Notes for context:
I wrote the below rough outline of a theory of zest and self-regulation in 2022.
This piece makes reference to academic work but does not include full in-text or end-of-text references as yet. I will add these when I have time and energy.
At the time, and now in sharing, the urgent impetus is to put my ideas into the public domain so that my initial ideas are publicly available, and it can be seen that I have had these thoughts and have created this particular theory under my own steam.
In time, I aim to more formally write up and publish this work – initially from a conceptual standpoint and then by testing the claims made in empirical studies.
For now, if you are a positive psychology coaching researcher, I ask you to forgive the rough-and-ready outline of my ideas given the situation I have just outlined. If you have any questions about how to understand or apply the ideas below, feel free to get in touch to talk/exchange emails.
The Bones of a Theory of Zest and Self-Regulation
For over two years, I’ve been saying that the character strengths of self-regulation and zest are linked, and for somebody to be high on zest, they must be self-regulated at a sub-personal level. To my knowledge, only Willibald Ruch (2013) has noted within positive psychology in a throwaway remark that self-regulation and zest might be somehow linked.
When I talk about self-regulation at the sub-personal level, I mean the systems inside us that we do not easily have conscious access to or direct, wilful control over – for example, parts of the nervous system. I say that these systems have to be in a state of optimal functioning for subjective and objective zest to obtain.
In terms of sub-personal systems, I think of the dopaminergic pathways (learning/reward), the reticular activating system (arousal, inertia, wakefulness) and the HPA axis (stress response) as targets of support for better functioning (and, therefore, zest) at this time.
We can infer from looking at the behaviours, traits, dispositions and “symptoms” of non-zesty people to know this is probably along the right lines.
Zest is associated in the literature with vitality, vim and vigour, energy, motivation, action-taking, being “full of life”, influencing others positively, and, crucially, enthusiasm.
The opposites of zest can be associated with dysregulated functioning in particular subpersonal systems.
Arousal/sluggishness/wakefulness – reticular activating system (in which dopamine transmission plays a role)
Low motivation – mesolimbic pathway (reward, learning, motivation, dopamine)
Action-taking – linked to low motivation but specific problems in ventral tegmental areas/nucleus accumbens (mesolimbic) and reticular activating system play a role
Anhedonia – mesolimbic pathway (lack of “wanting” common to depression and burnout)
Stress, fear, negative emotions – HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis)
Impulse control (in particular response inhibition/making “smart” decisions) – mesolimbic pathway, possible general issue with dopamine transporters
Furthermore, the executive functions play an important indirect but CRUCIAL role in zest.
To do what you want and take action, you need to be able to goal-set, plan, goal-strive, self-monitor, and execute on every day matters, as well as on self-directed positive behaviours, i.e., being able to look after general wellbeing.
If the HPA, reticular activating system AND the main dopaminergic systems (mesolimbic/mesocortical systems) aren’t functioning optimally, then you cannot plan and execute things that will make you zesty. You cannot carry out the self-care that you need to stay zesty and well.
(In my view, this is why autistic and ADHD adults are particularly prone to anxiety, depression, and burnout, and, arguably, have the neurobiological deck stacked against them when it comes to zest.)
The basic premise of my theory of self-regulation and zest is this:
If the systems outlined above are supported to function as optimally as possible through positive psychology self-regulation coaching and PPIs, improved subjective and objective zest will obtain. As I continue to maintain: sub-personal self-regulation is the private face of observable zest.
Developing this theory along these lines should make important theoretical contributions to the study of character strengths, as well as solve one-or-two outstanding gaps in general psychological literature on self-regulation.
The individual and societal impact should clearly be substantial.
Positive psychology: theoretical implications
Implications for character strengths research
In positive psychology, we do talk about heart strengths or head strengths and it’s fairly uncontroversial that certain strengths might require certain types of cognitive, affective or somatic interventions in order to curb them or dial them up.
However, have we really plumbed the depths of the possibility that the seat of some character strengths might, in large parts, be very clearly physiological/neurobiological? (And what are the philosophical consequences here? We are not automata, a mere mechanical sum of our cerebral parts but…my brain functioning impacts my character! ADHD emotional dysregulation is a case in point…)
Have we sufficiently considered there could be an interlocking or interdependency of strengths? For example, does the character strength of self-regulation (defined by me as person-level self-directed behaviour regulating the sub-personal systems) have to be in place for outward zest to obtain?
