Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

Why Inspiration Matters

Inspiration impacts everything

"When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey". -- Rudyard Kipling

Ivan was obtaining his goals. After graduating from law school, he quickly moved up the ranks of Russia's professional class. His path was threatened, however, when his wife got pregnant. Fearing his hard earned successes would be in jeopardy, he retreated to his work, and became more formal in his interactions with his family.

One day, he had an unexpected accident and it became clear he was going to die. He was horrified by the thought of death and tried to block all such thoughts from his consciousness. Reflecting on his life for the first time, he could not comprehend why such a fate has come over someone with such success. What's was the meaning of this?

After spending time with his compassionate and honest servant Gerasim, he started to see the world and his own life differently. Gerasim selflessly helped Ivan relieve his physical pain. Gerasim did not fear death, noting that everyone dies. Ivan contrasted this attitude with that of his family members, who refused to admit that he was going to die. He was angry with his family for their artificiality. Ivan suddenly doubted whether he had really lived the good life after all, and realized that his artificial life, full of self-interest, had caused him to fear death. He understood that Gerasim did not fear death because he had lived an authentic life.

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In a dream state, "some force" suddenly takes over Ivan, pushing him into a bright light. His hand falls on his compassionate son's head, and he feels sorry for him. He watches as his wife approaches him, full of tears and he feels sorry for her too. This triggers an awakening:

"At that very moment Ivan Ilysch fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified... He was sorry for [his family], he must act so as not to hurt them: release them and free himself from these sufferings. 'How good and how simple!' he thought.... 'What joy!' To him all this happened in a single instant".

Finding intense joy at last for this authentic moment, he starts to sigh, stretches out, and dies in peace.

***

This tale, told in Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilysch (not far removed from Tolstoy's personal life), demonstrates the power of inspiration. Ivan's inspiration was his family, and he realized that relieving their suffering gave him the purpose and meaning in his life he was seeking.

Inspiration has a long history, originally thought of as coming from divine or supernatural forces. In ancient Greece, the Muses were goddesses who inspired the creation of literature and the arts by speaking directly with the human creators themselves. Perhaps due to the mystical connotations associated with the term, scientists haven't touched the concept-- until recently. In recent years, fascinating studies on inspiration have emerged, spearheaded by Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot. These studies allow us to take something as seemingly elusive as inspiration and understand its operation and impact on other important psychological outcomes. As it turns out, inspiration matters. A lot.

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The Oxford English dictionary defines inspiration literally as "the action, or an act, of breathing in or inhaling". Here, we are concerned with the figurative meaning:

"A breathing in or infusion of some idea, purpose, etc. in to the mind: the suggestion, awakening, or creation of some feeling or impulse, especially of an exalted kind".

Keeping true to the spirit of this definition, Thrash and Elliot define inspiration as involving three main related qualities. First, inspiration is evoked spontaneously and without intention by something-- whether it's an idea that comes from within, an inspiring person such as a role model, or a divine revelation. Another key quality of inspiration is that it is transcendent of our more animalistic and self-serving concerns and limitations. Such transcendence often involves a moment of clarity and and awareness of new possibilities. As the researchers note, "the heights of human motivation spring from the beauty and goodness that precede us and awaken us to better possibilities." This moment of clarity is often vivid, and can take the form of a grand vision, or a "seeing" of something one has not seen before (but was probably always there). Finally, inspiration involves approach motivation, in which the individual strives to transmit, express, or actualize a new idea or vision.

As a first pass to capture inspiration in the laboratory and see how it relates to other psychological constructs, Thrash and Elliot developed the "Inspiration Scale", which measures the frequency of experiencing inspiration. The scale measures inspiration as a trait, assuming that people differ from one another in the frequency with which they experience inspiration in their daily lives. In their initial set of studies, they found that trait inspiration (as measured by their Inspiration Scale) predicted people's ongoing daily experiences of inspiration and those who scored high on the Inspiration Scale also tended to score high on a range of other traits characteristic of inspiration: evocation, transcendence, and approach motivation.

In terms of evocation, trait inspiration was related to Openness to Experience and absorption (i.e., flow), but not Conscientiousness. This supports the view that inspiration is something that happens to you and is not willed.

