Secret of Adulthood: Enthusiasm Is a Form of Social Courage.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:


The more I think about happiness, the more I value enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm is a form of social courage – it’s safer to criticize and scoff than to praise and embrace — and I’ve decided that I’d rather be “enthusiastic” than “confident.”

I have a patron saint for enthusiasm. Can you guess it? Julia Child. (By the way, identifying your patron saint is a very thought-provoking exercise in thinking about your own values.)

This post I wrote about Julia Child may be one of my favorite posts ever.

It can seem cooler and smarter to be ironic, detached, or critical, and it’s certainly much easier and safer to adopt that sort of stance. But enthusiasm is more fun. Enthusiasm is generous, positive, energetic, and social. It’s outward-turning and engaged. It’s brave, unself-conscious, warm-hearted, and kind of goofy. Like Julia Child!

I’m not sure whether I agree with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm” – but enthusiasm certainly helps. And sometimes enthusiasm takes guts.

I’m reminded of one of something my sister the sage once told me: “No one has an opinion until someone else has an opinion.” By speaking up with enthusiasm, we change people’s attitudes.

Agree, disagree?

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  • GS

    I like what you said about the contrast between the ironic attitude and the enthusiastic attitude. Yes, it’s easier and “safer” to be ironic, because you may not be laughed at. But if you think about it, do ironic people get to live “extra lives” because they saved all that joy and energy? They get to live once—just like the enthusiastic people– but it’s the enthusiastic people who enjoy that one life more.

    • Emily

      Thank you so much for your comment. I had an “aha” moment and realized that I am now ironic because I let others get me and my enthusiasm down. Thanks for the perspective.

  • LR

    enthusiasm is the only way I get through my days…you have a choice…be negative or positive…it is harder to be positive and enthusiastic (risky even) but the pay off is much greater. Don’t you love it when someone smiles in response to your presence? Yeah, me too…that’s why no matter how discouraged or down I feel I work really hard to spread a little cheer and enthusiasm


  • Lynn

    I absolutely agree! I’m enthusiastic by nature, and smile and laugh often. If you show your passion and gratitude, people doubt you at first, and some will mock you. But over time, you will win folks over because enthusiasm is contagious. When you are enthusiastic you foster growth and creativity. People may not even like you, but they will support you. I find that it’s the number one predictor of success in my field, the amount of enthusiasm people have at work.

    More than that, if you are able to live with enthusiasm, you know you are living the right life for yourself. If you can live your life expressing your appreciation for others, for the great work they do, and their kindnesses, you are in the right place. In the end, it’s my yardstick for my happiness.

  • I agree. People think being “all in” is bad. I think it pays dividends to be vulnerable at the right times.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    The cool, ironic attitude is probably best for the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sherlock Holmes.
    While I don’t squeal and bounce, I’m not afraid to show my delight in all kinds of things. That has made challenging and unpleasant tasks into “opportunities to excel” and pleasant experiences more fun. Enthusiasm is a conversation starter with other people who share your interest, a way to share the bubbliness of a small child, and a way to boost your own energy and commitment to whatever it is you have decided to do. How could that not be a good thing?
    Enthusiasm is often just the rocket fuel I need to make me willing to undertake a new culinary or quilting adventure, or go somewhere new.
    I once wasted a lot of misery on failing to anticipate a family-arranged cruise with pleasure and enthusiasm. Doing this didn’t stop me from switching up and having fun just about every minute of my trip once I got on board, but it deprived me of all the joy of pre-planning my adventure and anticipatory enjoyment. What a shame! (Plus I neglected to sign up ahead for excursions and thus I missed out some that I would have LOVED).
    I temper my enthusiasm when I’m shopping, evaluating a costly adventure or investment, or sometimes when I am thinking over whether I want to join in someone else’s parade. That’s good judgement.
    But if I am committed already, why would I not put in some enthusiasm and greatly increase my joy?

  • PolarSamovar

    Beautifully said, thank you so much. When I was growing up, my mother used “enthusiastic” as a put-down. It’s taken me some time to rearrange my thinking, including differentiating between true enthusiasm, which I think of as unselfconscious engagement, and false enthusiasm, which is at best bravado.

  • Randee Bulla

    I never thought about enthusiasm as being courageous before, but it makes so much sense. I do know that once I learned how to “be Randee” after reading your books last year, and embraced my real thoughts and passions whatever they might be, I’ve been openly enthusiastic without apology. I stopped being afraid of what others might think and it was incredibly freeing. Kind of neat to think it’s because I had the courage to just be myself.

  • Lori

    My enthusiasm for reading and books has helped turn a class of non-reading 6th graders into enjoyers of books (and movie critics). They now talk about the books they are reading, comparing books to the movie versions, and planning their next read. They also laugh when every novel study we start begins with me saying, “This is one of my favorite books.”

  • Ginger Horton

    Oh, I love this. I spent a great many years thinking I wasn’t as smart as a lot of people because I wasn’t as critical. Then, my sage (and younger!) sister reminded me of this very thing. It is brave just to say “I love this!” or “I love that!”

  • Dorothee

    I love that insight! It’s true, that in many occasions being critical is so much easier than being enthusiastic. But on a downside: I know some people who are enthusiastic about almost everything that crosses their way, and then lose interest within a few days. And that can be very very exhausting, too.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I think that goes back to Gretchen’s way-earlier Eyeore and Tigger discussions. Enthusiasm (the real thing) is not the same as fake bounciness and a mask of excitement put on by some people to hide their unhappiness and anxiety.

