Zest

One of the traits I admire (envy) most in people is energy. When I see people who can succeed at their jobs, volunteer, and work on their hobbies, all the while raising kids and being attentive to their spouse, I’m simply in awe. You see, I’ve always been a bit of a low energy person, and so even thinking about what these people can get done in a day is exhausting to me. I feel fortunate if I have enough energy at the end of a work day to make myself a healthy meal, let alone leave the house again. (The horror!) I don’t think having low stores of energy is necessarily a character flaw, but it does have consequences for what I can do in a day and how I go about doing it. And so I’m always looking for ways of increasing levels of energy.

This high-energy trait is known as Zest. The VIA Institute writes: “If Zest is your top strength, you approach all experiences with excitement and energy. You never do anything halfway or halfheartedly.” They continue: “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.” And so, while physical energy is a big part of Zest, it is also connected to emotional or mental energy and the ways we are able to engage with the tasks at hand.

The Christian tradition has little to say about Zest. The only reference in Scripture I can think of to something like Zest says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12.1). While the passage is about persevering in faith, the metaphor is suffused with Zest in the images of a crowd cheering on athletes avoiding obstacles and completing their race. It may be helpful that Zest is in the background of this passage, because I think that’s what makes Zest so important: it is an enabling character trait. Without it, it’s hard to actively engage with anything. Without it, it’s hard to bear any good fruit. It’s likely for this reason that the Judeo-Christian tradition has seen Zest less as a trait that needs to be cultivated than something essential which everyone is expected to have. We are called to bear good fruit; we need energy to do that.

I think this is a big reason why our tradition has had so little to say about Zest but so much to say about its opposite: Laziness, sloth, or in monastic literature, accidie. The book of Proverbs alone contains several references, including “The desire of a lazy man kills him, for his hands refuse to labor” (Prov. 22.25) or “The soul of a lazy man desires and has nothing” (Prov. 13.4). The apostle Paul similarly urges the people of Thessaloniki not to shy away from hard work (2 Thes. 3.8-13). And monastic literature is full of admonishments against spiritual boredom and laziness. Again, there seems to be an assumption in the tradition that the good fruit of Zest is ‘normal’ and anything else is a sinful aberration.

Because of this, I find the distinction in the model between the absence of a trait and its opposite very helpful in this case. As a low energy person, I’ve often been accused, particularly in my childhood, of being lazy. But it’s rarely been a case of not wanting to do things (childhood chores notwithstanding). By recognizing that my lack of activity wasn’t a moral deficiency such as the “deadly sin” of sloth, I was able to treat the right problem. Treating the problem as laziness was never helpful, and if anything those attempts were demotivating and counterproductive. But, recognizing my struggle to be one of managing my energy levels allowed me to think creatively about how I could tweak my life in small ways towards the times when I feel most alert and energetic and those activities that give me energy. And this has likely been the single biggest driver of my increase in productivity, wellbeing and happiness — and all the other good fruit that comes along with that — over the past four years.

This connects to the other half of Zest. It isn’t just about our energy to do things but our engagement with the things that we do. The more engaged we are in a task, the more we will experience it as giving us energy instead of spending it. This is why I often feel more energized after a busy day at work, or a few good hours of writing or painting, than I do after day of doing nothing.

And so, Zest is an enabling trait that helps us lead richer, more productive, and happier lives. Whether low Zest is simply a matter of it being absent or a matter of the presence of a negative trait like Sloth, it prevents us from bearing good fruit in our lives. And so, we need to cultivate Zest as we would any other positive trait.

It’s difficult to see from this how excessive Zest could be problematic. After all, isn’t bearing more fruit the point of all this? Well, yes and no.

A high level of Zest could be problematic if it creates an inability to relax or rest. This is a recipe for disaster. Rest is an important part of living a sustainable life. Without it, whether today, tomorrow, or ten years from now, burnout will happen. This is particularly true for clergy or people in other helping professions. When you see your work as a vocation, as a ministry, it can be hard to value self-care — especially when there are core ideals of self-sacrifice at play. But, as I try to remind my clergy friends, even God rested on the seventh day of the creation story, and even Jesus, the man from whom Christianity gets its teachings on self-sacrificial love, knew when he needed to retreat from the crowds to rest. God may want our service and a good harvest of spiritual fruit, but I feel very comfortable in suggesting that you can do more good in fifty years at 70% of your capacity than you can in burning out after five years at 100%.

Beyond this, however, Zest in its most pathologically high levels could be something like a hypomanic or manic state, where there is a lot of energy but it’s scattered, unfocused, and unable to be integrated into one’s life. While such a state may be experienced by the person as positive, it actually bears no fruit because the energy is so scattered. In this it’s reminiscent of the excess of Creativity I explored last week, or in the discussion of ineffectiveness from last Lent.

But if you aren’t experiencing normal levels of Zest in your life (let alone these pathological ones), if you’re like me and need to cultivate healthy levels of Zest, what can you do? Here are some practical suggestions for increasing Zest:

  • Improve your sleep hygiene! (Most of us probably know the drill by now: regular bedtimes, no food or drink within 2-3 hours of going to sleep, no screen time within an hour of when you want to be asleep, etc.)
  • Exercise! (Again, most of us already know that exercise leaves us feeling more energized.)
  • Know yourself better and lean into the times and activities that work for you. If you’re a morning person, optimize your mornings and leave your evenings for rest; if you’re a night owl, get the rest you need in the morning and optimize your evenings. If you’re an introvert, make sure times of heightened social activities are bookended with time alone. If you’re an extrovert, make sure your week is punctuated with lots of social interaction. If a particular hobby gives you energy, build it into your routines. And so on. It isn’t rocket science — It’s just a matter of knowing yourself so you can work with yourself instead of against yourself.  I can’t stress this point enough. Every positive change I’ve made in my life over the past few years has been the result of making the givens of my life work for me. I’m still the same low energy person I’ve always been, but I’m also now one of those people who get asked “How do you fit all that into your day!”
  • Spend time on what you value most.
  • Think back at a time in your life when you had lots of energy or felt deeply engaged and try to recreate (as much as is reasonable within the context of your current life) the circumstances that contributed to those positive experiences.

Regardless whether you’re a naturally energetic person or have to work at it, I wish you a zesty week. May we all dodge all the obstacles and all the stuff that trips us up, and live the zesty, fruitful lives we are called to live.

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