In terms of transcendence, trait inspiration was related to the drive to master work but was negatively related to competitiveness, which reflects a non-transcendent desire to outperform competitors. Inspiration was also positively related to intrinsic motivation and negatively related to extrinsic motivation. Therefore, what makes an object inspiring is its perceived subjective intrinsic value and not how much it's objectively worth or how attainable it is.

In terms of approach orientation, trait inspiration was related to Extraversion and Openness to Experience, traits which are tightly linked to each other and have both been tied in prior research to the dopamingeric neurotransmitter system. Dopamine has mostly activating effects on behavior and cognition and contributes to approach behavior, positive affect, sensitivity to rewards, broad thinking, and mental flexibility. Inspiration was also related to important psychological resources, including self-efficacy, self-esteem, and optimism. Importantly, many of the associations found with trait inspiration were also found when looking as inspiration as a state. While people may differ from one another in the frequency of their daily inspiration, anyone who experiences inspiration at any time can reap similar benefits.

The researchers also looked at outcomes. Trait inspiration was related to various majors, but showed its highest levels among students majoring in the humanities, such as art, religion, and philosophy-- all fields concerned with transcendent values such as beauty, goodness, and truth. There were also linkages to creativity. Those scoring high on the Inspiration Scale reporting viewing themselves as more creative and showed increases in self-ratings of creativity over time. Additionally, patent-holding inventors reported being inspired more frequently and intensely than non-patent holders, and the higher the frequency of inspiration, the higher the number of patents held. This link to creativity is consistent with transcendent aspect of inspiration, since creativity involves seeing possibility beyond existing constraints.

In terms of timing, Openness to Experience often came before inspiration, suggesting that those who are more open to inspiration are more likely to experience inspiration. Mastery of work, absorption, creativity, perceived competence, self-esteem, and optimism were all consequences of inspiration, suggesting that inspiration facilitates flow, creativity, and important psychological resources. Interestingly, work mastery also came before inspiration, suggesting that inspiration is not purely passive, but does favor the prepared mine. Inspiration was least related to variables that involved agency or the enhancement of resources, again demonstrating the transcendent nature of inspiration.

***

While the focus of these earlier studies were on inspiration as a trait (how people differ from one another in inspiration), in a later set of studies, Thrash and Elliot focused on inspiration purely as a state. Regardless of who you are, you can experience inspiration and the associated outcomes that come with that particular state of being. To activate a state of inspiration, participants were asked to recall "a time when you were inspired or experienced inspiration". They then were asked to write a narrative account of their experience. Afterwards, they completed measures regarding their experience. The inspiring narratives differed quite a bit from each other-- ranging from becoming animated by an artistic or scientific insight, to discussing the discovery of one's purpose, to describing the impact of role models who made them realize that greatness is possible.

Compared to the normal experiences of everyday life (control condition), inspiration involved elevated levels of self-reported positive affect and task involvement and lower levels of negative affect. This was corroborated by the actual products: the inspiring narratives contained more positive emotions and less negative emotions. Relating to transcendence, inspiration was also more strongly related to a reported enhancement of spirituality and meaning. Again, the inspiring narratives corroborated these self-reports, involving more content related to insight, metaphysical concerns, and existential importance.

Similar findings were observed when comparing inspiration to the experience of positive affect, defined as "being enthusiastic, interested, determined, and excited.". While inspired individuals reported the same levels of approach motivation as those in the positive affect condition, inspired individuals reported greater levels of spirituality, meaning, and other-responsibility for their inspiration, and lower levels of volitional control, controllability, and self-responsibility for their inspiration.

The inspiring narratives also included more references to the passive self and active others. Interestingly, while those who wrote inspiring narratives reported higher levels of Openness to Experience and illumination, those in the positive affect condition showed higher levels of Extraversion and interest in external rewards. This finding highlights the important difference between being inspired and just having positive emotions. Whereas positive affect is activated when someone is making progress toward their immediate, conscious goals, inspiration is more related to an awakening to something new, better, or more important: transcendence of one's previous concerns.