  • Kira Blaski

    I agree that no one has an opinion until someone does, whole-heartedly. Case in point: I share a cubicle wall with “the new guy” at work. The woman who shares his other wall is negative, grumpy, swears (unprofessional), and just plain thinks everyone sucks at their job except her. She’s the one who trained him and they’ve become very “buddy-buddy” since he started. Now, he’s negative, grumpy, swears, and thinks everyone sucks at their jobs. But I’ve noticed when she’s on vacation, or not around for a few hours cause of meetings, he’s not as bad. He seems to think that he has to have a best friend here, and since it’s her, all of her attitudes have become his, especially when she’s around. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him question or disagree with her.

  • Ilene

    I agree ! I am a volunteer Program & Education Vice President of a non profit organization and have 38 cabinet members on my committee. I have found that my enthusiasm has helped the people on my committee want to step up and chair programs without any prompting from me. I am always excited about presenting new ideas and engaging other people’s opinions. I value everyone on my cabinet and tell them regularly.
    I am a newly retired teacher and enthusiasm was a requirement for engaging children everyday. I feel this way about people. As a result, people seem to seek me out and want to get to know me.

  • Jeanne

    Many people are detached and cynical because they think that enthusiasm is unsophisticated or even simple minded. But not so. It’s just enjoying life. I realized a while ago that I say “I’m so excited” a lot, and that is good. Today, I’m so excited because it’s my hub’s day off, and on the way to a movie we’re going to stop at the Berkeley Bowl to get some Kennebec potatoes. Mostly, these go to restaurants and are as delicious as they are hard to find. The Bowl is the only place in my area I was able to locate them. So I’m excited about buying potatoes. Lucky me! I’ll be even more excited when I fry them up and eat them! (P.S. I’m also excited about the movie.)

  • HEHink

    I agree. There seems to be an impression that expressions of enthusiasm are somehow superficial, but I feel the opposite is true. The more I dig into and learn about something that interests me, the more enthusiastic I become. Your example of Julia Child is a good one, because who could argue that she didn’t know a lot about cooking! And from the little I know about her career, it seemed that the more she learned, the more her enthusiasm grew. Steve Irwin, the “Crocodile Hunter” also comes to mind when I think about enthusiasm, and he was definitely both passionate and knowledgeable about his work.

    I also admire my college roommate, who is still a dear friend, for her enthusiasm. While I was more likely, back in college social situations, to coolly nod, smile, and pretend to know what an acquaintance was talking about, she would bravely and enthusiastically say something like,”Really? Wow, I didn’t know that! How does that work/why does it do that/what was that like….?” And whatever anyone may have thought about her approach, they always seemed quite willing to engage and continue the conversation. It was obvious, too, that she was genuinely interested in them, and not trying to generate fake enthusiasm with a “Like me! Like me! Like me!” attitude. And so the result was that she was well-liked!

  • Cindy Ayala

    I am a low energy, quiet introvert who IS NOT prone to making ironic or otherwise negative comments. Rather I am prone to make no commentsat all.

    Any tips on how I can develop more enthusiasm, both around others and within myself (the kind of enthusiasm that would help generate the energy needed to pursue the things that interest me)?

  • Deirdre

    Two or three thoughts provoking me to comment…one, you articulate perfectly here what I tried (and failed) to express to my son tonight. It was his birthday party, and he was over the moon excited about the theme he chose and asked that we tie everything into that theme (his favorite game: minecraft). But when his first friend arrived, he became self-conscious and tried to hide his enthusiasm, and rolled his eyes about the silly name he had made for the drink (pretending I had done it and not him). Enthusiasm can make us feel vulnerable, and his friend might have thought it all cool, but my son’s opinion came first.

    2nd—have you ever considered creating a book of The Patron Saints of Happiness? I grew up Catholic, and loved those beautifully illustrated books with short biographies and reading the above, could imagine one made by you. I think it would be both hilarious and lovely.

    Finally—“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” I’ve always thought that was attributed to Emerson, not Coleridge.

    Thanks for the continued inspiration I always find here.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, I thought it was Emerson too! But turns out Coleridge.

      Great idea for the Patron Saints book, that would be so much fun to do.

  • AnneDK

    Good judgement comes from experience.
    Experience comes from bad judgement.

  • Grace A.

    This struck me like a lighting bolt. Thank you so much for identifying this idea and putting it so beautifully and succinctly. I live in Australia while my 14-year-old little sister still lives just outside Philadelphia with our parents (My mum actually met you at the Free Library of Philadelphia and you signed a copy of The Bluebird for me–thank you! Our enthusiasm for you and your books has been a great bond for me and my mum.). One of the ways we’ve bonded is a mutual love for Taylor Swift, who is definitely my patron saint of enthusiasm. I love Taylor because I think she is a consistent champion for her fans who are largely young women and girls. She respects them and their enthusiasm in a way that I feel many others don’t. I feel that young girls are often derided for their outward enthusiasm and “fangirling”, but there is actually such power and happiness to be found in being a fan and sharing your enthusiasm with others (Tavi Gevinson speaks about this, and how fangirling has helped her cope with depression Again, thank you so much for identifying this idea and putting it so beautifully for your own fans!