My day job involves a relatively repetitive task in some respects. Going through a first appointment with a new client generally involves the same process and questions, although the answers are always distinctly unique to the individual and their life context. A phenomenon I've come to ask about in these first appointments is 'zest' - a word that to me describes the requisite enthusiasm and energy required to live a fulfilling life. This word first came up because I noticed that people were describing changes in their drive that did not necessarily meet the criteria for 'depression.' They described general feelings of fatigue, getting little enjoyment from things, loss of motivation, a sense of dread when stressors present themselves, and a focus on surviving rather than thriving - they were literally dragging themselves through each day until bed time where they slept poorly and awoke tired, just to do it all again the next day. People commonly said they never imagined that their life was going to end up this way, that they felt lost, and unsure of how they got to this point or what the path out is.
The next time someone was telling me about having no sense of enthusiasm for living anymore (although they were not in the least bit suicidal), in my attempt to accurately try and reflect their experience, I fell onto the word zest and that person resonated strongly with it - there was a connection with having "lost their zest." Another use for the word, is that bright outer part of any citrus fruit - the part with all the colour, flavour and spice. It's almost like it would not be fruit anymore without this defining part. So what does it mean to be human when your own zest and vitality has eroded? And what does it mean for our society's overall wellbeing if great numbers of us are living our life feeling this way?
Also, WHY are so many people experiencing this now - what kind of process is going on in our world that this is so prevalent? They don't necessarily feel low in mood (although sometimes they also do given how unfulfilling life feels) and yet they aren't thriving. I've come to relate zest to the reward centre in the brain, and the dopamine required for feeling a sense of drive, passion, and to seek and be enthused by things like meaningful work, close relationships, and playful or creative pursuits. As I focus on nutritional psychology as one branch of my work (which is integrative of physical/nutritional and psychological interventions), I'm interested in the connections between zest and reward/dopamine, unremitting stress on the body/gut-health, and changes in our dietary intake. Typically, people experiencing a loss of zest have had chronic stress for a period of time. There are myriad forms of stress which can involve insecure attachment and trauma, living with anxiety or unrelenting expectations, grief, addictions to substances or behaviours, and difficulties with closeness in peer/romantic relationships.
However, there is also a more insidious type of stress from the 'rat-race' of modern society. This creeping stress involves a relationship with "busyness," juggling full-time (often sedentary and screen-based) work, family and financial commitments, around a "fast-food" diet (processed packaged foods) and "fast-consumerism," fuelled by high stress-inducing caffeine and alcohol intake (not to mention other drugs and medications). Couple this with insufficient nourishing foods, inadequate movement, lessening community support, and the non-prioritisation of deeply pleasurable activities (I don't mean Netflix binges) or deep intimate connection to offset the stressors. There is a disconnect from people, purpose and planet, and therefore what the point of it all really is. The question should probably be, given all this, why wouldn't humans be feeling so crappy?
How does someone (or a whole society) regain their enthusiasm and energy and re-orientate themselves to the kind of life they do want to be living? Perhaps a life that is more in touch with how we are designed by evolution and our physiology. Of course the answer to this is unique to the person (/society) asking the question of them-self, however there are some common domains that I see people focus on as they extract themselves from a zest-less existence. These include:
- Reflecting on values and the kind of person/partner/parent they want to be, and what would really matter to them if they were to die tomorrow.
- Reducing chronic stress through many small and large lifestyle changes - health journalist Pilar Gerasimo talks about "Healthy Deviance" and there are a bunch of these types of steps discussed via her and Dallas Hartwig's podcast The Living Experiment
- Addressing a whole foods diet with optimal protein, quality fats, and complex carbohydrates so that the fuel for the reward and energy systems are abundant. Note that vitamin and mineral deficiencies are important to address - especially B12 (and all the B vitamins), Iron, Zinc, and Magnesium -as appropriate supplementation is often required after chronic stress to get the body replete.
- Supporting a shift from the stress-response into the relaxation-response (e.g., using breath-work or Yin yoga) from which restoration, pleasure, creativity, empathy for others, intimacy, and contentedness can arise.
- Interacting differently with difficult thoughts, feelings and sensations - not avoiding or numbing these, but finding the willingness and developing the skill-set to allow these important human experiences to happen.
The very real crisis of losing zest can motivate radical shifts that might not have occurred prior. I observe people to gain a deeper sense of satisfaction and connection with themselves and those who matter the most to them. They disable the pursuit of "more", "perfectionism", and the impossible search for happiness (outside of them) over contentedness (inside of them). And this opens the door widely to being here now, which is a very zestful existence.