Cooking Is My Antidote to Languishing

I did not know that “languishing” had a clinical meaning until I listened to Adam Grant’s interview on the Ten Percent Happier podcast the other day. According to Grant, it’s the state between wellness and depression. As a busy lawyer and mom, I immediately recognized this description. As Grant put it, it’s a state where you might say that you “aren’t sick but aren’t well.” We’ve all been there, but Grant suggests that too many of us stay there and allow ourselves to progress on into depression.

So, what do we do when we find ourselves in this not quite great state, in that place where we are uncomfortably abiding but not thriving? My experience with meditation tells me that the first step might be to avoid panicking and to understand that all things, including nasty feelings, don’t last forever. My life experience also tells me that we need rest phases in our lives to grow. But, when you notice the feelings persist or take a turn for the worse, some action might be needed. Grant gives us a clue as to what might help.

He suggests that we ought to look for an activity that offers us the 3 m’s:

  • Mindfulness
  • Mastery
  • Matters

In the interview, Grant explained that playing Mario Kart with his family really helped him during the pandemic. Why? Because it required mindfulness by totally occupying his mind. It engendered in him a sense of mastery or prowess in playing the game and improvement as he progressed. And, it mattered. It was a fun thing to do with his kids and a way to connect with family that he couldn’t see in person.

I’m not a video game person and, historically, I have been extra terrible at driving games. Even so, as I listened to Grant, I knew what my Mario Kart was: cooking. I love cooking. I have loved it since I was a kid and outgrew my Easy Bake Oven in a matter of weeks because the small light bulb inside was insufficient to properly bake my cakes. This pushed me to start making recipes from old kids’ cookbooks that I’d scrounged from yard sales by age 7. By middle school (much to the delight of my parents), I was cooking family dinners by myself.

After 30 years of cooking, I can now walk into the kitchen and come up with dishes on the fly to either make a classic dish I’ve been craving or use up what I have on hand. It’s a thrill to reuse leftovers in inventive ways and a game to transform one dish into something else entirely. During the pandemic, it offered me the practical benefit of forcing me to stop my work for a while and get away from my computer because my family and I had to eat (and my husband is a terrible cook). So, instead of using my brain to find answers, I got to take a break and use my senses and creativity to come up with something good. And, of course, it mattered that I ate something good and decently healthy, that my kids experienced some new kinds of foods, and that I could offer us something that we couldn’t get delivered from takeout.

As a litigator, there are many days and weeks that I don’t have the time to cook or have to come up with something super easy, like tossing meatballs and marinara in a crockpot. Even so, cooking during these times helps me find little pockets of play in the midst of the grind. When my calendar opens up again, it’s like coming home when I get to cook something that requires more thought, planning, skill, and attention. After some time in the kitchen, I usually find myself ready to dive back into work again because letting my senses drive the bus in the kitchen gave my rational brain a much-needed chance to rest.

I know that cooking isn’t for everyone, but I think everyone should have an activity that they can rely on the same way I rely on cooking and Adam Grant relies on Mario Kart. Look for something that fills up your mind and appeals to your senses, helps you feel a sense of mastery, and, for whatever reason, matters to you or someone else. If you find this activity and keep coming back to it, you may find that it is a powerful antidote against languishing and part of a happy life.

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