If you search for the definition of inspiration, you’ll come across numerous responses. Merriam-Webster defines it as the power to move emotions or the intellect or the act of offering opinions or influencing others. The Google Dictionary explains that it’s a process of being psychologically stimulated, primarily when it’s associated with creativity or a brilliant idea.
It’s not always easy to use words to describe the meaning of inspiration because it’s a highly personal experience. However, most people would agree that inspiration is a spark or source that motivates them in some way.
How Do You Define Inspiration?
Inspiration has not been studied extensively. Part of the problem is that scientists don’t place a lot of importance on inspiration. They’ve studied motivation, which is correlated with action. However, they haven’t put their finger on the spark that makes motivation happen.
Some researchers have studied inspiration. When the concept has been studied, however, it has been explored in an industry-specific way. There hasn’t been much exploration of the idea across multiple domains or as a general concept.
In the early 2000s, researchers Thrash and Elliot attempted to generalize the definition of inspiration across various domains. According to them, there are three aspects of inspiration:
- Evocation – Inspiration is conjured up instead of created through direct action or received without a specific cause.
- Motivation – Inspiration involves excitement to direct behavior in a certain way.
- Transcendence – Inspiration goes beyond the individual’s usual limitations and concerns.
Thrash and Elliot’s construct explains a great deal about inspiration. You can trigger it by taking certain actions or getting into a particular frame of mind. When you feel inspired, you’re usually driven to take some kind of action. Inspiration can make you feel limitless. It gives you a boost that you usually don’t experience in your day-to-day life.
That’s why inspiration is so enticing. It gets you out of your comfort zone without the usual anxiety and distress that comes with new opportunities. When you’re inspired, everything that felt difficult before seems easy all of a sudden. Things seem to flow, and you gain momentum.
Inspiration feels good.
How Does Inspiration Happen?
You often hear about people who were struck by inspiration as though they were hit by lightning. It seems to come from nowhere, it can move through you quickly, it’s intense and it can disappear just as rapidly as it came on.
However, inspiration is not a one-time occurrence. It’s a process that cycles with motivation to direct you through life.
There is no formula for inspiration. Various things inspire different people. Something that inspires you one day may not be as powerful the next. Inspiration is capricious.
One of the best ways to understand how inspiration hits you is to think back to the last time that you felt inspired. Take a moment to go back to that moment. Close your eyes. Feel the emotions that went through your body. What happened?
- Did your heart rate speed up?
- Did you feel at peace?
- Were you energized?
- Did you have clarity of thought?
Being able to bring up the feelings that coursed through your body can help you access inspiration again. You’ll know exactly what it is the next time that it hits you.
Now, think about what you were doing the last time you were inspired. Were you:
- Reading a book?
- Listening to music?
- Talking to a friend?
Think about where you were. Were you out in nature, at home or somewhere else? What time of day was it?
Consider writing down the answers to these questions. Sit down with a journal once a week. Think back to the moments of inspiration that you had during that time. You’ll create a record that will help you understand what makes inspiration happen for you.
When you understand what inspires you, you can have more control over the spark that gets you going. If you know that you’re inspired when you take long walks, for example, you can do that activity the next time you feel stuck in a rut.
Inspiration from Supernatural Sources
In religion, inspiration is considered to be a divine message that is channeled through humans to reveal a truth. Although it’s easy to gloss over this concept as a supernatural theory with no grounding in psychology or physiology, it’s a pervasive idea. It has been passed along since ancient times, and that has to be good for something.
In Greek mythology, the Muses were the goddesses of art, science, and literature. Great musicians, poets, and artists didn’t take credit for their creative genius. Instead, they were the kind of people who paid attention to the inspiration that the Muses infused into them.
Even today, creative people often explain that their ideas seem to come from beyond their psyches. In this video, author Elizabeth Gilbert describes how poet Ruth Stone received her inspiration. Stone would say that when she was a child, she would be playing outside and feel the poem thundering over the landscape, shaking the earth.
When Stone felt that coming, she knew that she had one task. She would have to run home to grab a paper and writing instrument in time to receive the poem as it barreled through her body. She called herself the collector of the poems. Stone also recalled that if she didn’t make it home fast enough to record the poem, it would move on down the landscape, seeking another poet to collect it.