Finally, can we call something a strength when it isn’t something we actively DO?
I have said before that zest isn’t a character strength.
To be kind, you engage in prosocial behaviour. To be brave, you act in the face of challenge. To be prudent, you inhibit behaviour.
What do we specifically engage in to “do” zest?
If you do anything at all, it’s arguably deliberate acts of person-level self-regulation that act on these sub-personal systems.
Are you going to Trek to Everest Base Camp? That’s something a zesty person would do. Well, you need to want it, be motivated to take action, understand what it involves, overcome or manage fears, plan the trip, and plan and execute a training programme.
None of this is happening without optimally functioning dopaminergic systems, executive functions and a calm HPA axis. (Autistic/ADHD folks can help prove the rule here.)
The only sense in which we “do” zest is by actively regulating our sub-personal systems through person-level self-regulation.
I am going to Everest Base Camp. I am already doing yoga, meditating more, engaging in training hikes, journalling about why I want this, and taking “danger hikes” that force me to face my fear of falling. I’m also watching inspirational videos from people who’ve done the hike to build self-efficacy and increase motivational salience to exercise.
I’m not doing zest PPIs to get to base camp. I’m doing self-regulation PPIs!
I have also seen this play out with my existing autistic/ADHD coaching clients. When they come to me, we first get their sleep, morning routine, sensory diet and movement in order before we even think about goal-setting and execution (because I see coaching sometimes fail if that foundation of self-regulation is not in place first.)
Thus, the long and short is that my theory might raise some interesting discussions about whether all strengths deserve a place in the canon, or whether there are primary and secondary, supporting character strengths.
Adding extra explanatory power to Fredrickson’s work on upward spirals
This approach to self-regulation and zest also adds a depth of explanation to Fredrickson’s work on upward spirals and the successful embedding of positive self-directed behaviours.
In fairness, it’s still a bit of a mystery as to why PPIs implemented in one area of life tend to spread via some kind of mystical “happy mission creep”. For example, it’s well demonstrated that if I get better at meditating each day, I soon find it easier to go for a walk each day and, a few months later, I’m accidentally better at managing money and making healthier food choices.
On a broader level, it’s easy to say that there’s some kind of learning happening here. And, in fairness to Fredrickson and all her colleagues (whose work is brilliant), that is noted. Upward spirals require that people pay attention to their self-directed positive behaviours, learn how they impact them and their affect, and use that learning to boost motivation to engage further with perpetuating the positive cycle.
That’s a great model for healthy and/or neurotypical people, and that level of explanation is fine for supporting such individuals.
It doesn’t work so fast or so straightforwardly for my brain as an AuDHD person, however.
We need to add more detail that helps us to better support certain subpopulations that are more in need of extra support with starting, maintaining and riding the wave of an upward spiral, i.e., depressed people, anxious individuals, neurodivergent people, chronic pain experiencers etc.
If the dopaminergic systems pertaining to wanting, liking, learning, and action-taking are not optimally functioning, and the executive functions are also functioning sub-optimally, you cannot:
- Pay attention fully to your experiences
- Fully monitor and process your cognitive, affective and somatic experiences
- Monitor your progress during goal-oriented tasks
- Monitor your overall progress towards a goal
- Plan actions towards a goal
- Crank up goal focus
- Ignore competing stimuli/goals
- Suppress impulses to do other (more pleasurable or short-term focused) behaviours
- Notice and appreciate positive effects or successful emotions/outcomes that spur you on to continue (required by Fredrickson’s spiral model)
- Manage energy to avoid over-/-under exertion
- Experience any necessary alleviation of negative affect such that the upward spiral can even get started!
We must go beyond saying that learning can explain why regulating in one area spreads to others. And we have to be able to explain why this doesn’t work so easily or quickly for some people, and why and how they could be supported too.
Otherwise, the people most in need of upward spirals will never be able to access them and, for me, that’s an accessibility and equity issue when it comes to positive psychology coaching practice.
My more detailed story:
PPIs improve the functioning of sub-personal self-regulation such that, over time, people function better motivationally and in terms of goal-oriented executive function. This allows them to become generally better at executing and appreciating ANY self-directed positive behaviour, which makes them even better still at further positive action, ad infinitem.
