Zest, The Spice of Life... or is it? - Happier Human

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. If you want to see how your strengths line up, I highly recommend taking the Authentic Happiness Signature Strengths Test (it’s free and quick).

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?

This is post 16 of the Month of Happiness. Check out the rest!


Day 1: Psychostimulants: They might give you happiness; they might give you a heart attack
Day 2: How to Harness the Power of Laughter: An Easy, Effective, and Infinite Source of Joy
Day 3:  Three Good Things, A Small Gratitude Exercise for a Large Boost of Happiness
Day 4: The Right Way to Fake a Smile For Health and Happiness
Day 5: Emotional Contagion: 5 Ways to Get Your Environment to Work for You
Day 6: Ditch Porn – It’s Playboy on (Dopamine Draining) Steroids
Day 7: Why I “Remain” an Introvert, Though the Science Suggests Extroverts are Happier
Day 8: Yoga – It Isn’t Just for Female Hipsters
Day 9: Watch More TV; It Makes You Happy!
Day 10: Kaizen: Accomplishing Big Goals with Tiny Steps
Day 11: Omega-3 Supplementation – Good For The Heart & Vitamin Shoppe’s Bottom Line
Day 12: Good Sleep: Not Optional for Happiness and High Performance
Day 13: One Tab at a Time: 7 Tips to Browse the Web More Mindfully
Day 14: Optimism, The Blind Man’s Gamble
Day 15: A Story of Change, The 5 Willpower Techniques That Create Action
Day 16: Zest, The Spice of Life… or is it?
Day 17: Exercise: Better than Zoloft
Day 18: Relaxation: The Magic Tonic That Cures Headaches & Relieves Indigestion
Day 19: Spirituality for the Irreligious – Getting the Benefits Outside the Cathedral
Day 20: Meditation – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Beautiful

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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