In Judeo-Christian interpretations, inspiration happens in much the same way. According to this perspective, God gives specific individuals the inspiration to transcribe his words.
These accounts include more than just a supernatural force delivering messages, creativity and ideas. They involve the concept that inspiration must be acted upon. Receiving the transmission isn’t enough; inspiration consists in translating the message into a concrete form, such as a piece of artwork or written text.
Inner Sources of Inspiration
When the field of psychology exploded into being in the late 1900s, experts wanted to replace the supernatural explanation of inspiration with a scientific one. Instead of seeing inspiration as a divine revelation, researchers looked for reasons why the human psyche delivers eureka moments from time to time.
Some of the earliest approaches ascribed inspiration to unconscious processes. Even as far back as 1884, metaphysical philosopher Eduard von Hartmann wrote that the unconscious fabricates ideas that are more spontaneous and polished than those created by the conscious mind.
Von Hartmann explained that the creative process consists of four stages:
- Preparation – This is something that you can control using your conscious mind as you gather information.
- Incubation – This is the brainstorming stage in which you allow your mind to wander and expand on the data from the previous step and relies on the unconscious mind.
- Illumination – You discover the relationships and make connections between the ideas from the incubation stage. The unconscious also dominates illumination.
- Verification – You use critical thinking to refine the ideas than your unconscious mind produced.
Some psychological theorists have gone on to posit that inspiration comes on indirectly from merging unrelated ideas. Although you can use conscious will to put together the information, the novel idea that emerges is part of the inspirational process. We discuss this idea more in the next section about neuroplasticity and inspiration.
External Sources of Inspiration
In discussing the inspirational process above, we touched on some external or environmental sources of inspiration, such as books, music and being out in nature. However, it’s difficult to separate this from internal sources of inspiration.
The Muses could be perceived as external triggers of brilliance. Moreover, anything that you experience in the outside world travels through your perception to create meaning. Therefore, isn’t inspiration always internal?
As we mentioned earlier, something that inspires you one day doesn’t always encourage you the next. That indicates that the source of inspiration doesn’t come from the external factor. Instead, it is generated by the alchemy of merging with something within you.
Still, objects in your environment are capable of stimulating inspiration. But you need to be open to viewing those objects in a different way to capitalize on their potential for inspiration. For example, some robots were inspired by insects. If the engineers had just seen the bugs as annoying pests, they might never have come up with their innovations.
Many times, external sources of inspiration involve virtues that elicit some type of transcendence or elevation. That explains the rationale behind inspirational quotes.
Back in 1987, two researchers conducted a study that required participants to watch a film about Mother Theresa. They found that the volunteers exhibited a positive immunological response. In another study, researchers demonstrated that people who follow high-achieving role models in a similar industry tend to be inspired.
What Does Science Say About Inspiration?
Although inspiration feels magical and intangible, it’s not entirely ethereal. Many experts have spent time studying the phenomenon. They’ve found that you can’t totally control the process, but you can create the right environment for inspiration to occur.
Neuroplasticity and Inspiration
Inspiration can be explained mainly by the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is your brain’s capability for adaptation. Even though many people learned that the brain stops developing around age 30, scientists have recently discovered that it continues to change throughout life.
Think of the brain as a forest. To make a connection from point A to point B, you have to carve a trail through the woods. The first time that you go down that trail, everything feels exhausting. There are lots of obstacles. You have to expend a lot of energy to get to your destination.
But the next time that you travel the same route, it’s a little easier. You can widen the trail as you go. Eventually, you could run down the path. The dirt is so packed down, and you’ve dealt with the obstacles.
Your neural connections happen like this. When you do something the first time, the brain has to figure out the path that was necessary to connect the moving parts. It actually creates new synapses, which are connections that can transmit and receive messages. The more that you use those pathways, the easier it is for the messages to travel through them.
Those connections don’t last forever, though. If you stop using them, they become pruned, just like your trail would become overgrown if you stopped using the path that you had created in the forest.
Inspiration is like the pathways that you create between all of the trails. If you’re adept at carving out routes, you’re more likely to have the skills and resources to make new connections.
That’s what happens in your brain. Our brains are always sorting, classifying and reconnecting ideas and concepts. The more adaptable your mind is, the more likely you are to form inspired thoughts that provide you with those “Aha!” moments.
