From Languishing to Flourishing: Part 1

This blog post is based on two sessions of the Connections Sunday School class that Matt led in March that is looking at the mental health crisis among Gen Z (13-25 year olds). While it will contain all the information shared, it lacks the great discussion we had around these topics. If you want to experience that, join us on Sunday April 2nd 9:45-10:45 am for the conclusion.

From Languishing to Flourishing: Walking with Gen Z at Home and at Church may seem like an unnecessarily wordy title, but keep in mind that I’m the Staff Associate for Youth Ministry at Davidson College Presbyterian Church, so it really just goes with the territory. I’ve been in the role of working with middle and high school students since 2004 and that makes a lot of what this post talks about personal: it’s describing students that I know and have known, but it’s also descriptive of my own journey. I first encountered a student with a serious mental health issue in the early 2010’s and realized that I was completely out of my depth in terms of how to help them. I don’t know if it’s coincidence, but me coming face to face with adolescent mental illness in that student corresponded with a dramatic rise in adolescent mental illness across the country that has only accelerated. And, of course, the pandemic has not helped either. I felt that first hand when on vacation in the summer of 2020. At the midway point of the trip I realized I hadn’t been at work in days, hadn’t even checked my email, but somehow I still hadn’t relaxed into my vacation. It’s like something had knotted up inside me and rest and relaxation wasn’t enough to unknot it this time. And that began my own journey in mental health.

One of the places that my experience with the student and myself in the summer of 2020 has taken me is to The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology where I am in the middle year of a master’s program in clinical psychology. And it’s there that I encountered the idea that research = me search. That is what a lot of this content is: me trying to come to grips personally and professionally with the mental health crisis. I share that also to say this: this information is not meant to be authoritative or therapeutic; in many ways this is cultural observation and critique and I hope you can receive it as such. It’s not that I don’t believe what I’m sharing, I just want to acknowledge my own limits. As a high school English teacher told my class, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” So, please feel free to push back and challenge anything I say here.

What’s Going On with Gen Z?

First, who is Gen Z? Gen Z are American’s current 13-25 year olds, so roughly middle school students through recent college graduates. Parents of those middle schoolers are Millennials (current 26-42 year olds) while parents of the college grads are Gen Xers (43-58 year olds). Generational boundaries are always messy (and defined differently by every research group), but are more or less useful.

While we can look to multiple sources for evidence of a mental health crisis among Gen Z, I will be utilizing data obtained by Springtide Research Institute. Here’s the main gist of what they found in four key statistics:

It’s pretty simple to summarize this: about 50% of 13-25 year olds are feeling extremely or moderately depressed, stressed, anxious, and alone. This in and of itself is pretty shocking, but I think it’s necessary to keep this in perspective by considering the rest of America’s current generations. When Gallup asked Americans to self-report on their mental health, here’s what they found:

While majorities of Americans continue to rate their mental and physical health as excellent or good, the percentages saying each is excellent are the lowest on record. Mental health ratings remain lower than their prepandemic levels, while physical health ratings have been less affected by the pandemic.

I think it’s important to notice here that this data, along with Springtide’s, is self-reported. That is significant because of two shifts that I think we have all seen over the last ten years: greater awareness of mental health issues and less stigma around acknowledging mental illness. Unfortunately, there’s no way to untangle the way those two realities have changed the landscape from what we might consider to be “objective” data. However, Gallup has been asking this same question for decades and that, to me, makes the data valid because it’s being compared to itself, not some other source. In other words, regardless of our age, Americans are feeling the gap between where we think our mental health should be and where it is.

I think we also saw this in the response to a 2021 essay by Adam Grant (an organizational psychologist at Wharton College) that helped create the overly long title of this post: “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.” Here’s how he describes languishing: “Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being.” Grant managed to name what so many of us were feeling and his article became the most read on the NYT’s site for the year. I think a good portion of the languishing many of us were feeling in 2021 was based on our circumstances (Grant has since said that the national mood is lifting), but I still think there are many ways that it’s still very true and very dominant, especially if 50% of our young people are really struggling.

Why Are We Languishing?

At a certain point we have to ask, “Why?” Let’s start with why Gen Z is struggling more than older generations. There are, of course, a lot of theories out there, but I think the biggest thing is that Gen Z has had less years on the planet and less opportunity to gain the wisdom and resilience that are only granted to us through experiences that we would rather have not had to go through. I also think that Gen Z is feeling more keenly anxiety over gun violence and school shootings, climate change, and economic uncertainty.

