The Mystery of Enthusiasm
If you’re like me and I suspect like many people, one of the most significant obstacles that you have to overcome in your life is the lack of motivation to do things. When confronted with a task that I need to do, I have become an expert in finding ways not to do it. A big part of overcoming the lack of motivation is learning how to develop one of the essential skills for success – the ability to create enthusiasm.
But enthusiasm can be a bit of a mystery. Think about it:
- Where does your enthusiasm to do things come from?
- Is enthusiasm a feeling that just randomly pops up in our emotional life?
- Are there triggers in our psyche that can control to ignite the flame of enthusiasm?
- Have we been conditioned to like certain things and dislike other things by outside forces?
- Is it possible to learn how to develop and control your enthusiasm, to turn it on when you need it to motivate you to do something you don’t want to do?
That last question holds the key.
Imagine if you could turn on your enthusiasm like a switch. You don’t want to finish that report. Flick the switch, and now you are really enthusiastic and ready to dive right into it.
You don’t want to write that article…flick….now you LOVE to write, and you can’t stop yourself from getting it done.
Your partner asks you to clean the dishes, or paint the kitchen, or stain the deck – all terrible and draining chores no doubt… flick…somehow you can’t hold yourself back from scrubbing those pots with all your heart’s desire.
We all think that enthusiasm doesn’t work that way. There’s no enthusiasm switch in our psyche that we know where we can just wink our left eye and turn it on. Part of who we are has to do with our social conditioning, and over an extended period – our whole lives for that matter – we have been conditioned to like some things, to enjoy some things, and to hate some things.
All of these things – things we like, things we love, and things we hate – may be very intentionally chosen, but they can be entirely arbitrary as well. You may find, for example, that you really love classical music and don’t know exactly why. Recently, I had the chance to go to the symphony and just hearing the orchestra begin to tune up almost brought tears to my eyes it was so beautiful. And when they struck the first chord, it stirred emotions of joy within the depths of my being.
Now when this happened to me, I asked myself “why is this?” Why did I have such enthusiasm, such an emotional response hearing this music even though I’m not a big classical music listener (confession: I rarely listen to classical music anywhere but the symphony).
Here’s what I learned from that experience as well as from other experiences in my life about enthusiasm: you can’t fabricate enthusiasm, but you can set the conditions where it may be more likely to arise. And one of those conditions has to do with…of all things…our body posture and our daily routines.
Body Posture and Biochemistry
Amy Cuddy is famous for her research on body language and particularly for this TED talk where she gives the scientific basis for the adage “fake it till you make it.”
She says that in the same way, our thoughts affect our body language (like when our shoulders slump when we are depressed), our body language (our posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. ) can also affect our moods and thoughts.
We all realize that our bodies betray us. Our bodies speak a language that reflects our moods. They communicate joy, sorrow, frustration, anger, happiness, and a multitude of other emotions without us saying as much as a word. The connection between our moods and the response of our bodies is so powerful that when you are in a bad mood or have negative thoughts, it can take an extreme effort to “put on a happy face.” When we’re feeling like crap and try to fake happiness, most people quickly see through our façade.
But while our bodies are incredibly adept at communicating our emotions, research has shown that through intentional body language, we can alter our emotional states. Dr. Cuddy’s study showed that by using “poses” that people typically take when they achieve success and victory – people could change their body chemistry – their levels of testosterone and cortisol – and thereby change their moods.
The Biochemistry of Cortisol and Testosterone
Cortisol and testosterone are two hormones produced by our bodies. Cortisol helps to control our body’s blood sugar levels and regulates our metabolism. It can act as an anti-inflammatory, influence our memory, our blood pressure, and even help to control the salt and water balance in our bodies. People with higher baseline cortisol levels can experience adverse health consequences such as impaired immune functioning, hypertension, and even memory loss.
Testosterone in both humans and animals can affect disposition, status, and the appearance of dominance. In other words, when testosterone rises, dominant behaviors increase as well. So when we anticipate a challenge or competition, our testosterone will increase and affect our behavior. At the same time, dominant behaviors – the actions themselves – can increase the production of the hormone. So when we engage in dominant behavior, our testosterone goes up.
Dr. Cuddy’s research shows how the actions we perform with our bodies affect the production of these hormones which in turn affect our thoughts, moods, and behaviors. Her study showed that “power posing” – standing or sitting in a position of dominance – raised levels of testosterone in test subjects while at the same time lowering levels of cortisol.
