Last updated on 18th May 2023
Energy is an eternal delight. William Blake
About every three months, I have a day's check-in with a dear friend. We've been doing this for two or three decades. It combines the joy of hanging out with a best friend while also helping us lead fuller, truer lives. As the saying goes "A friend is someone who sees the potential in you and helps you to live it." During our discussion yesterday evening he asked "What gift would you most want during the next three months that would nurture all the things that are important in your life?" I slept on this question and the answer that emerged very clearly this morning was "Zest/Vitality". So I plan to experiment with making this a big focus over these next months.
Why might this be really important and helpful? Last month saw the publication of a delightful tome - The Oxford handbook of self-determination theory - edited by the great Richard Ryan. Chapter 10 in the handbook is by Richard and his colleague Christina Frederick and is titled - The energy behind human flourishing: Theory and research on subjective vitality. This is very much what I plan to write about in this sequence of blog posts. The chapter's abstract reads: " ... Research on subjective vitality, defined as the phenomenal experience of aliveness and of having energy available to the self, has demonstrated the centrality of this experience of energy to wellness and flourishing. Research has shown that subjective vitality varies not only with physical conditions but also with different types and conditions of motivation. Generally, more autonomous motives are associated with enhanced vitality, whereas controlled motives diminish subjective energy. Findings also show that satisfaction of basic psychological needs (for autonomy, competence & relatedness) enhances subjective vitality, whereas need frustrations deplete one’s sense of energy and aliveness ... Subjective vitality has been studied in many domains, beginning with exercise and physical activity and extending to areas such as health and wellness, sleep, energy in the workplace, and the importance of nature to the experience of vitality. Across contexts and characters, subjective vitality remains one of the most phenomenally accessible and predictive indicators of wellness available."
So the hugely respected & influential Self-Detemination Theory very much highlights the importance of vitality & zest. What about Positive Psychology, the study of human wellness & flourishing? The wonderful 2004 book Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification, edited by Chris Peterson & Martin Seligman was a "groundbreaking handbook of human strengths and virtues ... the first progress report from a prestigious group of researchers in the Values in Action (VIA) Classification Project, which has undertaken a systematic classification and measurement of universal strengths and virtues. This landmark work makes possible for the first time a science of human strengths." At the linked website ... the VIA Institute on Character ... they write "Character Strengths are the positive parts of your personality that impact how you think, feel and behave. Scientists have identified 24 character strengths that you have the capacity to express ... Every individual possesses all 24 character strengths in different degrees, giving each person a unique character strengths profile." There is a free Character Strengths survey on the VIA Institute site that has been taken by about 25 million people. Knowledge of one's strengths can help one flourish. I've written quite extensively about this - see, for example, a series of posts linked to Twelve practical suggestions for exploring our character strengths.
How does all this relate to Vitality & Zest? Well of all the 24 Character Strengths, Zest is very much central. In her major review - The eudaimonics of human strengths: The relations between character strengths and well-being, Claudia Harzer wrote "Across all indicators of well-being (i.e., subjective well-being and psychological well-being) zest, hope, and curiosity were the most substantial correlates among the character strengths." And on the VIA website, they write "Zest means approaching a situation, or life in general, with excitement and energy, not approaching tasks or activities halfway or halfheartedly. People who are high in zest are excited to get up in the morning, and they live their lives like an adventure. Zest is a dynamic strength that is directly related to physical and psychological wellness. This strength has the strongest ties to overall life satisfaction and a life of engagement." Mm ... so, of the 24 character strengths identified in the VIA Classification Project, Zest is the one most strongly linked with overall life satisfaction ... this sounds pretty important. How do we cultivate this quality?
This initial blog post in the series on Zest aims to highlight why this quality, this strength, of Vitality is so very important. I've looked at this through the lenses of Self-Determination Theory and of Positive Psychology. I'll now use a third lens ... that of the body's metabolism. Metabolism has been defined as "The chemical changes that take place in a cell or an organism. These changes make energy and the materials cells and organisms need to grow, reproduce, and stay healthy. Metabolism also helps get rid of toxic substances." Last year the Harvard psychiatrist Chris Palmer published his book Brain Energy.
More to follow ...