But what about the bigger why? Why does it feel like so many of us are languishing? There are lots of potential culprits here (social media, technology, cultural changes in parenting/childhood, etc.) and I think the short story is that they’re all guilty. But I also think there’s a cause behind the causes and that’s what I’m really interested in. So what’s that cause?

Answering this question, I believe, involves challenging an assumption that many of us have about mental health. Because American culture is an individualistic culture, we tend to see mental health through an individualistic lens. If Mr. A develops depression and Ms. B develops anxiety, we see their path back to flourishing as going through whatever tools we have available to us. In general terms, psychiatrists will see a medical issue and will prescribe medication; therapists will see an issue in the unconscious or cognitive/behavioral realm and individual counseling is often the route. But what happens when what Mr. A and Ms. B are experiencing also describes 50% of their peers? It’s at that point that I think we need a wider perspective.

This is one of the many reasons I’m thankful for a faith that looks at every individual human being on earth and says, “You bear God’s image. You were created by and are loved by God.” This is a startling connection between every one of us that, when Jesus comes around, finds its culmination in what we call the Great Commandment: our highest calling in life is to love God and to love others as ourselves. Because no one is excluded, the Hebrew word shalom is particularly descriptive and relevant. While it’s usually simplified as “peace,” it has a bigger and broader mission than that: shalom is every person living in perfect relationship with themselves, everyone else, and God. It is a wholeness where no one and no thing is left out and inherent in it is a concept of universal flourishing.

So, if an individual is not experiencing flourishing, shalom asks us to step back and consider the individual’s relationships: to immediate family, to extended family and friends, to communities (e.g., neighborhood, work, church, school, etc.), and to the culture at large. At this point we’re in the realm of systems that exert influence in great and small ways on the individual. And as I consider a culture where 50% of our young people are struggling, the conclusion I have to come to is that our culture is a system that’s not set up to move us towards shalom. In fact, I think the sad truth is that very few of our systems are set up in that way, and maybe even only one. But we’re all participants in those systems, whether we know it or not. Which brings me to another tough statement: no one is at fault, but everyone’s responsible. And if we’re responsible, we have a choice about how we participate in or resist systems that create languishing.

Finally, Some Good News

About the same time that I was really digging into this research on Gen Z, something pretty dramatic showed up in the news: Harvard’s Adult Development Project, the longest longitudinal study of its kind (over 80 years!) began publishing its findings. And not only that, they claimed to have found the secret to happiness and it wasn’t something exotic or unobtainable. The secret to happiness, perhaps unsurprisingly, is relationships. Dr. Robert Waldinger, the head researcher, shares that the people with the strongest relationships were less likely to be depressed, but also to have less physical health issues like diabetes and heart disease. It almost seems like we were made for connection with others!

Let’s take a look at Springtide’s data again real quick:

That about half of our young people are struggling with depression, stress, and anxiety while about half are moderately or extremely lonely is not likely to be a coincidence. Especially when one considers this reality about American life:

Some surveys reveal that around 60% of people in the U.S. right now report feeling lonely on a pretty regular basis. . . . If you look at rates of loneliness, there’s lots of evidence that they’ve been increasing linearly since the 1970s.

Dr. Laurie Santos (Why Americans are lonelier and its effects on our health)

We wondered together in Sunday School about what happened in the 1970’s that started this decline in connection and increase in loneliness, but I don’t know if we had any good answers. I think we can look towards an American obsession with efficiency and productivity that helped us win a world war, but I don’t know if it has done us any favors in peace time. Digital technology has helped us take that to an extreme where Americans are more connected to more people than at any other point in history because of social media, but still lonely. I wonder if we have substituted quantity for quality? Here’s how I’m starting to think about it: my kids, like every other kids on the planet, like snacks. So much so that, if we let them, they would snack continuously and arrive at meals too full to eat the protein and veggies that we know they need for long-term health and not just short-term satiation. In the same way, we connect to friends and acquaintances and total strangers via social media and feel like we have had our fill of connection for the day, but in reality we’re starving for the essential nutrients that social media just doesn’t provide.

One of the many reasons I believe this is the Still Face Experiment, which you can see here:

There’s a lot to unpack in this video, but let’s just start with one big idea: there are three types of communication at play when humans interact: verbal (our words), vocal (how we say our words), and nonverbal (our body language and gestures). At age one, the baby in this video is likely too young to have much of a vocabulary, but she is clearly well-versed in vocal and nonverbal communication. What the experiment shows us is that the presence of the mother without communication is enough to send her into infantile despair. But the mother is able to repair and reunite with the baby purely through vocal and nonverbal communication (she is using vocal, but it’s doubtful the baby understands the content of the verbal communication).

