You can’t talk about positive communication without talking about enthusiasm. In fact, in many cases, this emotion seems to be the working component of positive communication. When communication is accompanied by genuine enthusiasm, it triggers action that inspires others. In this article, we discuss the role of enthusiasm in positive communication from a scientific perspective and from real-world experiences.
On August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech to 250,000 listeners. The speech is still considered one of the most influential in American history. It’s also an archetypal example of positive communication. After all, the core of King’s argument was not just an indictment of racism in American society. He also painted a positive picture of a future society where citizens live together as brothers and sisters. A society in which every individual has the same rights, regardless of background or origin. The part of the speech that roused the audience the most was the end. He deviated from his prepared text and recited his dream of freedom and equality. King’s enthusiasm spread to the crowd and to this day, people all over the world are inspired by his positive message.
King’s contagious enthusiasm is closely related to the original meaning of the word enthousiasmós. Plato used this word to describe the divine inspiration of the poet (Verhoeven, 1972). In ancient Greece, poetry was seen as a supernatural phenomenon. The poet was, as it were, a conduit for the voice of the Gods. Reference was often made to the God Apollo or his sisters, the Muses. The poet passes on his inspiration and affects others, who are then carried along in the spirit of enthusiasm. Socrates compares it to the working of a magnet: It attracts iron objects and passes on the force of attraction, creating a chain of iron objects. In a similar way, enthusiastic communication can get people on board.
Enthusiasm in practice
In recent years, I have had the opportunity to give workshops on enthusiasm in 20 different countries. The groups ranged from radio DJs in Hilversum to police in Hong Kong and entrepreneurs in India. Despite the diversity of the groups and cultures, there are also significant similarities. Enthusiasm plays an important role everywhere, even though there is hardly any structural attention paid to it. The human brain happens to be programmed to give more priority to negativity, and this is reflected in the way organisations structure themselves and the way society shapes itself. Problems, failures and disasters get more attention than positivity, enthusiasm and opportunities. That is unjustified. The positive effect of enthusiasm is evident and easy to demonstrate in practice.
To illustrate the power of enthusiasm, I often do the following exercise at the start of a training session: First I ask participants to introduce themselves professionally. They tell you about their position and their work. During this introduction round, the verbal and non-verbal communication of the participants is serious and business-like. Then we go around again, but this time they tell us what they are enthusiastic about in their private lives. In this second round, the expression on the participants’ faces changes. Their way of communicating becomes energetic, sparkling and infectious. Communicating with enthusiasm clearly has a different dynamic from typical business dealings. The atmosphere changes. There is laughter and more energy and interaction.
Enthusiasm is an important part of positive communication and influencing. I see this in my practice, and it is confirmed by science, as we will see later. First, I would like to give some more meaning to the concept. What is enthusiasm and what does it do for us?
The function of enthusiasm
Emotions have an adaptive function, in the sense that they helped our ancestors to survive and reproduce (Frijda, 1988; Lazarus, 1991; Russell, 2003; Scherer, 2009). The fight-or-flight response to the perception of danger is the most obvious here. Historically, however, much less attention has been paid to positive emotions than to negative emotions (Roseman, Swartz, & Nichols, 2020). The evolutionary role of positive emotions has only recently come more to the foreground (e.g., Shiota et al., 2014). Enthusiasm, from this perspective, is described as an energetic reaction to an opportunity, which causes an organism not to let the opportunity pass. For example, a monkey sees a bunch of bananas, gets enthusiastic, and goes into action. Or, an entrepreneur invests in the development of a new product because he is enthusiastic about it. It is this kind of positive energy that makes an athlete persevere, despite setbacks, to achieve a goal. In this way, enthusiasm is the opposite of indifference or lethargy.
In our own research at Leiden University, the functional aspect also emerged. We saw that enthusiasm is a positive, energetic and often purposeful emotion (Vogelaar, Van Dijk, Van Dijk, 2020). However, another element became apparent during our experiments. Enthusiasm appears to have a clear social component as well. This social component has been underexposed in definitions and scientific theories until now, while it is probably also an important aspect of enthusiasm from an evolutionary point of view. The enthusiastic screaming of the monkey that sees bananas is also a signal to the other monkeys that food has been found. This allows the group to take advantage of the find and possibly work together to get the food. The enthusiasm of the entrepreneur ensures that his customers and employees also become enthusiastic. Perhaps we are touching on the very essence of positive communication here. In negative communication, we alert others to danger; in positive communication, we point out opportunities to others in order to capitalize on them and move towards a better future together.
