This is a short article, only about 430 words. But for a while I put off writing it, not because it was difficult or confronting, or I wasn’t interested in the topic, but simply because I couldn’t be bothered. I also thought: even if I do write this story, who’s going to read it? Like, seriously, who gives a crap any more?
In the age of COVID-19, nothing seems particularly worth caring about, especially work. Psychiatrists call this state “languishing”; Harvard Business Review has even described it as a kind of grief. Whatever you call it, prolonged lockdowns have plunged us into a state of collective ennui so profound it’s like a waking coma.
“Lots of people are feeling that lack of motivation and fulfilment, and a sense you’re not going to be able to achieve anything,” says Professor Ian Hickie, co-director of Health and Policy at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre. “Lockdowns have made that particularly prevalent now.”
Broadly speaking, people’s lives proceed according to a kind of formula: make plans, act on plans, achieve a result, move on.
“There is a sense of joy and pleasure in completing a task,” Hickie says. “But COVID has disrupted all that, at work but also at home. All the planning to go overseas or for a wedding or for a party you now have to suspend or cancel. After a while, you stop planning. And if that goes on indefinitely, people just go, ‘What’s the point?’ ” Even before the lockdowns, COVID created a sense of dread in people. “They were chronically aroused and worried,” Hickie says. “Now that stress has combined with fatigue.”
There’s lots of advice about how to overcome languishing. A recent article in The New York Times suggests doing “five good deeds a day”, such as donating blood or sending a friend a link to a podcast they might like. The article also recommends practising gratitude: thanking a supermarket checkout person or clapping for healthcare workers.
But what if you don’t know any nurses or doctors to applaud gratefully? Hickie says the answer is to go small. “Look for projects that have some chance of being completed, like baking, board games or playing cards. Gardening, too. Completion yields that sense of satisfaction.”