BY BEN THOMAS | Photography by Niklas Hamann
If you’ve been feeling more sluggish than normal lately, you’re not alone. From The New York Times to NPR, The Guardian, and Twitter, millions of people are asking the same question: “Why are we all so tired these days?” The answer might seem obvious: we’re living through a global pandemic, and it’s dragging on longer than many of us expected. But we already knew that—and we’re supposed to have adapted by now. So why do we seem to be getting worse?
Medical experts point to the usual suspects: poor sleep, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, and limited social interaction. All are probably involved. Meanwhile, other pundits say our cells’ mitochondria are out of whack, or blame an imbalance in our chi energy. Even Pope Francis has asked Catholics to pray for people with “burnout,” implying the problem may be more spiritual than physical.
What’s less clear, though, is why this is happening now. Has something changed in the past few months?
It sure doesn’t feel like it—in fact, that may be a big part of the problem. We spent most of the past year counting down to Vaccination Day… and now here we are, months later, our plans still stuck on pause, with each new COVID variant lowering the likelihood we’ll get to press play any time soon. So we sit in life’s waiting room, dreaming of a future whose start date looks increasingly distant.
This sucks. We’re tired of it. But is there anything we can do about feeling tired in general? As it turns out, our symptoms themselves may hold some clues to the answer.
What is “energy,” anyway? “What we commonly call energy is actually our perception of the body metabolizing carbohydrates or fat,” writes Nick Paumgarten in The New Yorker. What we call “energy” is actually “our experience of burning energy, converting it to work. It’s a metabolic mood.” In other words, feeling “low on energy” may be a metabolic complaint.
“That, anyway, is the mitocentric perspective,” says Martin Picard, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Picard is convinced that mitochondria (those “powerhouses of the cell” you may remember from junior-high biology) make us tired when we get stressed. “My working hypothesis,” Picard says, “is that mitochondria do a lot of the sensing and perceiving and integrating of signals. That they are the cellular antenna, or little brains that receive, process, and integrate information.”
Even Pope Francis has asked Catholics to pray for people with “burnout,” implying the problem may be more spiritual than physical.
Picard’s research team fills plates with skin cells, then exposes them to the stress hormone cortisol to see how they react. “Cells age faster if you expose them to stress,” he explains. “They burn energy faster. It’s as though cellular anxiety causes cells to breathe faster... They’re wasting energy, and we don’t know why.”
Maybe Picard is onto something with this mitochondria hypothesis—and he’s not the first to try to boil "energy" down to a single physical factor.
Ancient Indian philosophers named it prana, "breath," or "life force." Chinese scholars called it chi. In the 1700s, hypnotist Franz Mesmer claimed he’d discovered a universal "vital fluid" that animates us all. French philosopher Henry Bergson called it élan vital: "life momentum." Sigmund Freud famously named it "the libido." Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich defined it as “orgone energy,” and claimed he could siphon it from stormclouds into “accumulators”—outhouses in which people allegedly had supercharged orgasms. If Reich’s obsession hadn’t inspired Kate Bush’s song “Cloudbusting” half a century later, we might’ve forgotten about orgone energy a long time ago.
Snake oil solutions have always been in ready supply, too. In 1887, for example, The New York Times ran a piece promoting Dr. Greene's Nervura Nerve Tonic—a "Perfect and Permanent Cure" for "Exhausted Nervous Vitality," of which the eponymous doctor claimed to have discovered the "Real Cause." A century and a half later, doctors still tell us many of the same things: tiredness has physical causes, and these can be addressed with a combination of sleep, diet, exercise, and pharmaceuticals.
The problem with all this, though, is that metabolism is just one piece of a far more complex puzzle.
The English word “dream” comes from the German traum, which also gives us the word “trauma.” Lockdown life feels like a bad dream we can’t wake up from, and it's traumatizing us one home-stuck day at a time. Although we may tend to think of traumas as sudden, sometimes violent events—a car crash, a fistfight, a gunshot—the really big ones can drag on for months, or a year, or even longer, inflicting mental damage that reverberates in a self-amplifying wave of negativity.
Which makes it all the more surprising that many of us rolled into 2021 with a growing sense of optimism—or at least a tentative display of hope. The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reported a steady improvement in Americans’ mental outlook as the year’s first half unfolded: a full 41 percent of us were feeling anxious and/or depressed last January, but that number dropped to just 29 percent by the Fourth of July.
Lately, however, "pandemic fatigue" and "COVID burnout" is creeping back upward: a 2022 General Social Survey reports that 34 percent of Americans now identify as "not too happy." And no wonder! We waited, we planned, we got vaccinated; and now we are languishing, as New York Times writer Adam Grant eloquently puts it. “Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness,” he explains. “It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”
A 2022 General Social Survey reports that 34 percent of Americans now identify as "not too happy."
