KITES CAN'T FLY  

Languishing in the feed

It’s a weird feeling, when you just kind of realise that your default state has been “bleh” for so long you can’t remember when it wasn’t. It’s not bad, per say. Not out-and-out worrying. You’re just a little bit down, a little bit flat. Just bleh.

There’s a state of being in between being at your best (or even just pretty alright) and depression: languishing. It’s you at your most meh.

Adam Grant wrote about it for the New York Times:

Languishing is… the absence of well-being. 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’s a dull fatigue or slow, barely perceptible lack of drive. No pep, no zazz. It mightn’t even be noticeable. It’s the background malaise of life.

Flow right

Grant provides one possible “antidote to languishing”: flow.

Flow is that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self melts away.

You know that magical sense of timelessness when you’re just lost in what you’re doing? That’s flow.

But there’s a danger here, too. There are a lot of things that evoke a sense of flow that aren’t the best places to be. Social media feeds, for example, are designed to create a sense of flow so you stay in app for as long as possible. Free-to-play games are the same. They’re filled with little hooks and tricks that keep you absorbed and flowing because that’s how they make money.

At a time when social media platforms are awash nihilism- or radicalisation-inducing content, they mightn’t be the best places to get your flow on. Those are worst-case scenarios, of course. And they don’t come about all at once.

But, like a good flow state, the road to some truly dark places on social happen with a series of small steps. Each a little bit more intriguing or challenging or provocative.

Even if you don’t end up in a thicket of extreme political content, spending too long on any social platform can drag you in bramble-patch of blandness that reinforces the sense of languishing you set out to avoid.

But it’s easy

The challenge: options like social media are the easiest thing available to you when your impulse is to fall into something. It mightn’t even be deliberate – it’s just a habit, an association you’ve picked up without realising.

James Clear talks about this in his book Atomic habits:

The less energy a habit requires, the more likely it is to occur. Look at any behavior that fills up much of your life and you’ll see that it can be performed with very low levels of motivation. Habits like scrolling on our phones, checking email, and watching television steal so much of our time because they can be performed almost without effort. They are remarkably convenient.

The goal, he argues, isn’t the habit itself: it’s whatever feeling the habit provides. “Dieting is an obstacle to getting fit,” he says. “Meditation is an obstacle to feeling calm.”

We tend towards the easiest obstacle to overcome. If the goal is find a quick spark to fight of a nameless sense of ennui, you might want to do something profound or meaningful but, chances are your life isn’t set up in such a way that you can easily do so. So you gravitate towards the easiest way to do that. Often, you know, your content feed of choice.

Again, this doesn’t have to be a conscious choice. You know content holes, no matter your poison, create a sense of flow. The habit is there, built up by years of practice. That pathway in your brain is well trod.

Maybe this doesn’t necessarily seem like a problem. What’s an hour or so on social, in a mobile game, binging a show? As a conscious choice, sure, whatever. But as a response to something as amorphous and draining as languishing, it sets you up for failure.

Some choices set up your entire day. Clear calls them “decisive moments”:

Decisive moments set the options available to your future self. For instance, walking into a restaurant is a decisive moment because it determines what you’ll be eating for lunch. Technically, you are in control of what you order, but in a larger sense, you can only order an item if it is on the menu. If you walk into a steakhouse, you can get a sirloin or a rib eye, but not sushi. Your options are constrained by what’s available. They are shaped by the first choice.

Put another way, Clear argues that “the habits you follow without thinking often determine the choices you make when you are thinking.” When it comes to something as important as your mental health, you want to make those choices as helpful as possible.

It doesn’t have to be a big change. It might be better if it’s not, really. You want it to be easy. Something that gets you flowing right. Anything’s better than being bleh.

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