And these findings didn’t just affect the subjects. The increased levels of testosterone and decreased levels of cortisol influenced the perceptions of these subjects by outside observers. Other people noticed that the subjects appeared more confident and powerful.
What does this have to do with enthusiasm?
Research shows that too much cortisol can result in muscle weakness and mood swings which show up as anxiety, depression, or irritability and that elevated cortisol secretion was a vulnerability factor for low social functioning leading to higher depression scores.
When we are depressed, dejected, or just in a bad mood, we may be experiencing higher cortisol levels. On the other hand, increased levels of testosterone contribute to more dominant behaviors which prepare us to accept and face challenges in our lives.
Hack Your Biochemistry
The research shows that we can change the biochemistry in our bodies by our posture. We can lower cortisol levels and increase testosterone levels by engaging in postures that project a specific attitude – an attitude of confidence, power, and victory. Just forcing our bodies to stand in a certain way sets biological processes in motion, changing the testosterone/cortisol balance and ultimately altering our moods.
So, if you lack enthusiasm or motivation, one way you may be able to reverse that is through precise body postures. Forcing your body to “act” as if it were enthusiastic can start to produce the “feeling” or “mood” of enthusiasm.
When we lack enthusiasm, we lack confidence, we lack passion, and we can feel a malaise about our current situation. Changing your posture can change your feeling, almost like turning a switch in your body to give you more confidence and even create enthusiasm.
Here are three tips for creating enthusiasm
Learn and Practice Power Poses.
As mentioned, our bodies reflect our inner moods and emotions. When you’re feeling uninspired or dejected, your body posture reflects that. Your shoulders slump. Your body closes up. You cross your arms and legs. Your eyes look downcast and lost.
Power poses – the “Wonder Woman” or “Superman” pose with shoulders back, head high, and hand on your hips or the “victory” pose with head lifted, back arched and hands raised in a “V” – communicate a message of power and possibility back to your brain. These poses tell your brain that you are confident. Somehow your brain gets that message and communicates to your body to adjust your hormone secretion and in doing so alters your moods and emotions. By “acting” more confident, you can begin to “feel” more confident. And more confidence can help to create enthusiasm.
Stand Up Straight and Tall With Your Shoulders Back
While not considered a traditional “power pose,” standing up straight and tall is a pose of confidence, and it has the same effect on your brain. Additionally, it is one of Dr. Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life. The idea, as Dr. Peterson explains, is that hierarchies in society go way back and though, in an ideal world, we would like everyone to be perceived and treated equally, the reality is that every chicken pen has a pecking order. The higher you are in that order, the more benefits you get and the lower you fall, the more difficult life can be.
In addition to this order, there’s a feedback loop that reinforces the order. When you look like you belong at the bottom, people perceive you at the bottom and treat you that way. That then strengthens your thoughts about being at the bottom which affects the message your body language communicates, which affects the way people perceive you and on and on… you get the point.
To change that, you begin to change what your body communicates to other people. If you look confident – like you belong on top – people start to perceive you that way, they begin to treat you that way, and you begin to feel that way based on how “life” has been treating you. The feedback loop works to your advantage rather than against it. The key is how your body communicates subconsciously to others about your position in that hierarchy. Making it a habit to stand up tall and convey confidence starts the loop in your favor. For more on this including the scientific research behind it, read chapter 1 of Dr. Peterson’s book.
Develop A Consistent Daily Routine
Two of the things that directly affect our emotional states is our sleep and our daily routine. The research shows that sleep deprivation has been known to impair immune regulation, metabolic control, and our neurocognitive processes like learning and memory. But additionally, sleep affects our emotions. Without adequate sleep, we lose the emotional tools necessary to handle negative things in life.
A big part of getting enough sleep has to do with establishing stable and predictable circadian rhythms, and you do this by getting up at the same time each day. By setting a predictable sleep routine, you control your environment to put your body in the absolute best biochemical state to deal with the emotional curves that life throws at you. To create enthusiasm means that you put your body in the proper state to handle the emotional ups and downs. This means getting a good night’s sleep and that means having a consistent daily routine.
How exactly to create enthusiasm remains a mystery, and there’s no on/off switch that allows you to do it. There are, however, a few things you can do to establish the best environment to create enthusiasm. Practice “power poses,” stand up straight and tall, and build into your life a consistent daily routine. In doing so, you can feel more confident, more powerful, and more enthusiastic about life.