Incentive salience will be huge there.
When I did my own yoga-based PPI to boost zest, I found I alleviated distractions, bodily pain and emotional stress such that things I wanted to do could actually be “front of mind”, cranking up dopaminergic wanting to the point I would take action. For example, yoga made me notice that my back hurt, so I booked a massage to help. I wouldn’t have known about my back pain due to nociceptive issues without the yoga PPI. In short, the PPI helped me be present and realise what I wanted to do, and go after it.
Contributions to the broad psychological literature on self-regulation failure and ego-depletion
I recently read the Handbook of Self-Regulation which has all the big names in (Baumeister, Vohs, Barkley etc.).
Psychologists are still keen to understand why some people do self-regulate and manage to achieve their goals, and why some people don’t. They also want to understand how ego depletion works (why we can’t make ourselves do something additional when we’ve already done a cognitively draining task).
The word dopamine is not mentioned in the index or in any of the papers in that volume. And, yet, even our brightest and most-experienced minds are actively puzzling over something that seems very obvious to me…
They ask: What is this psychological “substance” or “energy” that depletes in ego depletion or self-regulation failure?
I’m very sure we should be talking about dopamine levels, dopamine metabolism, optimal functioning of the learning/wanting/liking/motivation systems instead. Not in terms of a substance that gets used up, but as a modern, neurobiologically-informed expansion of the “willpower as strength” approach.
In the handbook, there are two clues that the researchers are separately feeling in the dark towards the answer, but are not there yet,
Several papers mention glucose as potentially having been this resource, as the brain does draw on glucose, and more so when straining to do certain tasks. However, it wasn’t actual glucose metabolism that boosted being able to persist on tasks when already depleted…it was the POSSIBILITY of glucose.
How does dopamine work? One of its functions is to tell us where reward lies by predicting what you’ll get IF something happens. Putting a sugar swab inside participants’ mouths improved task persistence, not actual glucose. This is a strong clue that dopamine is implicated in ego-depletion and that we should be looking at the regulation of reward and learning systems in self-regulation studies.
Another clue from the handbook: several papers list interventions or habits that seem to improve self-regulation or stave off ego depletion.
Proper nutrition etc.
What are all these interventions shown in the literature to promote? Good functioning of the dopaminergic pathways!
You can strengthen your willpower like a muscle by training through the above interventions.
Furthermore, Russell Barkley, the world expert on the neurobiology and psychiatric treatment of executive functioning in ADHDers has a chapter in the volume too, and talks at length about how the proper development and support of the executive functions is crucial for self-regulation.
But, as a field, the experts on self-regulation haven’t connected the dots.
There are two papers I have found outside the handbook from less prominent scholars which suggest that dopamine and willpower are linked, but the idea hasn’t made a splash, and the big players haven’t noticed.
Certainly, within pos psych, I am confident I am the only researcher saying the things I am saying (whether right, wrong, or needing adjustment).
In my view, zest depends on deliberate (and supported) self-regulation at the personal level through PPIs that act on the optimal functioning of sub-personal systems like the dopaminergic systems, HPA and reticular activating system.
It is so abundantly clear to me that this line of enquiry is completely worth pursuing, even if only to rule it out!
Applications and impact
I’m a theoretician at heart, and this line of enquiry has the potential to make useful contributions to theories in positive psychology, and psychology more broadly. I have explained how above.
However, service and kindness are values close to my heart. I also wish to help people and make a positive societal impact through my work as a positive psychology coaching research practitioner. Each year, conditions linked to self-regulation problems cause distress and suffering to millions of people and cost the economy billions of pounds in treatment costs and lost work days. Positive psychology coaching on self-regulation for zest would easily and affordably help languishing, recovering and maintaining people to be well, stay well and make the contribution they want to make to society.
My particular area of focus is using this theory to develop coaching tools, programmes and training to support autistic (and ADHD) adults. Such people are often late-diagnosed, and only diagnosed because they discover their neurodivergence when they have a breakdown or burnout. If these people are lucky enough to be diagnosed at all, as they often have no intellectual disabilities, there is no post-diagnosis psychoeducation and support for helping them recover, understand themselves, and regulate themselves – even though NHS guidelines say they should get support. I believe I can make a societal impact in this area through my coaching research practice.