Episode 407 – Languishing less with Corey Keyes

Dr Corey Keyes“Do what you can in the circumstances you are given right now. And don’t wait for the systems in the world around you to change in order to get some life into your life.”

Most of us are only too familiar with ‘languishing’ – the opposite of flourishing. It was when Adam Grant wrote his famous 2021 New York Times article that we all recognised it as the defining post-pandemic emotion, and it continues to dominate discussions of wellbeing.

Grant’s article credited research by Dr. Corey Keyes, a distinguished professor emeritus and a leading voice in the study of mental health and human flourishing. In this week’s conversation, Corey explains the personal and professional reasons why he’s spent his career advocating for a more proactive approach to fostering mental health — and the profound implications of translating a lifetime of research into a book that can change lives.

This extraordinary conversation will reshape how you think about mental health, not just in business, but in every facet of life.



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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Dr Corey Keyes, who is a sociologist and Professor Emeritus at Emory University, and his research focuses on mental health, particularly his pioneering work on the science of human flourishing and he’s the author of Languishing: How to feel alive again in a world that wears us down.

I know, we’re all nodding, aren’t we? Like, oh, we recognize that.

Great to have you here, Corey. I’m going to really enjoy this conversation. So welcome to the Club.

Corey Keyes: Thank you for having me, Alison.

Alison Jones: Let’s talk about that title. And it is interesting because flourishing has sort of passed into parlance, hasn’t it? But languishing, tell us about why you chose that.

Corey Keyes: Well, I had to, and I mean that in a good way. But I’ll tell you that I never imagined that I would frame a book from that angle. I always thought I was going to write, I was always going to write about, the presence, absence of good mental health and focus on flourishing. But the pandemic came along, as we all know, and, as I like to say, the pandemic was the great equalizer in the sense that people who would not have ordinarily experienced languishing, you know, people with more education, with higher incomes and wealthier to so-called developed nations, experienced it in a way that I suspect they’d never had before. And if they had before, it was perhaps fiercer.

And so suddenly a lot of people were experiencing this condition. And when my colleague Adam Grant wrote that article, I don’t know if he ever imagined that it would be the most read article globally And there you have it.

 It was the way to meet people where they’re at. And that’s why I chose that particular title.

Alison Jones: Which is, I guess, the great obligation of the writer, isn’t it, well, the business book writer, at least, is to start where people are. So a couple of things I want to dig into there, I really want to come on to Adam Grant’s New York Times article, because that was such an interesting phenomenon and the way that it related to your research and so on.

But I think probably, I sort of feel everybody listening instinctively knows what we mean by languishing, but you’re the expert, tell us exactly what you mean when you say languishing.

Corey Keyes: Well, I’m almost comfortable with the use of one word such as what Adam used: ‘meh’. I don’t know if that’s used commonly in your universe or in the UK. Oh, but a synonym is ‘blah’. Now those two words I think are fine for keeping it simple, but I think you can mistake languishing for a sort of being in a piece of bad weather, a stretch of bad weather, right? Clouds and rain for about a week, which would all make us blah. But I think it’s a lot more serious than that. And I actually have a diagnosis and a measurement tool that has been well validated as being used around the world. And you have to meet the criteria of it, at least 7 out of the 14 signs of flourishing that are absent.

By absent, I mean, you experience these signs and symptoms of flourishing rarely, if at all. And so it goes something like this. You have to have a deficiency in at least one of the emotional well being. You don’t feel very happy, not very satisfied, not very interested in life. And so it only needs to be one of those three, along with a deficiency in 6 out of 11 signs of functioning well.

And so here’s where it gets interesting, languishing is the absence of things like, your life has no direction and meaning. Your life might not be contributing anything of worth and value. Your sense is that you may not have warm, trusting relationships in your life. You may not have a sense of belonging to a community. Along with that, you might feel that nothing in your life is challenging you to grow and become a better person. Along with, you don’t like other people, nor do you like most parts of yourself.

And that’s just a minimum of at least 6 out of the 11 signs of functioning well, being deficient. So here’s the way I think of languishing.

Languishing is a deficiency in the things that make our life meaningful. Not just, it’s not just blah. People might describe it as blah, but it’s the absence of good things.

Alison Jones: And mental health and lack of mental health, the whole conversation around that I think is so fascinating because we have traditionally focused on treating poor mental health or treating mental illness, rather than really establishing good mental health. And I’m really interested, it sort of goes around in circles doesn’t it, but because you’re talking about languishing as a positive negative condition, rather than just the absence of something, there’s almost a sort of two by two matrix that’s sort of emerging here, isn’t there?