In leadership literature, the term charismatic leadership refers to leaders who, through their personal abilities, are able to have a profound and extraordinary effect on their followers (House & Baetz, 1979). There is empirical evidence that enthusiasm is an important component of charisma. Enthusiastic leaders are considered to be more charismatic, and enthusiasm ensures the transfer of excitement and positive emotions (Damen, Van Knippenberg &, Van Knippenberg, 2008). The contagiousness of enthusiasm is almost automatic and barely subject to conscious control (Poggi, 2007). Enthusiasm and its resulting emotional contagion make it a powerful weapon. Including when it comes to political influencing. Marcus and MacKuen (1993) showed that the enthusiasm of a candidate influences the preference for the politician in question and stimulates interest and involvement in the campaign. Leaders such as King, who can spur large groups of people into motion, are seen as charismatic leaders. It has been shown in several studies that charismatic leadership is a particularly effective style of leadership (Conger & Kanungo, 1998; Shamir et al., 1993; Yukl, 2002). If enthusiasm is an important part of charismatic leadership, then in this way it also plays a role in positive influencing.
Enthusiasm in education
Another indication of the role of enthusiasm in positive communication comes from the field of education. The enthusiasm a teacher displays while teaching the class appears to play an important role in the effectiveness of their teaching. Enthusiastic teachers motivate and inspire (Frenzel et al., 2009; Lazarides et al., 2017), they promote students’ learning performance (Brigham et al., 1992; Keller et al., 2013), and enthusiastic teachers also seem to be happier and healthier (Kunter et al., 2008, 2011, 2013). In a study by Patrick et al. (2000), enthusiasm even proved to have a greater influence on students’ intrinsic motivation and vitality than 12 other factors considered important, such as subject knowledge and preparation for the lesson. Perhaps teacher training studies could devote more attention to the transfer of enthusiasm while teaching. A teacher’s enthusiasm for a subject is infectious. By the same token, the indifference of the jaded teacher has a deadlyeffect on the motivation of students. If teachers are better guided to foster enthusiasm about their subject, teaching becomes more fun and effective. There is also evidence that enthusiasm among teachers can be trained (Collins, 1978; Bettencourt, 1983). However, it is important to ensure that enthusiasm does not become just a façade.
Enthusiasm is especially effective when it is sincere and authentic. Honesty (i.e. sincerity, authenticity) is identified by people as a central characteristic of enthusiasm (Vogelaar, Van Dijk, Van Dijk, 2020). Research in education shows that students are primarily influenced by teachers who are authentically enthusiastic (Keller, Becker, Frenzel, & Taxer, 2018). These teachers not only teach enthusiastically in the eyes of the students, but they themselves also indicate they are enthusiastic about teaching. Students who were taught by these teachers enjoyed the subject more and were less easily bored. Of course, it is sometimes unavoidable for a teacher to disguise a bad day by pretending to be more enthusiastic than they really are. The study by Keller et al. (2018) shows that coming across as enthusiastic, even if it’s not authentic, is still more effective than showing no enthusiasm. However, this should not be necessary too often or for too long. Otherwise, it is at the expense of the teacher’s health (Taxer & Frenzel, 2018). Therefore, in order to remain credible and healthy, it is very important for teachers to ensure that they continue to feel enthusiasm for the subject and for teaching. Incidentally, this does not only apply to teachers. Research among call-center agents has also shown that expressing enthusiasm, which you yourself believe in, is less tiring than pretending (Totterdell & Holman, 2003). So, if we want to influence others with positive communication, it is also important to be able to summon and ignite our own enthusiasm.
In view of the above, we can conclude that enthusiasm plays an important role in positive communication. Without any kind of inspiration, it is difficult to get others on board. Yet little attention is paid to enthusiasm in education, in business or in the rest of society. It matters wherever it’s important to get a message across: in parenting and in dealing with colleagues, patients, customers and individuals in general. It affects everyone. If we learn to communicate positively in an effective way, there is less need to resort to negative alternatives and no more need for threats of failing grades, dismissal, fines or punishment. If parents, teachers, managers and other professionals know how to tap into their enthusiasm and express it authentically, they can get their message across in a positive and effective way. That takes a bit of courage and sometimes some guidance. It is therefore important that attention is paid to this aspect during courses of study, leadership training and personal development programmes. Up until now, however, the role of enthusiasm has not always been appreciated. It’s time to look at education and leadership in a different way. It’s time to look at communication in a different way. It’s time to take enthusiasm seriously.
This article was previously published in Dutch in the Dutch Journal of Positive Psychology.
Rijn Vogelaar is a social psychologist, author, and keynote speaker. He has written several books on the dynamics of enthusiasm: The Superpromoter (2019), The Enthusiasm Trilogy: Flame, Flow, Flood (2014) and Negativity Mania (2018). He is currently doing PhD research on enthusiasm at Leiden University. More information on the author and his work: www.rijnvogelaar.com.
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