Where would you plot yourself on this highly scientific vitality spectrum?
Do you ever come across a quote so soul-stirring that it inexplicably jumps off the page, grabs you by the shoulders and slaps you in the face? In a good, “wake up to your life” kind of way? Here’s a personal favorite I’d like to slap you with today:
“I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I have just lived the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.” – Diane Ackerman
My face is stinging. Is yours?
We know we’re living longer than ever, but what does it even mean to “live wider”? (Not including the 19 pounds COVID gifted so many of us. Yeah, there’s some extra girth there.) I propose the width of our lives is characterized by the volume and quality of the experiences we actively participate in — the pleasurable things we consciously opt into that heighten our perception of being alive. This is what’s known as vitality, and like money and mimosas, most of us are angling for more.
Vitality is officially defined as a positive sense of aliveness and energy. Some researchers call it our health of spirit, which has an undeniably nice ring to it. Who doesn’t want a healthy spirit? Vitality has also been described as zest (a resounding interest in and experience of vitality), psychological energy (a resource we can harness for valuable action), vigor (the interconnected feelings of cognitive liveliness, emotional energy and physical strength), engagement (the potent cocktail of vigor, dedication and absorption), exuberance (joy’s more energetic cousin), thriving (the marriage made in heaven of vitality and learning) and passion (which some say is a survival mechanism that keeps us interested in life — love that definition).
East Asians refer to a vital force or spirit as ch’i and the Japanese describe ki as a “fervor of vitality” …. also known as the energy it takes to boil the lid off the top of a pot of cooking rice. Do you have enough ki to boil the lid off your proverbial pot?
Why is vitality so important?
Why do we want to increase the vitality and zest in our lives? Why prioritize vitality over any other noble “live the good life” thing to do, like making meaning, or tricking your brain into appreciating what you have? Because vitality plays a massive role in boosting our well-being, in creating a life worth living.
Studies have shown that subjective vitality acts as the tide that lifts the boats of our subjective happiness: raise your sense of aliveness and rise with the tides of happiness; ignore your vitality and get shipwrecked in a low tide of unhappiness and misery.
Embarking upon life wholeheartedly with anticipation and excitement, as though it was an adventure… this habitual approach to life with zesty enthusiasm and energy predicts overall life satisfaction, work satisfaction, and the belief that our work is a calling. Zest-filled people are also more likely to believe their lives are meaningful.
But wait! There’s more.
When we’re operating in high-vitality mode — and not just from a caffeine boost — we’re more productive, active, perform better and with more persistence. Employees with high vitality generate more creative thoughts and contribute more create solutions to problems.
For those of you with a mild case of existential anxiety (so, everyone): our willingness to fully participate in our lives, in rich and meaningful ways, tends to relegate the fear of death to the background. By dialing up the vitality, we benefit from a dialing down of anxiety. A positive correlation exists between our fear of death and our sense that our lives are unlived; the more we fail to live our lives with width, the more profound our death anxiety becomes. Spun more positively, the more we dive in and live our lives with gusto, the less we will experience anxiety about the sucks-to-be-true inevitability of death. Shall we sign up right now for the widening, then?
How do you measure your vitality?
There are degrees of vitality, as we’d expect — something like the spectrum I doodled for you earlier. Just because we’re alive, it doesn’t mean we’re thriving — as any one of us can attest after a series of ho-hum weeks of work that pass us by, consumed with the angst that the better versions of our lives are out there somewhere (but just not here, now).
Researchers have developed the Subjective Vitality Scale to determine if your health of sprit is alive and kicking or digging its own grave. Consider the questions below, and see how you’d answer on a scale of 1 — 5, with 1 being, “dear God, no” and 5 being, “hell yeah!” Ready? Have at it:
I feel alive and vital
Sometimes I feel so alive I just want to burst
I have energy and spirit
I look forward to each new day
I nearly always feel alert and awake
I feel energized
Here’s a bonus question of my own, because I really like the way these words came together above and don’t want you to miss them:
I embark upon life wholeheartedly with anticipation and excitement, as though it was an adventure
So? Are you alive? And if so, how vitally alive are you?
[Here is where magazine quizzes are way more satisfying than scientific scales: with quizzes you get helpful answers like, “your spirit animal is an iguana” that steer important life decisions. With scientific scales, you have to do the heavy lifting and reflect on your answers (or hire a coach to help you figure out what it means if you never “feel so alive that you just want to burst”). (You can still be vitally alive without the bursting at the seams part, FYI.) (Bursting at the seams could also be in the cards for you, though.)]
What did your answers reveal to you? If you answered with a bunch of 3s, you might be feeling decidedly average… dull and flat. More 1s and 2s obviously indicate some early onset rigor mortis, while a pile of 4s and 5s look like life’s getting lived with gusto.
Maybe one question felt like it exposed some necrotic tissue (it’s a hideous metaphor, but undeniably apt). You can avoid the dying part of you for a little while, but in my vast medical drama TV watching experience, gangrene sets in fast if you don’t heal the wound in a hurry. We really must address the parts of you that are dying inside, friend.
For example, if question #4 (about looking forward to each new day) feels rotting and dead, what does that say? Might you need to explore different career options, because YOU ARE ALLOWED TO CHANGE YOUR CAREER IF IT’S KILLING YOU, EVEN ONE CELL AT A TIME? Let this be a vehement encouragement to craft a career you look forward to waking up for.
Maybe my bonus question #7 caught your eye because you’re yearning for an adventure and a global pandemic put a wee wrench in your sojourns. Maybe if you’re being honest you were a little adventure-less even before COVID said you couldn’t fly to India? You’re not alone. Most of us eschew adventure because it’s not synonymous with Being a Responsible Adult. We can reframe that though, right? We can give you permission to embark on mini adventures (like checking out a new neighborhood one afternoon, walking in the rain without an umbrella, hiking into a forest preserve, trying Ethiopian food once and for all… you get the idea).
How to boost your vitality
This article is getting awfully long, and at the risk of draining any vital energy you have left, we’re going to call it a day. Think of it like a cliffhanger to come back for more! I’m going to give you all sorts of research-backed ideas about cranking up your vitality over the weeks to come.
For now, there’s absolutely obvious stuff: more social time with people who energize you, more sleep, more sex, better breakfast. Less smoking, less crappy food (sorry Oreos… soreos!), less stress, less gossip, less sitting, less hanging around with people who drag you down and just want to eat Oreos on the couch. You’ve got it.
Robert Kastenbaum (one of my favorite death researchers of all time) advises us to “live fast and leave a good-looking corpse!” — emphasizing an all-out approach to life that makes up for its finitude with intensity, passion and urgency. While you don’t need to live an Instagram-able life, are you living life in vivid color?
Here’s the thing. You have to opt in. Make a simple choice to focus on one of the 7 questions above and see what you can do about boiling the lid of your pot of rice. Go ki your life up.
Gratitude. It’s a heavy hitter in the positive psychology world — in fierce competition with optimism as the most scientifically studied well-being construct out there. We’ll let the researchers duke...