Adam Grant called “languishing” the emotion of the pandemic year. I’m not surprised. If I had a gauge or a device that measured my motivation, it would probably fluctuate between zero and none. We all get a case of the blahs every so often. This article is about what we can do to recover from it. Because we need to—life doesn’t give us credits for days lost to blahs.
One of the world’s most widely syndicated comics of all time is Garfield. The cat. If you have ever read the comics, you would know two things about the title character. Garfield loves lasagna and detests Mondays. Here are a few iconic Garfield quotes about Monday:
“I hate Mondays.”
“Die, Monday, Die!!”
“I’m bored, bored, bored, bored. I hate Monday. I hate routine.”
“I’d like Mondays better if it started later.”
In an article published in the Huffington Post, Garfield’s creator, American cartoonist Jim Davis explained the reasons for Garfield’s loathing of Mondays. Davis says, “Garfield does not have a job, Garfield does not go to school, and every day is the same. Nevertheless, every Monday is just a reminder that his life is the same old, same old cycling again and for some reason even though his life is pretty much the same, every day on Mondays specifically, awful things tend to happen to him physically.”
A case of the blahs
Not sure about you, but I feel a kinship with Garfield. He gets to say things I sometimes think but won’t or can’t say out aloud. Not even to myself.
I don’t necessarily have a case of Monday blues—Sunday afternoons are a struggle for me, personally! The truth is we’re all subject to a case of the blahs at various times, and in some instances, they hit us hard.
Even when everything is going to plan, why do we still feel like unmotivated blobs sometimes? That’s the sensation blahs can evoke in us.
Blahs are this feeling of general malaise, the inability to find the spring in our steps. And believe me, left unprocessed, they have the potential to consume our lives and leave us flailing and miserable.
What blahs are not
But before we get into the different kinds of blahs and how we can counter them, I want to be abundantly clear about what blahs are not. Feeling blah is not the same as feeling depressed.
Blahs exist in the emotional continuum between thriving and depression.
Real depression is a mental health condition where everything in life seems dark, and there is a complete loss of interest in activities. With a case of the blahs, however, you’ll still be able to function and get things done, just with not as much joie de ‘vivre in your life.
Treating depression requires medical advice from competent and qualified professionals. Since I’m neither competent nor qualified, I’ll refrain from providing ideas on treating depression.
On the subject of the not-so-serious, garden variety blahs, though, I have plenty to say.
The various shades of blahs
Like a lemon without zest or champagne without fizz, blahs can wrap your life in graydom. And like grays, blahs come in many shades too. (Fair warning: this isn’t a “fifty shades of gray” type article.)
Our vocabulary has so many words, idioms, and phrases to describe when we just can’t get excited about anything. Here are a few: in a rut, feeling blue, feeling low, emptiness, humdrum, a case of the blahs, and so on. I’m sure you can relate to this can’t get no satisfaction feeling you develop sometimes. They are like uninvited guests who show up at our homes and then settle in for what looks like the long haul!
So, how do we politely (or not so politely) show the blahs their way out? That requires us to know what causes them to show up in the first place. Thankfully, their origins can be explained by science, which means we have ways and means to methodically find a way to show the blahs the “Exit” signs.
While Garfield had a case of the Mondays, there are many ways blahs manifest in our own lives. I’ve listed a few of the more common occurrences below. See if you can identify with any of these:
I’ll start with the one that shows up unfailingly in my life—the Sunday afternoon blues. I used to think it was just the impending doom of Monday that turned me into an Eeyore on Sundays. Apparently, there is more to it.
The one explanation is that circadian rhythms are disturbed because most of us like to “sleep in” over the weekends. This throws our biological clocks and the associated chemicals out of whack.
There is another reason. At least in the Western world, our weekdays are pretty tightly scheduled. Saturdays tend to be quite regimented as well with chores, grocery shopping, and kids’ practices. Sundays are the exception and typically have the most significant chunk of unstructured time. That lack of structure doesn’t sit well with some people.
Task-driven personalities who believe no vacuum should be left unfilled feel the pressure to be “useful” on Sundays. This creates an untenable situation because they may be surrounded by friends and family who do not share the “be productive on Sundays too” philosophy. The result? Disappointment over not meeting expectations and the remorse of having wasted time can spiral into a case of the blahs by late Sunday afternoon and sometimes stretch well into the week.
Positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar coined the term Arrival fallacy. It is the misconception that once we reach our goals, lasting happiness will ensue.
At the risk of being Captain Obvious again, I’ll say this: achievement does not equal happiness. Even setting and reaching audacious goals such as building and selling a start-up company or losing 50 lbs. will not result in a state of permanent bliss. The blahs are simply hiding, waiting to make a return.
Eventually, when we arrive at the destination we’ve been working hard to get to, and the hoped-for utopia does not materialize, we feel let down.
Result: More moping.
SAD - Seasonal affective disorder
With an apt acronym, Seasonal affective disorder is a documented medical mood disorder. Also known as the winter blues, or “wake me up when there is sunshine,” SAD can be pretty mood-dampening and blah-inducing and can make people with existing depression suffer even more.
