I know you all have long to-do lists, but I hate wasting time so much that I have a to-don't list. Don't scroll on social media, don't check my phone in bed and don't turn on the TV unless I already know what I want to watch. But last year I found myself breaking all of those rules. I was staying up way past midnight, doomscrolling, playing endless games of online Scrabble and bingeing entire seasons of TV shows that weren't even good. The next morning I'd wake up in a daze and swear, "Tonight in bed by 10:00." But it kept happening night after night for weeks. What was I thinking?
As an organizational psychologist, I have spent my whole career studying motivation, so it really bothers me when I can't explain my own behavior. I wasn't depressed. I still had hope. Wasn't burned out, had energy. Wasn't lonely, I was with my family. I just felt a little bit aimless and a little bit joyless. Eventually, I remembered there's a name for that feeling: languishing. Languishing as a sense of emptiness, stagnation and ennui. It was coined by a sociologist Corey Keyes and immortalized by a philosopher, Mariah Carey.
When you're languishing, it just feels like you're muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. So I'm curious how many of you have felt like that over the past few months. OK, those of you who didn't have the energy to raise your hands —
you might be languishing right now. And you over here who didn't laugh, you're definitely languishing. Strangely enough —
[How are you feeling today? Meh. Meh. Meh.]
Some of you passed the quiz. Strangely enough, what rescued me from that feeling was playing Mario Kart. But let's back up for a second.
In the early days of covid, a lot of us were struggling with fear, grief and isolation. But as the pandemic dragged on with no end in sight, our acute anguish gave way to chronic languish. We were all living in “Groundhog Day.” It felt like the whole world was stagnating. So I wrote an article to put languishing on the map. I called it "the neglected middle child of mental health" and I suggested it might be the dominant emotion of our time. And soon it was everywhere. I was seeing it all over the media, being discussed by celebrities, by royalty. I've never seen people so excited to talk about their utter lack of excitement.
And — I think — I think that naming languishing helped people make sense of some puzzling experiences. Why even after getting vaccinated people were having trouble looking forward to the rest of the year. Why when "National Treasure" came on TV, my wife already knew all the words by heart. And why I was staying up way too late, falling victim to what's known as revenge bedtime procrastination.
We were looking for bliss in a blah day and purpose in a perpetual pandemic. But languishing is not unique to a pandemic. It's part of the human condition. Two decades of research show that languishing can disrupt your focus and dampen your motivation. It's also a risk factor for depression because languishing often lurks below the surface. You might not notice when your drive is dwindling or your delight is dulling You’re indifferent to your own indifference, which means you don't seek help and you might not even do anything to help yourself. Meh. Languishing isn't just hard to spot, though. In many cultures, it's hard to talk about, too. When people ask, "How are you?," you're expected to say, "Great!" or "Living my best life." That's called toxic positivity.
It's the pressure that we face to be optimistic and upbeat at all times. If you say, "You know, I'm just OK," then people might encourage you to look on the bright side or count your blessings, which isn't just annoying. It can actually be bad advice.
Can I get two volunteers? I will cold-call if I have to, don't all jump at once. OK, right over here. You can come up to a mic and can I get another volunteer right over there, up to this mic, please. A round of applause for our two volunteers.
Hi, what's your name?
Adam Grant: Thank you. Can you tell us three good things about your life, please?
Martin: I’m married and I’m healthy and I’m happy.
AG: All right, I’m glad the marriage came in first. Well done. OK, over here. What’s your name?
AG: Lee, can you tell us 42 good things about your life?
Lee: My cat Titchypoo, my dog Enzo. And so my wife, Jazz.
AG: Third behind the dog and the cat.
Lee: My children, Indio and Walter, Manchester United Football Club, my friends, TED.
AG: TED coming in at ringing eighth.
Lee: TED is very high, TED is very high. The poetry of C.S. Lewis, E.E. Cummings, Dylan Thomas.
AG: You want to name all the poets you’ve ever heard of? Alright, Lee, thank you. We’re going to pause you there. Round of applause. Thank you both.
So for a long time, I assumed that people in Lee's position were going to be happier than Martin. But when I ran the experiment, I found the exact opposite. That people who are randomly assigned to count more blessings, are actually, on average, less happy because you start to run out of things to be optimistic about. And if you don't know that many poets ...
The harder it is to find good things about your life, the more you feel like, well, maybe my life isn't that good.
In the early days of the pandemic, researchers found that the best predictor of well-being was not optimism. It was flow. Flow is that feeling of being in the zone, coined by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. It's that state of total absorption in an activity. For you, it might be cooking or running or gardening where you lose track of time and you might even lose your sense of self. Flow is the appeal of a Netflix binge because you get transported into a different world and immersed in a story. But bingeing is a temporary escape from languishing, not a cure. At best, it leaves you with a bunch of asymmetric relationships. You might love hanging out with your friends: Chandler, Arya, Dwight, Buffy — Buffy, anyone? —
Joe Exotic, Peppa Pig. (Whispers) But they don't know you exist. Bingeing is passive engagement in a fictional world, peak flow depends on active participation in the real world, which is why I was so surprised to find my flow while driving a cartoon car in a Nintendo game. When the pandemic first started, all three of our kids were at home in online school, and that lasted for a full year. It was not easy. One day we found this on our six-year-old's report card.