Yes, and so presumably that by defining languishing, we create almost like a pathway to supply those deficiencies. But that in itself is not enough. You then want to build to put you in credit, to build up the positive mental health, right?

Corey Keyes: Yes, I like the way you put it. It is a two by two matrix, but I talk about it as the two continuum model of health and illness, which is, believe it or not, it’s been proposed of, and around for, thousands of years. And it’s embedded in an ancient Greek myth that has to do with the origin of medicine. And of course the father of medicine, of course, we had to be gendered back then and right as sort of the father of medicine was named Asclepius. And he had two daughters that defined two distinct branches of medicine. One daughter was named Panacea. And you know her branch of medicine, right? Which is the focus on why we break down and find remedies to fix people. That’s the healthcare system we all know and we’ve built around the world, better in some countries, in the developed countries, than in others.

And yet there was another daughter that we forgot about, and my work has resurrected her. Her name was Hygieia, after the word hygiene. And in the ancient world, hygiene was about the presence of good conditions that fostered well being is the way we would call it, or strength or resilience.

And Hygieia is represented in the staff of Asclepius. She is the snake that is winding her way around that staff that is emblematic of medicine. Isn’t it interesting? She’s there and has been there and we don’t realize it. And yet we’ve never privileged her. And my work has brought her back in a way that says, you are missing something important, dear world and dear public health and dear medicine, by not understanding how the presence of good health is a protective factor against the things we cannot fix, right?

Here’s what we’ve gone through in a short history, Alison. Last century, we began the century in your country and mine and most developing nations, having our lives cut short by 11 infectious diseases. Now about the middle of the 20th century, we’ve gotten control of those infectious diseases and reduced deaths due to those diseases.

It wasn’t medicine, by the way, I’m here to tell you, the miracles of modern medicine that helped reduce 80 to 90 percent of the deaths.

Alison Jones: It was hygiene.

Corey Keyes: It was hygiene. Yes, it was changing how we lived, creating better conditions for people to live. And yet we mistakenly attribute it to the miracles of medicine.

Wrong answer.

And yet here we are in the 21st century and what was left in the wake of responding effectively, hygienically, to those 11 infectious diseases where longer lives now lived with more chronic disease. And chronic diseases can be prevented just like infectious diseases and yet what are we doing? Mostly managing them medically in a very expensive way.

And I’m here to tell people most mental illnesses are chronic recurring conditions that they’re better off either preventing them first. Or, and we can talk about some of these studies, if you’ve had mental illness and been effectively treated, then you need to prioritize the promoting good mental health in order to stay longer in recovery.

That’s our challenge.

Alison Jones: it’s such an empowering message. Yes.

Corey Keyes: Well, I think so too but I’m a little biased.

Alison Jones: But one of the things that really struck me in your book is that so much of this is in our hands, and I think that when you see everything as medicalised, you hand it over to professionals, but when you understand that these hygiene factors, and I was particularly struck by what you talk about passive leisure, which was never a thing, and we’ve sort of, so the way that we live, is so much more in our control and those factors that promote flourishing are so much more in our control than we might have imagined.

Corey Keyes: Oh goodness, are they ever, and people, I’ve found that people are sort of mixed about wanting to take responsibility and I know that feeling. I haven’t found a good way to navigate that except to say that I write my own story as the backdrop of my search for flourishing because as a kid who had gone through a lot of trauma, there was, I could not wait. I should not wait for the world around me to change and give me the things I needed in order to do better in the world because it wasn’t interested. Until my grandparents adopted me, nobody cared a damn thing about me except when I was a problem. Right? When I wasn’t, there was nothing there. Nobody cared. And so I had to go out and find these things that made my life worthwhile on my own.

 And I’m still thinking that our public health systems and our medical health systems, Alison, as well as business, are going to lag behind the need for them to get involved in this branch of health care.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Corey Keyes: So I’m encouraging people, regardless of your conditions, do what you can in the circumstances you are given right now. And don’t wait for the systems in the world around you to change in order to get some life into your life. Because that’s what the book’s about. These are five things, that we can talk about those later, five things that we can do. I think almost everyone. But I’m not here to solve problems like poverty and inequality and all those things. I’m simply saying those things do need to change, but while you’re waiting for those things to change, we could be doing some good things for ourselves, all of us. I’m not ignoring the problems. I’m simply saying I couldn’t ignore my own problems, but nobody was going to solve them for me.

Alison Jones: Yes, and that could have gone in one of two ways, couldn’t it?

