What turns you on? I don’t mean sexually, but motivationally. Do you find that goal-setting is second nature to you? Are you drawn to uplifting quotes that talk about our better nature? People in my Facebook group, Fulfillment at Any Age, post the most inspirational of messages, many of them from famous sources, but just as many from anonymous repositories of wisdom.
Inspiration isn’t for everyone. It seems that some people are particularly drawn toward the desire to seek the best in themselves. According to a 2003 paper by Todd Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot, the ability if not desire to become inspired is a psychological disposition that varies from person to person. Inspiration, they argue, is something you can view from 3 vantage points: that which comes from a supernatural being, the inspiration that comes from within yourself, and the inspiration you can feel from such external sources as poetry and nature. Everyone is inspired at some point in time by faith, inner driving forces, or a beautiful scene. Some people find it more likely than others to feel uplifted, period.
Although inspiration may be a complex state involving some combination of mood, motivation, and experiences, this quality of being inspired can be boiled down, say Thrash and Elliot, to 4 simple questions.
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):
Simple questions, right? However, as you rated each one according to the frequency and intensity scales (with scores that can range from 4 to 28), I hope you paused to contemplate occasions in which you were or were not inspired. According to Thrash and Elliot, the higher your scores, the more positive emotions you are likely to experience as well. Being uninspired doesn’t mean you’re depressed, but being easily inspired means you tend to be in a better mood in general.
To validate their scale, in part, Thrash and Elliot compared people who invented patents with a matching group of college alumni having no patents at all. The patent inventors, as expected, had higher inspiration scores (close to an average of 20 for frequency and intensity) than the non-inventive alums (who had close to 17 for each subscale). All other things being equal, they found inventors are more likely to conscious of inspirational experiences than their less creative counterparts.
Picking up on the idea that people can vary in their inspirational tendencies, McGill University Marina Milyavskaya and her colleages (2012) decided to find out if the readily-inspired were more likely, concretely, to make progress toward their important personal goals. If you’re the inspirational type, you should be oriented toward finding and then attempting to achieve your desired outcomes in life.
The nearly 200 undergraduate students in the study, ranging from 18 to 35 years old, listed 3 personal, short-term goals that they intended to pursue during the semester. These included fairly typical college-student types of goals such as “getting all A’s,” “sleeping more,” and “joining the newspaper.” Participants also rated how inspired they were to pursue and achieve their goals. Over the course of the semester, the participants then assessed how far they’d come in achieving their goals.
Being readily and deeply inspired seems to have value in predicting your ability to achieve your goals. Milyavskaya and her co-authors found better progress toward goal achievement among the inspirational types. However, it wasn’t just because they were more optimistic in general or because their goals were more easily attained. The high-scoring individuals on the inspiration scale also set more inspired goals which they then pursued more successfully.
The Milyavskaya et al. study suggests that the more readily you are inspired, the more inspiring the goals you set for yourself, and the more motivated you remain to pursue those goals, at least over the short term. What’s more, the higher your tendency to get inspired, the more you tend to be inspired by each of your goals. It’s not as if you pick one goal to inspire you and another about you just feel so-so. The highly inspired seem to find goals that are, at least to them, truly inspirational.
To feel that you’re getting someplace in life, these studies suggest that you’ll be better off if you’re the inspirational type. You’ll be the one buying those motivational posters, searching the inspiration quotes on the Internet, and deriving joy from such sources as purple sunsets or a peaceful walk through the forest. What if you’re not, though? How about if nothing fires your imagination or your sense of challenge and drive? Are you destined to be an inspirational-less vegetable?
Personality psychologists often view our dispositions as immutable through life, and since the studies on inspiration thus far haven’t followed people over time, the jury is still out on whether in general we can wax or wane in inspirational tendencies. However, even if inspirational abilities were found to be set in stone for the population as a whole, this doesn’t mean you have to be stuck at the low end of the inspiration spectrum.
Maybe it’s time to take a look at some of those inspirational websites, particularly the ones that cite the great thinkers or people who’ve led inspirational lives. Can you find one or two sayings to which you can resonate? They don’t have to be corny or full of platitudes. Consider, for example, one of my favorite quotes from Hamlet (spoken by Ophelia): “We know what we are, but not what we may be.” There’s enough room for interpretation here to allow you to imagine the “not what you may be” -yet.
Another strategy is to take time to look around you at sights that give you a feeling of inner peace or solace- whether that purple sunset or even something more prosaic like a well-designed bridge or building. What makes it beautiful or special, and if you really look at it, what are the thoughts about your own goals that it stimulates you to have?
There are endless sources of inspiration in the world if you only open your eyes to them. Similarly, your goals don’t have to be gigantic in order for you to find them inspiring enough to prompt you to action. Whether you’re the inspirational type or not, you can enhance your fulfillment by embracing them, one small goal at a time.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
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. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2011.08.031
Thrash, T. M., & Elliot, A. J. (2003). Inspiration as a psychological construct. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 84(4), 871-889. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2061