The researchers also looked at the difference between being inspired by something and being inspired to act. Being inspired by something involved transcendence and denial of responsibility for encountering the inspiring influence, whereas being inspired to act involved more of a motivation to transmit or spread the inspiring qualities. Inspiration is experienced as unwilled-- the person is awoken to what is important-- and this illumination then creates an urgency for the person to express, actualize, or share the new information while it is still clearly apprehended. Both components of inspiration are important: Yang (being inspired to) without yin (being inspired by) is devoid of meaning and spirituality, and yin without yang is stagnancy.

***

Subsequent studies have demonstrated that the impact of inspiration is even broader. One set of studies looked at the influence of inspiration on well-being.

Those who were exposed to Michael Jordan's greatness experienced higher levels of positive affect, and this increase in positive affect was completely explained by trait inspiration. This inspiration was not transitory though, predicting positive well-being (e.g., positive affect, life satisfaction) 3 months later! Inspiration was more strongly related to future than with present satisfaction. The extent to which inspiration lasted was explained by self-reported levels of purpose and gratitude in life.

In another set of studies, Thrash and colleagues looked at the role inspiration plays in the writing process. Inspiration experienced during the writing process-- across scientific writing, poetry, and fiction-- predicted judges' ratings of the creativity of the product. Interestingly, inspiration predicted rated creativity of the product regardless of SAT verbal scores, Openness to Experience, positive affect, specific behaviors (e.g., deleting prior sentences), and aspects of product quality (e.g., technical merit). One does not have to have particularly high in verbal skills and technical proficiency to be inspired-- inspiration is within reach of everyone and has important creative consequences.

The variables that best characterized the experience of inspiration during writing were a) unconscious origin, b) automatic thought, and c) a compelling desire to act. This last component-- evocation-- was the variable that was most strongly and uniquely related to inspiration compared to other states such as effort, awe, and positive affect. Interestingly, suddenness and surprise were not as strongly related to inspiration. Therefore, inspiration does not necessarily start with a flash of insight. Likewise, insight does not necessarily lead to the approach motivation that characterizes inspiration.

The researchers also looked at specific behaviors while writing, and the results are telling. Inspiration was related to greater efficiency (e.g., a larger number of typed words that were retained in the final product), productivity, and the use of shorter words. Individuals who were more inspired also spent less of their time pausing and more of their time writing. Inspiration was also positively related to several indicators of total output, including  the number of characters, words, and sentences used but was negatively related to the number of characters used per word. The finding that inspiration led to more words being generated but was unrelated to the number of words deleted indicates that the high productivity associated with inspiration can be explained by the higher levels of word generation.

Inspiration and effort predicted different aspects of the writing process. Individuals who exerted more effort spent more of their time pausing, deleted more words, and wrote more sentences per paragraph. Inspiration predicted creativity but not technical merit or mechanics, whereas effort predicted technical merit, and use of rhyme, but not creativity. Additionally, SAT verbal scores predicted mechanics but not creativity. I should emphasize that these findings do not suggest that effort is unimportant in the writing process. While effort did not predict creativity of the final product, it did influence other important aspects of the final product.

The researchers also found that the feeling of awe during writing negatively predicted mechanics, and positive affect predicted pleasantness of the final product. In sum, the state of inspiration is not the same as the states of effort, awe, or positive affect and inspiration has a stronger impact on the creativity of the final product (at least in terms of writing) than these other states.

The inspired writers were evident to the judges: the writers' state of inspiration was positively related to the readers' attribution of inspiration to the writer. This effect was explained by the creativity of the final product. This suggests that readers draw inferences about the motivational state of the writer, and this affects perceptions of creativity of the product. This is consistent with the ideas of Plato, who suggested that poets inspire their readers by transmitting the Muse's influence. Also, perhaps unsurprisingly, the judges were able to tell who spent more effort in the writing process based on the technical merit of the final product.

The researchers didn't stop there, conducting some neat analyses to investigate the time course of inspiration. Openness to aesthetics and positive affect typically came before creative ideas, and then inspiration was typically a response to creative ideas. Interestingly, those who reported experiencing inspiration more in their daily lives (i.e., were higher in trait inspiration), and who had more of an approach temperament, were more likely to be inspired during the experiment in response to coming up with a creative idea. This suggests that there are dispositions that make a person more likely to be inspired to create. This is consistent with the earlier studies I reviewed.