In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Elizabeth Wellington calls this feeling “pandemic exhaustion.” The American Psychoanalytic Association terms it “Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience” (PTSE); an “ongoing trauma response” to the stress of living through a plague with no end in sight. "[Pandemic exhaustion] has been defined as the state of being worn out by recommended precautions and restrictions related to the pandemic,” says Dr. Ian H. Newmark, chief in the division of pulmonary medicine at Syosset Hospital in Syosset, NY. “[It] is often manifested by boredom, depression, and other psychological issues including physical exhaustion."
Whatever we call this problem, though, one thing’s clear: our stress and uncertainty lead to poor sleep, unhealthy diet and lack of exercise—which create even more depression and anxiety, perpetuating the cycle of suck. Bad dreams indeed.
So here’s an outside-the-box idea: is it possible we might feel better if we just… stopped trying to feel so damn great all the time?
On lists of the world’s happiest countries, Finland consistently ranks near the top. What those poll numbers don’t tell you, though, is that Finns define “happiness” differently than Americans do. While we tend to equate happiness with achievement and self-actualization, Scandinavian people associate it with hygge (pronounced “hoo-gah”): the cozy comfort of a crackling fireplace, a cup of hot cocoa, and a friend by your side. Clearly we’re measuring positivity by two very different metrics.
In fact, people from many cultures find U.S. hyper-positivity somewhat baffling. In this Twitter thread, for example, I chatted with an international crowd about Americans’ compulsion to respond to "How are you?" with "I’m great!" regardless of how we’re actually feeling. Outside the States, you’re more likely to hear, “I’m all right,” “Not bad,” “Can’t complain,” or just “Normal.” And in a weird way, these relaxed expectations relieve a lot of social anxiety: it’s okay to just be “okay.”
This was my biggest culture shock when I moved to the States. When I’d answer “eh, fine, not bad” etc. people would get super uneasy and an awkward silence would ensue. https://t.co/gCwJ5Mybf9
November 29, 2021
This was my biggest culture shock when I moved to the States. When I’d answer “eh, fine, not bad” etc. people would get super uneasy and an awkward silence would ensue. https://t.co/gCwJ5Mybf9— Pinar, an otter 🦦 (@cheja)
“Instead of saying ‘Great!’ or ‘Fine,’ imagine if we answered, ‘Honestly, I’m languishing,’” Adam Grant writes. “It would be a refreshing foil for toxic positivity—that quintessentially American pressure to be upbeat at all times.” Subtract the melodramatic verbiage, and Grant’s got a pretty solid antidote for toxic positivity: admit how you’re genuinely feeling, to yourself and others. Overcoming denial is the first step toward healing from grief.
As long as we’re dropping the fake smiles, we might also do ourselves a favor by letting go of non-productivity guilt. As I wrote in this essay for MedMen's Ember, many of us respond to unreasonable multitasking demands by finding ways to become more productive—which only frees up more time to be filled by even more unreasonable demands on our attention. To break this cycle, all we have to do is stop trying to do more, and give ourselves permission to do less. This works wonders; I speak from personal experience.
Toward the end of his New Yorker article on exhaustion, Nick Paumgarten recounts the surprising results of a stroll in the park with a friend. “[One wearable fitness device] gave me credit for burning two hundred and twenty-four calories,” he writes. “The readout from [another device] suggested that I’d undergone my most grueling physical trial… in many years, possibly decades.”
Were these just glitches? Paumgarten proposes an alternate possibility: “My friend and I had had an excellent rapport on our stroll—a surge of groovy vibes and hearty laughter. Could this energy, the kind that is projected, perceived, and exchanged, yet purportedly impossible to measure, have somehow spun the monitor’s compass, like a poltergeist or a solar flare?”
In more down-to-earth terms, can friendly social interaction re-energize us? Psychologists think it can, and does. While some social interactions can be draining, positive connections “increase our enthusiasm, stamina, and effectiveness,” recharging our mental batteries, which seems to translate into better sleep, smarter dietary choices, and more motivation to hit the gym.
But if you don’t feel any of those things, that’s fine too. It’s okay to be languishing. It’s all right to just feel “normal” or “not bad.” You don’t have to be “doing great” all the time—and realizing that fact can be immensely freeing. Somewhat paradoxically, accepting your anxiety can make you less anxious. Acknowledging depression can alleviate the suck.
What can we do about pandemic exhaustion? Accept that we have it, for a start. As for the rest—better sleep, healthier eating, more exercise, and social interaction—that may follow when we stop trying to force it, and let it happen in its own time.
Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture, and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect. Find him on Twitter at @writingben.