Zest, The Spice of Life… or is it?

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Are you full of zest?

I hope so – it's the character strength second most correlated with well-being. (Hope is #1).

Positive psychologists use the following 3 survey questions to estimate a person's level of zest. For each question, a 1-5 scale is used, where 1 = strongly agree, 3 = neutral, and 5 = strongly disagree.

  1. ____ I look forward to each new day.
  2. ____ I cannot wait to get started on a project.
  3. ____ I want to fully participate in life, not just view it from the sidelines.

But answering 3 questions takes too much effort :). An easier approximation:

Think of your everyday life. How frequently did you show ZEST or ENTHUSIASM when it was possible to do so?

I answered “occasionally”. That puts me in the bottom 1/5th of the population.

My life is not full of zest.

Is that a problem? Do I need to change?

Two weeks ago, I asked myself the same question, but about introversion.

Extroversion is correlated with happiness. I am introverted… so perhaps I should push towards the societal ideal of extroversion?

I decided no. I realized that there are many types of happiness: silent contentedness, vibrant joy, meaningful engagement, and more.

Some of those types are more easily pursued by extroverts. Some of those types are more easily pursued by introverts.

I decided to focus on improving the quality of my social interactions, rather than on trying to increase their quantity. Deeper rather than wider.

What about zest?

I was talking to a friend a few weeks ago about positive psychology, and I noticed near the end, with embarrassment, that I was speaking with enthusiasm.

Too-serious and too-mellow, speaking with enthusiasm is rare and out of character for me. Experiences like the one I just described are becoming more common in my life.

I didn't suddenly decide to become more zestful – zest arose naturally from the changes in my life.

Different people have different thresholds at which they become enthusiastic. Extroverts have it the easiest – they have more sensitive dopamine receptors. That means that even mundane topics and discoveries can elicit zest.2

I didn't decide to fake enthusiasm until it became natural. That is a strategy that could work, but I choose a more direct path:

Vital Engagement

Rather than trying to force enthusiasm over the latest celebrity gossip or sports upset, I decided to develop vital engagement.

Described by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, vital engagement develops under a set of particular conditions.

The example he provides is great.

“I called on a woman who had been quiet in class, but who had once mentioned her interest in horses.

I asked Katherine to tell us how she got involved in riding. She described her childhood love of animals, and her interest in horses in particular. At the age of ten she begged her parents to let her take riding lessons, and they agreed.

She rode for fun at first, but soon began riding in competitions. When it came time to choose a college, she chose the University of Virginia in part because it had an excellent riding team. Katherine was shy, and, after narrating these basic facts, she stopped talking. She had told us about her increasing commitment to riding, but vital engagement is more than just commitment.

I probed further. I asked whether she could tell us the names of specific horses from previous centuries. She smiled and said, almost as if admitting a secret, that she had begun to read about horses when she began to ride, and that she knew a great deal about the history of horses and about famous horses in history.

I asked whether she had made friends through riding, and she told us that most of her close friends were “horse friends,” people she knew from horse shows and from riding together.

As she talked, she grew more animated and confident. It was as clear from her demeanor as from her words that Katherine had found vital engagement in riding.

Her initial interest grew into an ever-deepening relationship, an ever-thickening web connecting her to an activity, a tradition,and a community. Riding for Katherine had become a source of flow, joy, identity, effectance, and relatedness. It was part of her answer to the question of purpose within life.”3

If you want to have more zest in your life, with the proper combination of ingredients, it will appear – whether at work or with a hobby. The five criteria I've identified are:

  • Frequent opportunities to enter into a state of flow.
  • Frequent opportunities to use and develop your strengths.
  • Frequent opportunities to develop social connections.
  • Frequent opportunities to act in alignment with your values and beliefs.
  • Frequent opportunities to act meaningfully.

What meaningful means will vary from person to person – to me, it means helping others in a way that utilizes my strengths and interests?

My current work contains all of those ingredients. I'm confident that with more time, more zest will continue to arise.

What about you? Does your work or your hobby contain those ingredients? If not, what can you do to mix in those components?

Ideas to Bring More Zest To Your Life:

Research on Zest and Happiness

Proctor, C., Maltby, J., & Linley, P. P. (2011). Strengths Use as a Predictor of Well-Being and Health-Related Quality of Life. Journal Of Happiness Studies12(1), 153-169. doi:10.1007/s10902-009-9181-2

Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (p. 225). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

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3 thoughts on “Zest, The Spice of Life… or is it?”

