Cultivating enthusiasm

‘In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm… in the real world all rests on perseverance.’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Last week, we looked at enthusiasm, and some of the joys and challenges it can bring to our lives. Enthusiasm which isn’t grounded in reality is like a tree with shallow roots which is blown over by the first gust of wind. It’s relatively easy to kick-start a burst of enthusiasm, but even easier to deflate it again. You may know a person who, every time you meet them, breathlessly extols the latest self-help book or diet or guru or TV preacher. They’ve finally found ‘it’ – the one thing which will turn their lives around and set them on the path to happiness and fulfillment. Except that next time you see them, they’re preoccupied with a completely new ‘it’, the formerly wonderful ‘it’ quite forgotten.

It’s much more difficult to stay with something long-term – to remain committed to a teacher or a craft or a sport or religion through the inevitable ups and downs and the tedious, repetitive parts – and still retain some of that enthusiasm which probably helped you to get involved in the first place.

One of the greatest barriers to enthusiasm might also be that it makes us vulnerable. We put ourselves on the line when we show enthusiasm – we’re saying, in effect, this is precious to me, this is something I feel passionate about. It’s so easy to deflate someone’s enthusiasm – just a little pinprick, and the bright red balloon becomes a sad scrap of rubber. It might seem much easier to be cool, cynical, to not show the world what we care about.

Mindfulness meditation can help us with all three of these factors. It can provide a grounded counter-balance to over-excitement, to be more realistic about our present reality – to neither overplay nor underplay our expectations. Mindfulness can help us develop beginner’s mind, an appreciation of what is happening right now, which is useful when we want to stay with something long term without getting bored by it. Mindfulness also helps us become more comfortable with our vulnerability, to be honest about those things we care about, but perhaps to also choose more wisely who we share our enthusiasm with. Not everyone wants to hear all the ins and outs of the novel you’ve been working on for the past ten years, but sharing it with a person who does, and who actually, genuinely, wants to read the latest version of Chapter 1 – that is priceless!


Weekly practice idea:

On a piece of paper, write down what you feel enthusiastic about. If little comes to mind, perhaps remember some things you enjoyed doing as a child. Pick one of these and find a way of including it in your week, even if it’s only for ten minutes.

Anja Tanhane


‘I think the really good mountaineer is the man with the technical ability of the professional and with the enthusiasm and freshness of approach of the amateur.’

Edmund Hillary

One of the most endearing, positive qualities we can have in our lives is that of enthusiasm. It adds an extra sparkle to our day, motivates us to go the extra mile, brings us endless joy, and inspires and uplifts those around us. The word enthusiasm comes from the Greek en theos, which literally means ‘God within’, or ‘inspired by God’. Like grace and love, there is an inspired quality to enthusiasm – we all know what it feels like, but we can’t manufacture or control it.

Because enthusiasm is so beneficial, it is all too easy to try and force enthusiasm – perhaps in a work situation where everyone has to be upbeat and revved up all the time; or in religious group, where your enthusiasm is proof of your religious conviction; or in intimate relationships which operate mainly in a heightened state. Sometimes in these situation we may start out with genuine enthusiasm, but that initial flush can be difficult to sustain. Our enthusiasm may then develop a fake, pinched quality – it comes across as forced, and doesn’t really convince anyone. The strained smile, the false cheerfulness – these can be used to hide dysfunction and disengagement, to stop people from asking difficult questions or expressing doubt.

Enthusiasm is also easily manipulated – an inspirational speaker can fire up a crowd to behave in ways the individuals themselves would not, for better or worse. Add some music, balloons and colour, clapping and singing together… We can soon find ourselves being swept up in the mood of the crowd, which could be euphoric, one of the best experiences of our lives, or else it could be nasty, downright dangerous.

Enthusiasm without wisdom reminds us of the saying – ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’. There are many times when enthusiasm is not warranted – where it’s much more skillful to take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and either walk away or else participate in something with a high degree of skepticism and caution.

As Edmund Hillary has expressed so well, as responsible adults we need to balance our learning and experience with the childlike enthusiasm of a beginner. It’s easy to end up at one end of the scale – either heavy with world-weary ennui, or else sparkling with fireworks exploding all over the place. Next week, we will look at ways of cultivating enthusiasm which are healthy, and based in reality.

Weekly practice idea:

When completing a task which is a little tedious, imagine yourself being very enthusiastic about it. Playfully, not taking yourself too seriously, imbue the task with enthusiasm and notice how this feels.

Anja Tanhane