with connection

As well as finding our flow state, research shows that we can move towards flourishing by boosting what psychologists from the University of North Carolina call “positivity resonance” – a technical name for intentionally sharing positive emotions with others.

It may sound obvious, and for many of us it comes naturally when we eat dinner with our whānau or video-call a friend, but it can also slip away from us if we aren’t fiercely guarding it. Dinner conversations can give way to dinner around the TV, or we can feel “too busy” to join the office daily quiz.

The key idea of positivity resonance is that positive emotion is much more powerful when it is shared with someone else. That’s because shared positivity has been found to “broaden and build” our emotional resources, meaning that it isn’t only enjoyable in the moment, but that it multiplies, leading to more and more positive emotion, and connection, over time.  

Try adding just one new habit to your daily routine with a loved one, such as turning up the feel-good music when you’re both driving in the car. Or, at work, see if you can schedule a walking meeting with a colleague instead of staying at your desks.

The goal is about shifting the dial more towards flourishing more of the time, not about eliminating unpleasant emotions altogether. Experiment and see how it works – does having a laugh with a friend help you shift your mood when you’re feeling a little bit ‘meh’? How can you get more of it into your life?

Moving towards flourishing – one step at a time

It can feel overwhelming when we are feeling down, or languishing, to read about all of the many different things we are supposed to do to feel better (exercise, connect, meditate, eat healthy, sleep well… the list goes on!) Sometimes this well-meaning advice leaves us feeling worse, not better, leading to more time stuck in our languishing state.

If you’re looking for just one place to start to turn your day, or your week around, try to pick an activity that fulfils your sense of flow, or leads to shared positive emotion with someone else. Even better – find one that gives you both.

Most importantly, we need to actively make space for these activities – at work and at home – especially when we are feeling low. Otherwise, if we don’t intervene, we can lose our precious days to languishing.

For those who are struggling with those large stressors in life that really test our coping strategies to their limits – grief and bereavement, serious illness, depression, unemployment, and more – the strategies above may not resonate. Please reach out for help and utilise the networks available to you through loved ones and support services.

Author information:

Dr Amanda Wallis leads the research programme at Umbrella Wellbeing and is passionate about making psychological research useable in our everyday lives.

Umbrella Wellbeing is formed by a team of psychologists who provide end-to-end workplace wellbeing support. We partner with organisations to consult on strategic wellbeing, build leadership skills and competence in managing wellbeing and mental health, and help develop high performing and resilient teams. You can find us on LinkedIn here.

Join the Conversation

  1. Lesley says:

    Great blog. It’s so easy to forget the power of being with other people or being fully absorbed in a task and we don’t stop to appreciate this feeling of flow. It’s when we feel down that we need to recall this state and try to connect with it in some small way. Thanks for drawing my attention, and now, intention to creating more flow in my life.

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