Corey Keyes: Yes.

Alison Jones: And what’s fascinating is that the message that you have in Languishing is very much for everybody. It’s kind of the thing that, as you say, everybody needs to hear, but the research that you do as an academic is contained within journal articles. It’s not necessarily accessible to people.

And I’m fascinated by how you have made that leap. So, I mean, we can certainly talk about Adam Grant’s article because that was a pivotal moment, I know, and the fact that he gave you credit for the research, which, you know, people don’t always do.

 But just tell me a little bit about that arc of how you get the research that you’re doing under really, really constrained, formal, university style conditions, out to the people who really need to hear it.

Corey Keyes: Well it all began with my view of research. I’ve viewed my style and I think we all adopt a style, whether we like it or not, I think it’s implicit and some people aren’t conscious about it. I was very conscious about it. Well, I was one part storyteller and one part artist. And by that, I mean, I had a vision of something I knew was out there.

Kind of think about it like, you remember those paint by number schemes, those panels that had numbers? I could kind of see it out there. And so I was like, oh, okay, I need to do this piece of research because that’s that part of the beautiful portrait I’m going to paint for the world. And just like an artist, I thought there was something there that nobody was paying attention to because we’re born into a world where others before us have done two things. They’ve defined for us what’s important, what needs to get our attention. And at the same time, they’ve told us all what’s unimportant and what needs to stay invisible.

And I didn’t think they were correct. That mental health was unimportant and just needed to stay invisible.

So I was a painter, a sculptor, a potter, and I was a storyteller. Every piece of research I was doing was trying to create a piece of a story I envisioned telling people. But it was a bet. It was a bet that I was placing because I didn’t know until I did the research whether this would be a direction that would gain scientific credibility through results. So I was the turtle in the story of the hare. I didn’t race to the end line to tell the story long before there was a science. I said, let’s do a lot of science before you go about writing this. And now was the time. 25 years of constant science has shown me this is a story we need to tell.

And every time I went out and did a presentation, I didn’t focus on scientific article, tables or statistical analyses. I reduced them to simple numbers and simple stories, and I could tell it was resonating with people. I just think science is just a sophisticated way about going about painting a paint by numbers scheme that nobody else sees in the world and only you see. And if the results are there, then it’s your job to say, ‘Here is something beautiful for you’.

And that’s exactly the way I feel about my book. You may not like the picture I created. Fine. Go write your reviews on Goodreads and Amazon and piss on it all you want. To me, this is the most beautiful thing I could have created out of a life that was like this. deeply traumatic. And I was going to take all of that debris and put it in the way the Japanese do with broken things in their kintsugi. There you have it.

Alison Jones: Fixing with gold, yes, it’s a beautiful expression of what you do. And what I love is that you draw together, as you say, traumatic personal experience, but personal experiences is the foundation, isn’t it, of what any of us can do in the world. But also, it’s not just your story. You went and did the 25 years of science and you got the evidence and you demonstrated that your hunch, you backed your hunch, but you, you proved it.

And then you presumably wrote in extremely formal academic language, lots of lovely papers so that they would, you know, go past the peer review process. But also you wrote it in a way that anybody on the street could read. That’s quite an art. And you talk about it as an art, which I love.

Corey Keyes: It is an art. It is an art. And if you’re going to be a scientist, I think you need to embrace that side of your life because I think what’s going on, in my humble opinion, when you go on places like LinkedIn, what people are really doing is not telling a story, they’re just promoting their research. Like, look at me, look at what I’ve accomplished.

And I’m like, that doesn’t bring it to the people that need to hear it. And they’re not going to pay attention to your posts in LinkedIn. The ordinary person, the millions of people, out there in the world aren’t going to give a damn about your posts and how many likes or other people reposting your stuff unless you embrace the art of telling the story of why you did what you did and how you came to the those conclusions.

Alison Jones: So…

Corey Keyes: It’s about storytelling.

Alison Jones: Yes, yes. And that’s, it’s the only way we connect, isn’t it? It’s the way we’re wired. How do you, so there’s a lovely story in the book about your agent reaching out to you saying, we really need this book, I need this book, which doesn’t happen very often in book publishing. Normally the authors are pestering the agents, so it’s nice to read it this way around.

But just that journey of somebody sort of approaching you and saying, we need this book in the world. How did you go about pulling that together so you could put it into book form, if you like, for the man in the street, woman in the street.

Corey Keyes: Yes.

Alison Jones: I’ll have to update that phrase.