[can independently mute and unmute himself when requested to do so]
You know, I know some adults who still haven't figured that out yet, not just online, but in real life, too. So I guess we had that to celebrate.
But like many of you, we were isolated from extended family. My sister was halfway across the country. And one day we were reminiscing about how much we love playing Mario Kart as we were kids. And she said, "Well, we could all play together online now." Why don't we start a family game? And soon we were playing every day with a video call running at the same time. And after a couple of weeks I stopped feeling so blah. I was living zen in the art of Mario Kart.
In the morning our kids were waking up, asking what time we would play. They were excited. And they loved it when I would gloat about an impending victory, only to be bombed by a flying blue shell and then just sit there watching all three of our kids drive past me to the finish line in tiny go-carts. We had so much fun that we started a new Saturday night tradition after the kids were asleep. Adult Mario Kart.
So after reflecting on that experience, I'm proud to present to you for the first time my Mario Kart theory of peak flow. It has three conditions: mastery, mindfulness and mattering.
Let's start with mastery. Mastery is something a lot of us have been having a hard time finding lately.
Psychologists find that at work the strongest factor in daily motivation and joy is a sense of progress. We find that our happiness depends in Western cultures more on how our projects are going today than how they went yesterday. That's why Nike says, "Just do it." I guess if Nike had been started in a more past-focused country like China, their slogan would be, "Just did it." If languishing is stagnation, flow involves momentum. But mastery does not have to be a big accomplishment, it can be small wins. Small wins explain why I was drawn to online Scrabble for the rush of playing a seven-letter word. Small wins makes sense of why so many people were thrilled to bake their first loaf of sourdough bread. And small wins explain why one engineer spent an entire afternoon mastering the art of stacking M&M's on top of each other. Take a look.
(Video) This is going to be harder than I thought. Oh! Oh! Five M&Ms! Five M&Ms!
AG: Turns out that was a world record.
That kind of mastery depends on a second condition for flow, mindfulness. Focusing your full attention on a single task, not something a lot of us are doing that much these days.
[Are you OK? You’re barely paying attention to your book, phone, show ... ] [ ... laptop and the crossword you started ten minutes ago.]
There's evidence that on average, people are checking emails 74 times a day, switching tasks every 10 minutes, and that creates what's been called time confetti, where we take what could be meaningful moments of our lives and we shred them into increasingly tiny, useless pieces. Time confetti is an enemy of both energy and of excellence. If we want to find flow, we need better boundaries.
[It keeps me from looking at my phone every two seconds.]
When I think about boundaries, I think of an experiment by organizational scholar Leslie Perlow. She went to a Fortune 500 company and she tested a quiet time policy. No interruptions three mornings a week before noon. On average, engineers spiked in productivity. 47 percent of them were more productive than usual. But the best part is that when the company made quiet time official policy, they had 65 percent above average productivity. I don't think there's anything magical about Tuesday, Thursday, Friday before noon. The lesson here is that we need to treat uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures to guard.
Now, mastery and mindfulness will get you to flow, but there's a third condition that turns it into a peak experience. Mattering. Knowing that you make a difference to other people. Early in my career, I was studying fundraising callers who were trying to bring in alumni donations to a university, and I knew they were languishing when I saw this sign posted on their wall.
[Doing a good job here is like wetting your pants in a dark suit] [You get a warm feeling but no one else notices]
I wanted to study how to show them that their work mattered. So I designed a series of experiments and over the next month, one group of callers on average more than doubled in weekly time on the phone and nearly tripled in weekly revenue. What moved the needle was randomly assigning them to meet one student whose scholarship had been funded by their work. Now, instead of focusing on the monotonous process of making calls, they were absorbed in a meaningful purpose of helping to fund tuition. So think about the people who would be worse off if your job didn't exist. Those are the people who make your work matter. You need to know their names, their faces and their stories, and you can find flow in projects that benefit them.
This all explains why Mario Kart was such a great experience for me. It gave me a feeling of mastery, the sweet satisfaction of a perfectly placed banana peel for my sister to slip on. It required mindfulness too. My brother-in-law was the best player. Beating him demanded total concentration, especially when my kids were ganging up with him against me. And it wasn't just a game. It mattered. Over the past year, we've all felt helpless in one way or another. I felt helpless to fix covid. I couldn't even do that much to make online school better. And I'm a teacher. But in Mario Kart, I felt helpful. I was able to give my kids something to look forward to when we couldn't go anywhere. I was able to keep my family close when we were far apart. We normally think of flow as an individual experience. But playing Nintendo, we were all immersed together. And although we don't play daily anymore, I feel closer to my sister and my brother-in-law than I ever had before. I learned that love is not the frequency of communication, it's the depth of connections. I also realized that the antidote to languishing does not have to be something productive, it can be something joyful. Our peak moments of flow are having fun with the people we love, which is now a daily task on my to-do list.
So what's your version of Mario Kart? Where do you find mastery and mindfulness with the people who matter to you? I think we need to rethink our understanding of mental health and well-being. Not depressed doesn't mean you're not struggling. Not burned out doesn't mean you're fired up. When someone says, "How are you?," it's OK to say, "Honestly, I'm languishing." Or if you can only muster one syllable, "Meh."
And when you're ready, you can start finding the flow that lights a path out of the void.