“Life is not tried, it is merely survived if you’re standing outside the fire.” Garth Brooks
How do you feel each morning? Do you wake up feeling tired and depleted, or are you full of energy, ready to take on the day? That ability to feel engaged and activated, ready to start the day is not the caffeine in your morning Starbucks calling – it’s something deeper called zest.
Zest is one of the character strengths listed in the VIA (Values in Action) Inventory of Strengths created by Drs. Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson. Zest is defined as mental and physical vigor. It’s about approaching life with vitality, not doing things halfway or half-heartedly, and feeling alive. (Peterson, 2006).
Interesting research findings have emerged about the importance 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 (Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2006). 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 (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004). 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 (Peterson, Park, Hall & Seligman, 2009).
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, and burnout is absolutely about the absence of zest; in fact, one of the three big dimensions of burnout is exhaustion (Leiter & Maslach, 2005). 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) (Bakker, Demerouti, & Sanz-Vergel, 2014).
Understanding what activities rejuvenate you and then actually doing those activities is a critical component of burnout prevention. 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.
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:
Builds my energy at work:
% time spent here:
Builds my energy at home:
% time spent here:
Drains my energy at work:
% time spent here:
Drains my energy at home:
% time spent here:
Fill in activities that belong in each square/section, then assign percentages to each. Most people I work with realize that they’re spending far too much time doing activities that drain their energy, both at home and at work. Over time, increase the amount of time you spend on activities that build energy.
Zest can be important barometer for how you’re doing at work and in life. Companies and individuals would be wise to pay more attention to it.
Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP, is the Founder and CEO of the Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute, a practice devoted to helping busy professionals prevent burnout and build resilience. Paula is the author of the e-book, 10 Things Happy People Do Differently.
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. See also, 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: Oxford University Press. See also Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues. New York: 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.