Can I become more inspired?
“Do one thing every day that scares you.”
Happy new year! (It still counts as the new year, right?) How are you doing on your New Year’s resolutions? If you’re like a lot of people, you might be beginning to lose sight of them. Research has found that a little over a third of us fail at our resolutions within a month.1 Luckily it is not too late to hit refresh! There is lots of great advice2 out there already on motivation, how to set attainable goals, and how to actually meet them, so I will focus on motivation’s elusory cousin—inspiration. Often people struggle with something more fundamental than whether or not we meet our mile time or master a soufflé. That is, why are we sometimes captured (or not) by a particular vision? And in the wake of this brave, exciting new year and opportunity to become our best selves, live our truths, etc., what about the mornings when we hear the obsidoinal wailing of the alarm, remember that ambitious plan for a morning run, and say, “Nope!”
Or is that just me? Please tell me it’s not just me.
I bet that most of us have had times that we wanted to feel more inspired. Our culture celebrates inspiration—among the projected lives ubiquitous on social media (hey, Instagram), one of the most sought after images is The Inspired, or maybe The Inspiring. Even with the knowledge that the people we follow tend to put their best foot forward, it can be hard not to feel pressure to keep up. While working with startup companies, I noticed that startup culture tends to see inspiration as something under individual control, and that feeling less than inspired is due to not trying hard enough to find it. And yet, inspiration can feel slippery, like grasping at it might misunderstand its nature. That made me wonder what exactly inspiration is, and where it comes from. Is it possible to become more inspired, and if so, how? Or, is inspiration more like a stable trait—that is, either you are naturally high in inspiration or you aren’t?
Let’s start with the basics. Dictionary.com defines feeling inspired as feeling “aroused, animated, or imbued with the spirit to do something, by or as if by supernatural or divine influence”. Inspiration can feel as though an idea has come into sharp focus, like being taken by a purpose. It is often characterized as something mystical, in much the same way as creativity. But, luckily, it is not beyond the scope of scientific scrutiny.
Two researchers named Todd Thrash and Andrew Elliot have begun to think deeply about what inspiration is. They conducted a series of studies to discover how to measure inspiration and examine associates of feeling inspired.3 They believe that inspiration has three primary characteristics. First, inspiration transcends our regular limitations and concerns, often resulting in a sense of clarity and awareness. Second, inspiration creates a powerful drive to act in some way on the vision or motivation. This is called approach motivation. Last, according to Thrash and Elliot’s conception, inspiration happens spontaneously and without intention. People are often inspired by someone or something, which can feel like being awoken to a vision. They write that people don’t feel agency in their own inspiration; inspiration can’t be willed into being. For example, in their studies people tended to describe the source of inspiration in passive terms, which may imply that the agency was not their own.
The researchers developed a scale to measure people’s inspiration, which looks like this:
Ask yourself each of the following, and rate yourself on a scale of both frequency (1 = never to 7 = very often) and intensity (1 = not at all to 7 = very deeply or strongly):
- I experience inspiration
- Something I encounter or experience inspires me.
- I am inspired to do something
- I feel inspired.
*Overall scores can be calculated by summing all ratings.
Inspiration can be thought of in two ways. The first is trait inspiration, or how often, and how strongly, does a person tend to feel inspiration? The researchers found that the propensity to be inspired is a psychological disposition or ability that varies from person to person. In a study using the Inspiration Scale, there was a strong relationship between individuals’ initial scores and their scores 7.5 weeks later, an indication that the scale measures a trait that is stable across time. Further, higher scores on the Inspiration Scale are related to the kinds of real world outcomes that would be expected of more inspired individuals. For example, patent holders scored higher than those who do not hold patents. And a separate study found that college students’ scores on the Inspiration Scale predicted how successful they would be at achieving their goals over the course of the next semester.4
A second way to look at inspiration is state inspiration, or how inspired are you feeling in this moment? It may not be surprising that writers who are in a state of inspiration tend to produce writing samples that are rated as more creative.5 But not just in traditionally creative disciplines: this was true of poetry and fiction, but also scientific writing. Interestingly, the effects of inspiration and those of effort are different. Inspired writers wrote more creative work, but their products were not judged to have superior technical merit. In contrast, writers who exerted more effort had better technical merit and rhyming in poems, but their work was not rated more creative. Inspired writers were also more productive: they spent less time pausing and more time writing.