Corey Keyes: Yes. That, and those stories are true, that is really what happened. And isn’t it an amazing, if you read the acknowledgement, that is a real story of a series of events that had not happened, this would not have come into being at this moment, because if Adam had done what some people do, which is just talk about ideas from other people as if they’re their own, his own, right? Which happens increasingly, and I find that rather disgusting. But it happens, but he did, and I told him, and he, it’s true. It takes a good person, not just a good scholar, to do the right thing. And in doing the right thing, my agent suddenly not only read that story. But he knew suddenly there was this person, a rather obscure one in the popular world.

I wasn’t obscure in my field, but I don’t think ordinary people knew me outside of that field in the talks I did at conferences. So suddenly he’s lying on his couch or in his bed, wondering what the heck is going on with him, because he’s smart enough to know he wasn’t oppressed, but he had something that was quite debilitating. And he read that article, and he knew immediately. And so suddenly, he, as we can do in this beautiful universe now, go online and he could find all my articles. I don’t think he read all of them, but several. And he really said this. He’s just like, ‘the more I read about your work, the better I felt’.

Alison Jones: I love that phrase. Wouldn’t that be just like the ultimate compliment to a writer, isn’t it?

Corey Keyes: Oh, it was like, Oh my God, yes, because that’s my North Star. Flourishing is what nourishes me. It’s what keeps me in recovery. What makes me feel at home in this world. I knew a version of this feeling. Oh, it just feels good to know that could be part of my life. And there he was, he reaches out and I told Albert, do you realize you should think of yourself as an agent, not just as doing business, you’re an angel. You could be going throughout this universe, plucking out people whose stories need to be told. That’s a beautiful way to envision what you do, Albert. Please think of it that way, because that’s what you did to me, in my opinion. You were an angel. You plucked me out of the universe, you and Adam. And said here,

Alison Jones: The world needs this.

Corey Keyes: Yes, but here, this has been the bane of my existence, according to some people, I don’t, I don’t go out and do a lot of self promotion because I’ve always had this attitude, if what you’re doing will mean something to the world, it will see it and recognize it and come to you. And that means you have to be patient. And you have to wait and you have to do the work and put your ideas out there in the formal universe and let it percolate.

And suddenly what happened, a moment came along and a whole series of angelic like events conspired and said, Corey, you need to do this book.

Alison Jones: I want to talk to you about writing as well. Yes, I guess here’s the million dollar question. If somebody’s just setting out on this journey, they probably haven’t got 25 years of academic research behind them, but they have got something that they know is going to be useful in the world.

What’s your best tip for somebody setting out on that journey, starting to write their book?

Corey Keyes: I’ve been thinking about that question because you sent that question ahead of time. And I found the writing process to be one of the most enjoyable, therapeutic periods of my life. It was like an intense period of artistic work that wasn’t mad. It was beautiful. You know, there’s typically this vision of the mad artist and the mad person doing, you know, a lot of work. I was very intense. I would get up at four in the morning. I couldn’t wait to get up and I couldn’t wait to create that sacred peace, which is the most sacred peace I could find, which is the morning quiet. There’s nothing more sacred than the quiet that happens when the day is beginning, and before anything else is awakened, even nature.

And there I am, an hour in, and suddenly the birds are starting to wake up. And suddenly people are just starting to awake. And I can’t stop, because suddenly I was like, I can’t stop. I can’t tell you where that came from. I can only tell you that something, this was incubating for a while. It was gestating for a while. I I had pieces of things that I had written in notes I tucked away over my 25, 30 year career. And they were all pieces that were part of things that I was preparing to potentially use at that moment when, if the universe came calling and said, you need to write this, like the quote that I ended with, that Robert Kennedy and the Russian artists write, ‘why not look to the stars?’

I found that 15 years ago, and I tucked it away because I knew that was the way I would want to end the story. So I know we all, my recommendation is to let something incubate and gestate that you know it is something that is, you just have this hunch that there’s something good, but don’t release it before it’s time.

I think sometimes we’re just so gung ho and we feel we have to get a book out every three or four years and a great article out every year. And I’m like, for me, that wasn’t natural. for me, it was like, you had to build up And pull in pieces so you had a story that wasn’t just about a moment. It was the arc of a piece of your life that you were telling.

Not a moment, an arc.

Alison Jones: And what’s lovely as well is that often we have these kind of fragmentary insights and moments of clarity and we see something interesting. If you know that you are going to be writing a book, even if it’s not tomorrow, you almost have a sort of center of gravity to hold it all, don’t you?

 You can collect it all together and it can, as you say, incubate. So there’s something really powerful about that intellectual, creative home for the thinking that you’re doing over years and years and years potentially.

