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By Ben Dean Ph.D.

Vitality [zest, enthusiasm, vigor, energy]

Approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or halfheartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated

The strength of vitality is centrally important and one of the key five strengths that are most highly correlated with happiness and wellbeing. (The other four strengths are curiosity and interest in the world, hope and optimism, gratitude, and the capacity to love and be loved.)

Vitality Defined

"A vital person is someone whose aliveness and spirit are expressed not only in personal productivity and activity-such individuals often infectiously energize those with whom they come into contact." (Peterson and Seligman, 2004, p. 273)

In both the physical and mental sense, vitality refers to a feeling of aliveness. The word itself is derived from vita or "life." In the physical sense, this vitality refers to feeling healthy and capable and energetic. Psychologically, this state of aliveness brings a sense that one's actions have meaning and purpose.

It is important to note that vitality is more than just arousal. Vitality implies an infusion with positive energy (as opposed to nervous, angry, or caffeine-induced arousal).

Although Power Bar manufacturers would have you think otherwise, the energy associated with vitality is distinct from caloric energy. Unless you are seriously deprived of calories, eating and drinking don't boost vitality (Selye, 1956). Eating too much, on the other hand can decrease vitality. And exercise (caloric output) can boost vitality (Myers et al, 1999).

The Deep Roots of Vitality

The concept of vitality has deep roots in Eastern philosophies and healing traditions. The ancient Chinese concept of Chi, the Japanese notion of Ki, the Balinese notion of Bayu, and the Indian notion of Prana all refer to an underlying life energy or force that flows through living things and is the basis of life and health. Ancient and enduring health practices from acupuncture to reiki to yoga focus on manipulating and increasing the life energy.

Early Western psychodynamic psychologists such as Freud, Jung, Reich, and Winnicott incorporated the notion of life energy into their theories of mental health (and illness). At the heart of these theories was the notion that we have a finite amount of psychic energy (or, as Freud called it, libido). Internal conflict, stress, and repression detract from our energy, and freeing ourselves from this conflict allows greater access to this energy.

What Encourages and Inhibits Vitality?

Researchers have linked positive social contexts with increased vitality (Ryan & Frederick, 1997). In a study of nursing home residents, those residents who had varied social contacts throughout the day had higher levels of vitality. (As a side note, I wonder if extroverts are more likely than introverts to get a vitality boost following social interactions.)

Vitality is strongly associated with general physical and mental health, but it is not a simple relationship. Research suggests that most things that have a negative effect on physical health or mood also have a negative effect on vitality. Smoking, a poor diet, inactivity, and a stressful environment are all negatively associated with vitality (and health).

However, researchers have also found individuals who are off-the-charts in vitality even though their bodies are sick or broken. In a study with very old and severely disabled women, 20% possessed striking vitality according to the researchers' measures (Penninx et al., 1998). And in a study of individuals with chronic, debilitating pain, the level of pain experienced by individuals was unrelated to their degree of vitality. A fear of pain, however, was negatively associated with vitality. Also, individuals who were seeking treatment for external (e.g., family pressure) rather than internal reasons were less likely to experience vitality (Ryan and Frederick, 1997).

Interestingly, the Character Strengths and Virtues Handbook and Classification did not report research testing the effectiveness of ancient healing practices such as reiki, acupuncture, and yoga in increasing vitality. I suspect that such support may be out there and would welcome any references you could provide. Regardless, the tradition and history that surround these practices make their exploration mandatory if increased vitality is your goal.

Here is a selection of exercises designed by Psychologist Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia to build vitality based on Dr. Haidt's ideas:

  • Do something because you want to do it, not because you have to do it.
  • Get a good night's sleep and eat a good breakfast to give yourself more energy during the day.
  • Do something physically vigorous in the morning (e.g., go for a run, do power yoga, jump on a mini-trampoline, do an exercise video).
  • Go out of your way to become more involved in an organization to which you already belong.
  • Find your passion. What do you love to do? If you already know what your passion is, then build time for it in your schedule. If you don't, then try to discover it. What did you love to do when you were younger? Try it again now.

References and Recommended Readings

Myers, A. M., Malott, O.W., Gray, E., Tudor-Locke, C., Ecclestone, N.A., Cousins, S.O., et al. (1999). Measuring accumulated health-related benefits of exercise participation for older adults: The Vitality Plus Scale. Journal of Gerontology, 54, M456-M466.

Penninx, B.W.J.H., Guralnik, J.M., Simonsick, E.M., Kasper, J.D., Ferrucci, L., & Fried, L.P. (1998). Emotional vitality among disabled older women: The women's health and aging study. Journal of the American Gerontological Society, 46, 807-815.

Peterson, C. and Seligman, M. E. P. (Eds.). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ryan, R. M. and Frederick, C. (1997). On energy, personality, and health: Subjective vitality as a dynamic reflection of well-being. Journal of Personality, 65, 529-565.

Selye, H. (1956). The stress of life. New York: McGraw-Hill.