Traveling to the mountains of Switzerland brought me in contact with one of my top five strengths: vitality, or zest. We had planned to have a relaxing week taking in the fresh mountain air, but the landscape of the Swiss Alps is so rich and diverse that every day I felt drawn to actively discover it.
I was constantly urging my companions, Why don’t we take a look at what’s behind that turn of the road? Why don’t we try this little path? The nearest village seems really close! What’s that sound!? Let’s go check out that waterfall! If we’ve come this far up the mountain, why don’t we make it to the very top?
Lucky for me, my friends were also in a holiday mood and were happy to join me in my discovery impulses. As the days went by, my hunger for ever-bigger discoveries and exciting experiences grew. And with it, the width of my smile in the photos and my sense of personal power and purpose. I was on a mission to find exhilarating experiences for me and my friends. And then I realized—I was using one of my top strengths!
It was the first time I had seen zest so clearly as a vital part of who I am. The VIA’s character strengths assesment defines zest as follows: Approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or halfheartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated.
What a marvelous, life-affirming quality! But I grew up feeling it more as a drawback than a positive. For the most part, my parents were too busy with their own issues to encourage me to actively and constructively express this aspect of myself. I remember telling my mom, “The river is frozen—let’s go and explore what’s on the other side.” She replied, “It’s cold and windy outside. You better stay home.” And I stayed.
As love is also one of my top strengths, I was motivated to adapt to the people I love and not to cause turmoil. Well, not always, anyway. Sometimes this hunger for bold interaction with life’s adventures manifested as “unauthorized” and risky hikes and expeditions, often involving my younger siblings and neighbors’ kids. I also was known for being able to come up with many creative ideas, to say the least, for outdoor games. And if something went wrong, everyone knew who was to blame for the idea … So I grew up feeling that my enthusiasm for life and discovery was “too much.”
Years later, my psychotherapist laughed when I asked how I should go about taming my exuberance for life. “Silly you!” She wasn’t actually saying that, but it was implied. “Just because there were people around you who couldn’t keep up with you, it doesn’t mean there aren’t people who would love you for that!’’ And I saw her answer expressed in my friends’ eyes as we adventured in the Swiss Alps.
What is vitality? For me, it is a quest for authenticity. By going a little farther, by reaching a little higher, by stretching my muscles a bit more, I am stepping out of my habits and comfort zone, and into a realm of authentic experience. Isn’t this what most artists, travelers, and mountaineers do?
After taking that little path to a village that wasn’t supposed to be that far, we were thankful to arrive a couple of hours later in Cafe du Mont Fort, where we refreshed our burning feet in the town fountain and drank local beer. On our way to have a look at that waterfall, we came a across a field of the biggest and sweetest wild strawberries I’ve ever tasted in my life. We were so inspired that we sang ABBA songs all the way down the mountain. And on our way to the very top of the mountain, we had the most in-depth conversation of the whole trip. “I have to trust your hunches about where to go more,” one friend told me.
It is at the juncture of my physical vitality and imagination where my authentic life happens and where true desire is born. Now that I’ve seen the power and magic of Mauvoisin Dam, the sixth highest arch dam in the world, I hope to hike next summer in the wild and less inhabited areas of the Swiss Alps, and into the Italian Alps. Now that I’ve seen cows and goats in the meadows at the very top of mountains, I want to attend a goat cheese preparation workshop. Now that I’ve experienced sincere hospitality in the remote mountain village of Sarreyer, I want to taste more of their local wines and beers. That itch to come back for more is the best takeaway from a trip like this.
And, at the end of the day, those who told me to stay home are my biggest fans. It is so heartwarming to learn that my photos on Facebook have insprired people to finally take that trip they were pondering.
I’ve noticed that many people who have zest as a top strength, when asked to think of a situation when they most felt alive and connected to who they are, recall a trip to the Caribbean or the Himalayas. They remember adventure, plunging into some unexpected situation and successfully tackling challenges.
But how do we transport vitality from these grand, out-of-the-ordinary experiences into our daily lives? How do we feel “alive and activated” even in the mundane moments? That’s the big question—one that I’m exploring every day.
Anda Klavina is a positive psychology practicioner and art consultant operating in Riga, Monte-Carlo, Basel, and around the globe. www.leaderswithguts.com.