Scientifically, SAD is attributed to the lack of sunlight, which can impact mood-regulating hormones such as serotonin and melatonin. Bleakness outside equals bleakness within.
Post-race blues or post-marathon slump is something a lot of athletes encounter quite regularly. A day or two after they cross the finish line (regardless of how well they performed), many athletes experience a case of the blahs, some quite severely.
Again, two reasons to explain this: the body is used to active endorphins flooding the system. When that drops off, the mood-highs vanish as well, replaced with a blandness. Secondly, training for a marathon or any other athletic event is a fairly involved process, usually coupled with packed schedules. When all those training and stretching hours suddenly disappear from the calendar, the emptiness can cause dreariness that can be hard to manage.
Even when everything is working per plan, it’s hard not to fall prey to a case of the blahs. This sense of hamster-wheel-spinning and a feeling that everything is a lost cause is, sadly, natural.
The BAU (business-as-usual) world of eat-work-sleep-repeat can trigger a sense of blah in the best of us. We are a forward-looking species rather than a content-in-present species. So sometimes we need some external help to pull us up.
The long and short of it is neurochemical imbalances in the body cause blahs. The good news is there are ways to rectify this imbalance.
Dos and don’ts
If your life feels like a flat soda, acknowledge it first. You’re not the only one. Then try to get some effervescence back in.
Here are nine dos (and one don’t) to deal with a case of the blahs.
Do or do not. There is no try. Yoda
1. Allow off-days
Allow yourself to do the bare minimum. The task list can wait. It’s okay sometimes to call it a win if all you accomplish through the day is a ten-minute shower and a frozen meal heated up in the microwave!
Lowering expectations of yourself and others is a great way to counter the blues. Sometimes we need the pull-up bar on the floor instead of on the ceiling, so we can trick our minds into believing we did well.
2. Harness solar power
For those in higher altitudes dealing with cold season blahs, your best bet is to get out and increase your exposure to sunlight. Sunlight stimulates the hypothalamus that causes circadian clock regulation. Lack of the sun can mean too much melatonin and too little serotonin. In turn, this leads to a lack of energy and sluggishness. While natural sunlight is preferred, light therapies (simulated natural light) can be substituted for those times when the sun doesn’t shine!
3. Forest bathe
Do not underestimate NDD (Nature-deficit-disorder). The Japanese have a term for this, Shinrin-Yoku, translated as Forest bathing. This means moving about and engaging with nature (it doesn’t have to the forest—it could be your garden or neighborhood park) through your senses. According to a survey, numerous studies have shown this to be beneficial, especially since we spend about 93% of our time indoors!
4. Phone a friend
Phoning a friend works not just on ‘Who wants to be a millionaire,’ but even on ‘who wants to not feel crappy.’ We are a social species. Time and again, research has proven that good social connections confer numerous mental health benefits. Build a solid and supportive network of family and friends to help tide you through the blahs.
Duh! Yes. Move. Whether you get physically fit or not, exercise or any movement does marvels for mental health. For more, read this post on the benefits of movement.
Jon Kabat Zinn, the founder of the hugely popular MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) mediation system, said this about boredom:
When you pay attention to boredom, it gets unbelievably interesting
Meditate and find out what it is that’s triggering the apathy. You may be surprised by what you find.
7. Say thanks
No matter how dull your life seems to you, there are thousands of people who would gladly switch places with you this very minute. Maintaining a gratitude journal can put things in perspective and soon help you realize life’s not so dull after all.
8. Pastime away
Do something that’s not on your must-do or should-do lists. Draw. Knit. Play music. Sing. Dance. Clean the closet out (if you’re that sort of a person!) Whether you suck at it or are an expert, indulging in a hobby helps generate serotonin.
Remember, this is not about the end product. If you knit a sweater without armholes in it—well, no harm, no foul. The journey matters, not the destination.
Ask yourself (or others) questions like these:
Does your dog have off-days? Do trees in higher altitudes also get inflicted with SAD?
Or, who invented the question mark?
In the process, you may either discover the next Higgs boson or have a moment of levity. But it will help lift the dark aura of doom around you.
That’s a long list of Dos. Now for some don’ts.
Bitch and moan to one and all. Negative energy is self-fueling. The more you whine, the harder it is going to be to get out of the rut.
Spirits (as in fun alcoholic beverages) aren’t an antidote to low-spirits. Drowning in alcohol isn’t going to make you feel better. When you wake up, you’ll not have one but two equally bad problems – the original slump and a raging hangover!
Avoid eating everything you can lay your hands on. That approach has been tried and tested and has so far worked for no one. Yes, I checked.
I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking, “I hope I was born to do more than simply paying bills!”.
In a recently published article in the NY times, Adam Grant referred to the term “languishing” as the emotion of the pandemic year. Languishing is what this article is all about—a case of the blahs. It’s the state we find ourselves in—not depressed. But not thriving either.
This feeling of viewing the world and our role in it through a smudged lens has been exacerbated during the pandemic.
I’m here to tell you the bleakness isn’t here to say. Like the London fog of 1952 that eventually lifted, this too shall pass. It’s up to us to recognize when the fog is closing in on us and implement one of those remedies suggested above.
In the meantime, you can contemplate upon this irony:
Why does emptiness occupy so much space?