The most recent study on inspiration comes from Marina Milyavskaya and her colleagues, and is still in press (at the time of this writing) in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. The researchers looked at the effects of inspiration on goal progress. College students were asked to report three goals they intended to accomplish throughout the course of the semester. They then reported on their goal progress three times every month through the semester.

Those who scored higher in trait inspiration reported increased goal progress, and their progress was a result of setting more inspired goals. Therefore, people who were generally more inspired in their daily lives also tended to set inspired goals, which were then more likely to be successfully attained. These results held even after taking into account the "Big Five" personality factors Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience.

Importantly, the relationship between inspiration and goal progress was reciprocal: goal progress also predicted future goal inspiration. As the researchers note, "this suggests that goal progress and goal inspiration build on each other to form a cycle of greater goal inspiration and greater goal pursuit." Achieving important goals made the participants more inspired to set and achieve future goals. In turn, people who set and pursued inspired goals and then made progress on these goals became even more inspired.

Finally, inspired individuals reported experiencing more purpose in life and more gratitude. This suggests that making progress on your goals, through inspiration, enhances well-being-- a finding also consistent with the earlier studies I reviewed.

***

Inspiration matters. Inspiration allows us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations and is a strong driver of the attainment of our goals, productivity, creativity, and well-being. In this current educational climate of standardized tests and a focus on ability, we often overlook the important role of inspiration. Inspiration transforms a person from experiencing a culture of apathy to experiencing a world of possibility. This all happens without any shift in ability or skill, and in fact propels the level of ability that the person thought they were capable. The underemphasis of inspiration in education is partly a result of the seemingly elusive nature of inspiration, but as recent research shows, inspiration can be activated, manipulated, and captured, and has an important effect on important life outcomes. I find these findings so exciting that I guess you could say I felt inspired to write about the importance of inspiration!

These findings may cause one to feel pressure to become inspired and helpless to do so considering the evocative and spontaneous nature of inspiration. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert rightly expresses this concern in her inspiring TED talk. I agree with Gilbert that one should not put pressure on oneself to become inspired. These key scientific findings suggest that inspiration is not willed-- it happens. Knowing this should free you from the pressure to make inspiration happen.

This doesn't mean that inspiration is completely outside your control, however. Contrary to the view of inspiration as purely mythical or divine, I think inspiration can be thought of as an interaction between your current knowledge and the information you receive from the world. There are things you can do to increase the likelihood of inspiration occurring. The research shows quite clearly that preparation ("work mastery") is a key ingredient, as is Openness to Experience and positive affect. Exposure to inspiring role models also counts a lot, as do small accomplishments, which can boost inspiration, setting off a beautiful cycle.

The best you can personally do is set up the maximal circumstances for inspiration. The best we can do as a society is assist in setting up these important circumstances for everyone. While inspiration is not the same as effort, effort is an essential condition for inspiration, preparing the mind for an inspirational experience. As Gilbert so eloquently keeps reminding herself,

"Don't be afraid. Don't be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts, then ole. And if not, do your dance anyhow. And ole to you nonetheless-- I believe this and I feel like we must teach it. Ole to you nonetheless for just having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up."

© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman

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Note: This past weekend, the nation's first inspiration movement was launched in Washington D.C. and New York City. The Future Project unites students in urban public high schools with volunteers from their community—young professionals and students at nearby colleges and graduate schools—in partnerships and teams and challenge each pair to spend one year building a passion-inspired project that makes a powerful difference in their school or community. The Future Project is one model of how we can go from a culture of apathy to a culture of inspiration, but educators can start wherever the are right now just by recognizing the importance of inspiration and making an effort to create the conditions most suitable for the experience.

Acknowledgements: My gratitude goes to Rebecca McMillan, Christopher Putnam, Martha Morelock, and Matthew Hutson for inspiring and enlightening discussions about transcendence which have informed my own thinking about inspiration.

Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

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