So, where does the research leave those of us who want to feel more inspiration? What can we do in those moments when we do fail to experience sublime transcendence? For when we are not swept away in august purpose, roused and enlivened to achieve beautiful, magical things? For those times when our pizza is less than supreme?
First, although there is some evidence for stable levels of trait inspiration that vary between individuals, that does not necessarily mean that people are destined to experience a set amount of inspiration. Thrash and Elliot’s study took place over a time span of only 7½ weeks, so it remains open whether trait inspiration is malleable over the lifespan.
Further, there is also variability within individuals in the level of state inspiration at any given time. The researchers think of inspiration as something that strikes us, or just happens, rather than something that we will ourselves into, but they also stress that inspiration seems to come from a particular source or “trigger”.6 The trigger might be an inspiring role model, art, nature, or an idea formed unconsciously. Thus, it may be more helpful to focus on creating the conditions of inspiration rather than trying to will ourselves into feeling it. For example, we can put ourselves in situations that elicit feelings of elevation, awe, or admiration by interacting with inspiring colleagues, visiting the ocean, or listening to a powerful song. (Similarly, evidence suggests that if you want to change your behavior to achieve a goal, it can be more effective to alter your environment to support the goal than try to force yourself to enact a change through willpower alone.)7
Thrash & Elliot examined what other experiences predicted instances of trait inspiration. They found that people were more likely to experience inspiration following days in which they experienced higher-than-average positive emotions like positive affect (the subjective experience of positive mood), optimism, and self-esteem. Although this doesn’t prove that positive experiences directly cause inspiration, the authors suggested that positivity might facilitate exposure to sources of inspiration. Other antecedents of inspiration included experiences of work mastery (the desire to master something), creativity, and openness to experience (feeling open to a new idea, behavior or feeling). Thrash and Elliot suggested that these antecedents may further reflect the tendency of inspiration to stem from evocative triggers. Thus, receptiveness is important. Active engagement with ideas and responsiveness to their influence may encourage inspiration.
Finally, inspiration may not only lead people to achieve more progress on their goals, but progress towards goals could also help reinforce inspiration.8 Goal progress early on in a semester predicted the amount of inspiration college students felt towards their goals later on in the semester. Thus, inspiration and goal progress might create a reinforcing cycle. Setting small, concrete, achievable goals (and then meeting one or two attainable steps!) might help rouse you to even greater possibilities.
Cheers to an invigorating new year!
 http://www.reuters.com/article/idUS132935+18-Dec-2007+BW20071218; http://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/
 Markman, A. (2014). Smart Change: Five tools to Create New and Sustainable Changes in Yourself and Others. TarcherPerigee.
 Thrash, T. M. & Elliot, A. (2003). Inspiration as a psychological construct. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 871-889.
 Milyavskaya, Ianakieva, Foxen-Craft, Colantuoni, & Koestner (2012)
 Thrash, T. M., Maruskin, L. A., Cassidy, S. E., Fryer, J. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2010). Mediating between the muse and the masses: Inspiration and the actualization of creative ideas. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(3), 469-487.
 Thrash, T. M. & Elliot, A. (2004). Inspiration: Core characteristics, component processes, antecedents, and function. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(6), 957-973.
 Markman (2009) https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ulterior-motives/200912/behavior-change-in-the-new-year-change-your-environment
 Milyavskaya, M., Ianakieva, I., Foxen-Craft, E., Colantuoni, A., & Koestner, R. (2012). Inspired to get there: The effects of trait and goal inspiration on goal progress. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(1), 56–60.