  1. I’m with you – my daily life isn’t really full of zest. I don’t wake up excited and energetic, and it takes a lot to really get me thrilled. I’d always wondered if there was something wrong with me…But I don’t think there is! I’m not sad, I don’t hate life.. I generally love it! I’m just a very even-keeled, calm person.

    I totally find the zest comin’ out though under the conditions you mentioned. Days where I can write uninterrupted about a subject I love, connect meaningfully with others or go to my public speaking group – yowza! Talk about zest! I think you’ve got the criteria down.

    • I don’t think there is anything wrong with us, per say, but I do think there is a better way. I think being even-keeled & calm provides a lot of benefits, and for both of us it’s probably a part of our personality – not something that we can easily change.

      At the same time, I really think I can do more. Perhaps not a buzzy, extrovert type of excited, but a silent wall of passion sort of thing. It’s hard for me to put down this ideal in words, because I’m not really sure myself what it is I’m aiming for at a concrete level. However, given how important this all is, I think it deserves some serious thought.

      Let’s take just the first component – flow. How much more can we get, and how?

      On the question of how much more, mihaly csikszentmihalyi (the guy who ‘discovered’ the concept of flow) mentioned that some people are biologically more easily able to enter into and sustain flow. Okay, so there is that. What else? Environment & skills.

      On the environment side, you’ve already talked a few times on your blog about ways to induce flow (e.g. mono-tasking, mono-browsing, etc…). The key element you’ve identified is the importance of single-tasking. On this criteria, I can definitely do better (all of us, probably 🙂 ).

      There is one other component on the environment side. The Get Things Done productivity system believes that we need to have a system in place for unloading all of our mental worries into a reliable system (e.g. if we keep on worrying about writing that post or sending that email, it will distract us from single-tasking). On this criteria, I’m not sure if I really want to dive into a super-regiminted system, but I can still definitely do better. I keep track of my todos on notepad documents which get lost all of the time, and I often forget to write everything down on them.

      There is yet another component, I think – but this one is much less frequently mentioned (if at all). One of the sources of the nagging mentioned above is from a sense of insecurity. We worry about, for example, sending that email, because we are worried (which I think is the opposite of security). In all honesty; however, we would probably be better off finding flow and being happy but forgeting to send that email, than sending that email and making a few extra bucks (or whatever it was about). So how can we increase our sense of security (which in turn gives us permission to stop worrying about the future, focus on the present, and acheive flow)? As of now (and I’ll put out a post on this in a few weeks), the only skill based answer I see is cultivating gratitude. Skill based is important because I want to achieve high-levels of performance, and skills generally can continue to be improved.

      The other component of flow is matching skills with strengths. In all honesty, I would rather give a public speech about the stuff I write about on this blog than write about it, BUT I’m fairly certain that’s because I have 7 years of training as a public speaker. So, I think I need to find ways to break up my work into easier bits (flow is best achieved when the task is difficult, but not too difficult).

      The last component I can think of is training attention. Here I’m a fail. I can only meditate for 5 minutes without my mind exploding. I’m working on it though, and extremely excited of my future skill levels.

      So…. I think as I work on all of these components, I will find more flow in my work, which will in turn contribute to the ‘silent wall of passion’ I’m striving for. But I haven’t really thought about this too much. What do you think?

      • I love the idea of a “silent wall of passion.” That more describes what I want than an extroverted, bubbly kind of zest. And I definitely think that’s possible through the ways you mentioned – matching skills with strengths, overcoming insecurity and creating the right environment for it.

        Funny you say that bit about public speaking – though I have no real training, I LOVE it! I’d love to be speaking about this stuff. Writing it is fine too, but speaking puts me in instant flow.

        Since you said you’re a fail in training attention, I’ll pass on my newfound gem: writeordie.com. Now this won’t help with your meditation, but if you struggle with staying focused on your writing, this will do the trick! I have a hard time staying on the page, but with the help of this, I’ve gotten to the page (and stayed there) every morning this week.

        Anyway, I definitely think we can create this “silent wall of passion.” For me, this brings a vision of spending my day totally engaged, whether it’s writing, reading, spending time in nature – where everything in my daily life is purposeful.

        I really appreciate your detailed response – and I think you’re really on to something with this “silent wall of passion.” It’s easy to see that you’re a very deep (and original) thinker. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Amit. 🙂


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