“Life is not tried, it is merely survived if you’re standing outside the fire.” ~ Garth Brooks
How do you feel each morning when you wake up? Do you feel tired and depleted, or are you full of energy, ready to take on the day? That ability to feel excited and activated, ready to start the day is not the caffeine in your morning Starbucks calling. It’s something deeper. It’s the character strength of zest and enthusiasm.
Zest is defined in the VIA character strengths manual as mental and physical vigor. It’s about approaching life with vitality, not doing things halfway or half-heartedly, and feeling alive.
Interesting research findings have emerged about the character strength of zest.
First, zest, along with the character strengths of hope and teamwork, were more commonly found among U.S. youth than U.S. adults according to research by Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson. Could it be that zest and enthusiasm erode on our journey to adulthood?
Second, “heart” strengths such as zest, gratitude, hope, and love are more strongly associated with life satisfaction than “head” strengths such as judgment and love of learning according to Park, Peterson, and Seligman.
Third, zest is closely tied to work satisfaction. In a survey of over 9000 employed adults, zest not only predicted general life satisfaction, but also predicted work satisfaction and whether a person viewed their work as a calling, according to Peterson, Park, Hall, and Seligman.
Burnout as Anti-zest
Unfortunately, too many people today feel just the opposite of zest: tired and burned out.
Several years ago, I was just such a person. I practiced commercial real estate law for seven years, and during the last year of my law practice, I knew something was wrong. I was chronically tired, cranky, and sick. While I was effective in my law practice, as soon as the adrenaline and stress pipeline turned off, my body crashed. I missed more work in the last 12 months of my law practice than I did in my entire working career up to that point. I was also in the emergency room three separate times with digestive issues, and I suffered from panic attacks on a weekly basis. What I didn’t know was that I was experiencing something called burnout.
I now study burnout and its impact on people and organizations. Burnout is absolutely about the absence of zest. Leiter and Maslach point out that one of the three big dimensions of burnout is exhaustion. Burnout is caused by a combination of too many job demands (things like high pressure and workload and emotionally demanding interactions with clients), too few job resources (things like autonomy, opportunities to learn new things, a supportive leader, and high-quality relationships with colleagues) and not enough recovery (things like physical activities and connecting with other people), according to Bakker and colleagues.
Understanding what activities rejuvenate you and then actually doing those activities is a critical component of burnout prevention and zest recovery.
I have given the VIA to many different groups of people, from soldiers to human services professionals to lawyers, and I am consistently struck by how few of them have zest as one of their signature character strengths.
When I first took the VIA Strengths Survey in early 2009, zest and enthusiasm ranked 19th on my list of 24 strengths. That makes sense because I was in the middle of my burnout and completely drained. I dreaded going to work on Monday, and I had unplugged from many of the people and activities that had once given me so much energy. I left my law practice in June 2009, and started my master’s degree in positive psychology later that year. As part of an assignment for one of my classes, I had to re-take the VIA. This time, zest and enthusiasm appeared 4th in my list of 24 strengths.
Making the decision to leave my law practice and pursue a career that truly mattered to me helped me re-engage and plug back into what gives me energy and vitality. While you certainly don’t have to leave your job to build zest, you do need to understand how much time you’re spending on activities that build or drain your energy.
Energy Busters and Builders
If you’re looking to build your zest and re-energize, try my Energy Busters and Builders exercise. Draw a grid with four quadrants. Label them as shown below:
Fill in activities that belong to each square. Once you completed that step, assign percentages to each square. Most people I work with realize that they’re spending large amounts of time doing activities that drain their energy, both at home and at work. The goal is to do more things from the first row, the activities that build energy.
The character strength of zest can be an important barometer for how you’re doing at work and in life. Companies and individuals would be wise to pay more attention to it.
Bakker, A.B., Demerouti, E., Sanz-Vergel, A.I. (2014). Burnout and work engagement: The JD-R approach. Organizational Behavior, 1, 389-411.
Leiter, M.P., Maslach, C. (2005). Banishing Burnout: Six Strategies for Improving Your Relationship with Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Maslach, C., Leiter, M.P. (1997). The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Park, N., Peterson, C., Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 603-619.
Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, C. Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, C., Park, N., Hall, N., Seligman, M. E. P. (2009). Zest and work. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30, 161-172.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.