Corey Keyes: Yes, I think of it kind of like what we do when we’re just out walking. We look at the world around us and we pick up things.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Corey Keyes: There’s just something natural about that, isn’t it? I was like, I see something and I want to, oh, I want to bring that with me. I need it back home. Not because I want to dislodge it from its place where it’s being. But it’s going to be part of something I have a little bit of a vision for. But I know I’m going to use that. That means something.

And they are fragments. And we do that naturally in nature and somehow nature does it naturally by blowing things all over the place, doesn’t it?

Alison Jones: I’m thinking about going to the beach with my children and there’s a shell, that’s my shell because it speaks to me.

Corey Keyes: Yes, it speaks only to you, and then you have to remember why, and then you tuck it away in a place where it’s there, it’s not lost, it’s just going to spend time waiting for the rest of the fragments to come together.

Alison Jones: It’s a beautiful image. Thank you.

And I always ask my guests as well, and I’ve pre-warned you about this, to recommend a book and I’m fascinated to know what it is that you, what do you have for us?

Corey Keyes: Well, I have a book that I don’t think would be, maybe I’m wrong, on the list of something that business folks would say is relevant, it’s the book I’ve read more than any other book ever, and it’s called Tribe. I don’t know if you’re… yes, I’ve read this again and again and again, and I’m going to give a presentation this week about how we can transform higher education into a place that creates lifelong well being.

And I’m going to be talking about a result that, that’s fascinating me. It came after I submitted my manuscript and I was no longer able to add anymore. You know, that point where they take it away from you…

Alison Jones: No, but we need to say this and we need to add that and this was a great story I’ve just read. Yes, I know.

Corey Keyes: It’s this colleague of mine who had been studying the Canadian military personnel and particularly moral injury, but we’ll set that aside and what, because moral injury, not just in the military, was very conducive to languishing, which is seeing and witnessing and carrying out acts that are contrary to your morality and your ethics, right?

But what was striking to me, 75% of the Canadian military personnel were flourishing. It was the lowest level of languishing I’ve seen in data that’s been published around the world to date. And Sebastian Junger talks about how when he was embedded in this platoon in the middle, I think, of Afghanistan, in Afghanistan at that time, where it was very violent and they were subject to constant threats, was put in a situation that was tribe like, and where they suddenly needed each other.

They had to trust each other. Differences didn’t matter, whether by race or education, where you came from and he described, among other things, he felt better and slept better than he had ever slept, and felt before.

Now people, and he writes about during the World War II Blitzkrieg on London, right? He writes about the story of Londoners, the leadership of the UK thought everyone was going to break down into mental illness and there would be chaos. Yes, it was just the opposite because suddenly they were put into situations where they had to do for each other the things in order to help each other not only survive, but by focusing on helping each other get through this, they were doing the things that were conducive to flourishing.

They were connecting. They were contributing. They were being challenged to be better people. I mean, and he describes this too, and I’m thinking what businesses and higher education need to learn from this is that what people need is when they’re sent in to do work, hard work, because people aren’t averse to adversity. What they need is a small group with the same mission that has each others back and they’re going out there to accomplish something meaningful.

Now, I’m not out here to say it’s about war. That’s not the point. It’s about putting people in situations where they need each other to get through that day, and they’re forced into situations to act in ways they would not normally do because that are conducive to flourishing.

Alison Jones: It’s fascinating and it’s sort of ironic, isn’t it, that we have to be put in those situations before we, before we realise it. I know.

Corey Keyes: Yes, we do have to be almost forced to need each other, and suddenly we realize in needing each other’s help, we’re doing so much more than we bargained for. We’re not just surviving. We’re creating the conditions for flourishing.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. It’s such a great recommendation. Thank you.

And Corey, if people want to find out more about you, more about Languishing, more about your research, where should they go?

Corey Keyes: Well, I’m not a website kind of person. I didn’t create a website for me. And frankly, I don’t know if I ever will, even if this book succeeds. That’s not my style. The book is a great place to start. And if it helps you, share it with others that you want to help and start creating your own community that’s devoted to the five vitamins that lead to flourishing.

Alison Jones: Do you know, I’ve never had that response when I’ve asked somebody that question before. How refreshing. Thank you.

It’s been an absolute joy talking to you. I could have, we could just do this all day. We can’t, unfortunately, I’m going to have to wrap it up. But thank you so much for your time today. It’s been such a pleasure.

Corey Keyes: Well, thank you for having me, Alison. I appreciate it.

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