Now consider the majority of the ways that we communicate with each other: by text. Whether iMessages, tweets, or emails, our communication preference has eliminated the nonverbal and vocal from our communication and leaves us with just verbal (and, by the way, you’re turning into your parents if you call instead of texting). I won’t blame you if you think what I say next is a stretch, but I wonder if these frankly impersonal ways of communication are creating a daily Still Face Experiment where we find ourselves wanting to connect with another person, but the connection lacks the vitality that helps us to feel seen and acknowledged. Again, it may feel like a stretch to some, but I wonder if the depression, anxiety, and stress that is so prevalent today is an echo of the baby’s despair at being ignored by the one she trusted to connect with her. Here’s the reality, courtesy of psychiatrist and theologian Dr. Curt Thompson: “We all are born into the world looking for someone looking for us, and we remain in this mode of searching for the rest of our lives.” And we experience a cost when our experience is not being found.

Before moving on, I want to clarify that I don’t think this is the only thing we’re missing in our connections or the only problem with social media; rather this is just one example of the ways that we have settled for relational snacking. Frankly, there’s a lot to say about social media and how it’s impacting us (especially young people). I highly recommend the research that Jonathan Haidt is doing on this topic if you are interested in the (probably) large role that social media specifically has in the current mental health crisis.

From Relational Snacking to Relational Feasting

Moving towards stronger connections isn’t a matter of following three steps or making overnight changes. Loneliness has been on the rise for fifty years and the systems that are reinforcing it are perfectly designed to keep perpetuating themselves. I think this is slow but necessary work, and I’m discovering it for myself as well. As an introvert and husband and dad, my alone time is precious and scarce, but I am slowly unwinding myself from a definition of self-care that is exclusively “me time.” For instance, working on a bike by myself in the garage is an activity I love and find significant value in, but I’m trying to reclassify it as a hobby or calming activity. It seems contradictory to engage in self-care by connecting with others, but I’m experiencing the wisdom of it.

One of the ways I’m trying to change my mind is interactions with strangers. The rise of the self-checkout and a myriad of other efficiencies has attempted to remove interaction with strangers from our lives, but the reality is that we’re relationally poorer for it (even though, again, it might turn us into our parents). Yes, there are times it is intrusive and/or awkward to make conversations with people you don’t know (and maybe especially on airplanes), but Dr. Robert Waldinger has some interesting research for us. Later on in his TED Talk, he shares about an experiment where people commuting home on a subway were broken up into two groups: the control group did their usual thing and did not engage other passengers while the other group was asked to engage strangers and have conversations. Guess which one reported feeling happier and more satisfied? Bad news, introverts.

(And since I’m an introvert, let me just be the first to say that I think we can overdo the alone-ness. Yes, it’s lovely and peaceful and quiet, but we are made for connection. Being an introvert doesn’t mean we aren’t made for connecting with other people, it just means that it has an energy cost for us. So by all means, recharge in solitude, but just like our phones, we aren’t meant to live connected to the charger 100% of the time.)

Since we’re thinking about relationships and nutrients, I think it’s helpful to turn to some guides about how different relationships can have different types of value for us. Dr. John Townsend takes this metaphor very seriously in his book People Fuel: Fill Your Tank for Life, Love, & Leadership and helps us to differentiate between the types of relationships we have so that we know how relationally filling they will be:

If the concept of relationships as fuel feels a little weird, Dr. Glenn Packiam has a good alternative for the nerds among us: we need a fellowship. Packiam talks about this in his book The Resilient Pastor to get across the types of relationships pastors need, but I believe there’s wisdom here for all of us: we need a variety of relationships and connections with the people around us.

Connection with God

As we near the end of this post, I think it’s important to remember that shalom has three components: relationships with others, God, and ourselves. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that if Santos is right about the rise in American loneliness begins in the 1970’s, it’s also about that time that we start seeing American church attendance dropping (to be fair, Americans’ participation in a variety of civil institutions, including church, has been on the decline). But if we bear the image of God, I can’t help but think that we’re meant to be in relationship with God as well (it might sound crazy, but prayer actually improves mood and brain functioning). So, how are we connecting with God? There’s a lot to unpack here that will have to wait for a future post, but I will share one quick resource: the One Minute Pause app. There are lots of prayer apps out there, but this is the only one I know of that is specifically focused on healing and building union with God. For me it has been a great starting point in connecting with God outside of prayer requests and corporate worship. And it’s made possible by digital technology!

That brings us to just about everything covered in parts 1 and 2. If it’s not too late, we would love to see you in part 3!