MacArthur SES & Health Network
MacArthur SES & Health Network

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Vitality and Vigor

Summary prepared by Brooks Gump in collaboration with the Psychosocial Working Group. Last revised November, 1997.

Chapter Contents

  1. Definition
  2. Measurement
  3. Relationship to SES
  4. Relationship to Health
  5. Limitations
  6. Selected Bibliography and References


It is difficult to draw clear distinctions between vitality and vigor. Both refer to the presence of energy, enthusiasm and, in general, "aliveness" and the absence of fatigue, weariness, and exhaustion. Although some questionnaires are described as measures of vitality, others are described as measures of vigor. Measures of vitality and vigor have a high degree of item overlap and, therefore, these terms are used interchangeably.

"Energy" is a defining feature of vitality and vigor. However, this energy is not well defined in the literature. For example, Selye (1956) proposed that individuals possess a limited reservoir of "adaptation energy" that is expended when facing environmental and disease stressors. Selye made the distinction between caloric energy and adaptation energy, however, the nature of adaptation energy is largely unknown.

In the absence of clear measures of this hypothesized "energy," more recent conceptualizations have referred to vigor and vitality as moods or subjective states.


The most widely used measure of vitality is the Vitality subscale in the short form (SF-36) of the health status survey of the Medical Outcomes Study (MOS). The vitality subscale is a 4-item scale, with two positively worded items and two negatively-worded items. (Did you feel full of pep? Did you have a lot of energy? Did you feel worn out? Did you feel tired?)

Ryan and Frederick (1996) have developed a scale of Subjective Vitality. In a series of studies, this scale was shown to be, in varied samples, associated with self-actualization, mental health, self-esteem, positive emotions, and greater self-motivation. Conversely, distress, negative emotions, and external locus of control were associated with less vitality. This scale seems to have reasonably good validity and internal consistency, however, reliability estimates were not reported. In addition, this scale is reported in an unpublished manuscript and seems to have found limited use outside of Ryan's lab.

The most widely used measure of "Vigor" is the Vigor subscale of the Profile of Mood States (POMS). Items are endorsed on a 5-point scale ranging from "Not at all" to "Extremely." Some items from the Vigor subscale include: alert, weary, exhausted, energetic, vigorous, and worn out. In some studies, a short form of the POMS is administered with a 3-item measure of Vigor (energetic, vigorous, and lively).

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Relationship to SES

The MOS and POMS are typically used as measures of outcomes in studies of health and well being. Therefore, few reports of associations between SES and vitality or vigor are available. However, in Karen Matthews and Michael Scheier's CABS study (Scheier, Matthews, Owens, Schulz, Bridges and Magovern & Carver, 1999) (N = 309), the vitality subscale of the MOS was administered as well as measures of SES and health. In this study, the vitality subscale was significantly correlated with both reported income and education (rs = .14 and .17, respectively, ps < .01). Therefore, those with higher incomes and more education report greater vitality. There is also some evidence that negatively-worded items (feeling tired and worn out) may be more strongly associated with SES (rs = -. 17 and -.16, respectively) than positively worded items (feeling full of pep and energy; rs = .09 and .15, respectively).

Relationship to Health

Again, the MOS and POMS are typically used as measures of subjective well-being outcomes. Therefore, studies typically report associations of vitality/vigor with other measures of physical and psychological health (see "Limitations" section for discussion of problems with these cross-sectional designs). For example, greater vitality (measured with the MOS) is associated with fewer chronic physical conditions (Lerner, Levine, Malspeis, & D'Agostino, 1994), fewer symptoms reported by those with HIV (Wu et at., 1991), and fewer sore throats and painful nodes for those with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (Buchwaid, Pearlman, Umali, Schmaling, & Katon, 1996).

In Matthews and Scheier's CABS study, vitality was significantly associated with measures of underlying disease severity (ejection fraction, r = -.12, p =.03; and New York Heart Association classification (NYHAC) category, r = -. 10, p < .05; age was controlled in all analyses). In addition, significant associations between SES and health were found (including an association of ejection fraction with income as well as NYHAC with both income and education, ps < .05). In a formal test of mediation, vitality was found to significantly predict ejection fraction (p =.04) and reduced the previously significant association of ejection fraction with income (p = .16). However, the associations of income and education with NYHAC were not found to be mediated by vitality.


Measures don't distinguish between physical and psychological forms of vitality/vigor. Therefore, endorsement of "exhaustion" may represent feelings of physical exertion in the context of poor physical fitness or it may represent psychological demands (stressors) in the context of poor coping. Given the effects of poor physical health on physical fitness and physical exhaustion, distinguishing these alternative forms of vigor may become particularly important in studies of health.

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In addition, most studies of vitality and health are cross-sectional. Therefore, it is possible (and likely) that poor physical health reduces vitality and vigor. If vitality and vigor are to be considered as variables with predictive utility, it is necessary to conduct longitudinal studies with vitality and vigor predicting health outcomes.

Finally, the overlap between vitality and vigor and vital exhaustion must also be considered.

Selected Bibliography and References

Anderson M, & Lobel M (1995). Predictors of health self-appraisal: What's involved in feeling healthy? Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 16, 121-136.

Buchwald D, Pearlman T., Umali J, Schmaling K & Katon W. (1996). Functional status in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome, other fatiguing illnesses, and health individuals. American Journal of Medicine, 101, 364-370.

Cowen E L (1991). In pursuit of wellness. American Psychologist, 46, 404-408.

Lerner D, Levine S, Malspeis S, & D'Agostino R B (1994). Job strain and health-related quality of life in a national sample. American Journal of Public Health, 84,1-580-1585.

McHorney C S, Ware J E , Raczek A. E (1993). The MOS 36-item short-form health status survey (SF-36), II: psychometric and clinical tests of validity in measuring physical and mental health constructs. Med. Care, 31:247-263.

McNair, D M, Lorr, M, & Droppleman, L F (1971). Profile of Mood States. San Diego, CA:Educational and Industrial Testing Service.

Ryan R M, & Frederick C (1996). On energy, personality and health: Exploring the dynamics of subjective vitality, unpublished manuscript.

Scheier, M F, Matthews K A, Owens J F, Schulz R, Bridges M W, Magovern G J & Carver C S (1999). Optimism and rehospitalization after coronary artery bypass graft surgery. Archives of Internal Medicine, 159(8):829-35.

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

Wu A W, Rubin H R, Mathews W C, Ware J E, Brysk L T, Hardy W D, Bozzette S A, Spector S A, & Richman D D (1991). A health status questionnaire using 30 items from the Medical Outcomes Study: Preliminary validation in persons with early HIV infection. Medical Care, 29, 786-798.

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