How Does Inspiration Differ from Motivation?
Inspiration and motivation are often talked about as though they’re interchangeable. But they’re not exactly the same thing.
Motivation can be positive or negative. The motivation to seek pleasure is called approach motivation. However, humans are also driven to avoid pain. Doing something to prevent an undesirable consequence from occurring is called avoidance motivation.
Thrash and Elliot found that inspiration always takes place from an approach perspective. Inspiration is also linked to openness to experience. It’s not correlated with conscientiousness, however, implying that will isn’t as involved in inspiration as it is in motivation.
Motivation can also come with a sense of competitiveness. Sometimes, you’re motivated to one-up someone else. Inspiration usually doesn’t happen that way. It’s an internal desire that is extremely personal. When inspiration hits, you might even isolate yourself from other people to take the required action.
That doesn’t mean that you always take action when you feel inspired. That’s another reason that inspiration differs from motivation.
You may be inspired to do something but have a lot of resistance toward acting on it. You can combat that resistance with motivation. Inspiration can spark you with new ideas, but you might not be enthused about acting on them.
Three Types of Inspiration
When considering how inspiration differs from motivation, it helps to understand the three aspects to inspiration:
- The observance of new or superior possibilities (i.e., putting together exciting ideas)
- Passive reception (i.e., something just occurs to you)
- A passionate response to a concept (i.e., something fires up your soul)
These factors are not always involved in motivation. For example, you may be motivated to earn a living so that you can put food on the table. However, that’s not a particularly novel concept. It also involves critical thinking more than eureka moments. It’s also not necessarily something that you’re passionate about.
You might receive a dose of inspiration if you suddenly came up with a new venture that would let you earn more money in less time. That might excite you and fire up your soul.
Can You Force Inspiration?
If you talk to most artists, writers or musicians, they might say that you can’t force inspiration. You might be inspired by an idea one day and work on it immediately. When you go back to it a few days later, however, you don’t feel inspired to move forward with it.
Is it motivation or inspiration that you’ve lost? Usually, taking action can bring your motivation back. You might continue to work. You might even feel like the task is flowing well. However, you might not feel that spark that encouraged you to get started in the first place.
If you’re missing the fuel to your fire, you lack inspiration. If you don’t feel like taking action, you lack motivation. You might be deficient in both.
Doing things to improve your motivation may help you stay productive. But it won’t always elicit inspiration. You can also return to your sources of inspiration. Usually, when your fire is kindled again, you feel motivated too. But that’s not always the case.
While you may not be able to force inspiration, you shouldn’t sit around and wait for it to happen. Author Anthony Moore says that this is a common mistake that people make when they’re stuck in a rut. He used to believe that inspiration spurred motivation, which drove action.
However, this way of thinking can lead you into a cycle of productivity, followed by a slump. Once you lose motivation, you lose the action. Then, if you wait for inspiration to kindle you again, you probably won’t produce much until it does.
A perfect example of this is the well-meaning individual who gets inspired by the push toward New Year’s resolutions every year. They’re excited to get into shape. They’ve been feeling sluggish after the holidays, and they’re ready to get back to their energetic self.
After the New Year’s hangover, they look forward to going to the gym. They’re motivated. They stick to their schedule. Then, they gradually lose motivation. When they do, they’re already out of the media circus that encourages New Year’s resolutions. They find it challenging to find the inspiration or motivation to work out.
When you’re feeling uninspired, the best thing to do is to take action. If you wait for inspiration to strike, you may never make a move.
Taking action is equivalent to blazing the trail that we talked about earlier. It makes it easy for other ideas to chase you down. Action also keeps your mind sharp. When you combine action with new experiences, you increase your chances of making new connections. It’s those new connections that can lead to a re-ignition of your inspiration.
Imagine that you’re an artist. You create your best work when you’re inspired. You might even say that you don’t feel like your best work comes from your own hand. It’s based more on a creative flow than a particular technical skill. However, this type of inspiration isn’t always easy to generate.
When you’re not feeling inspired, making art can feel like a drag. Nothing seems to fit the idea that you started out with. Drawing or painting doesn’t feel magical.
But you don’t stop working. Instead of waiting in a vacuum to receive more inspiration, you keep drawing. You keep painting.
Instead of creating your next great masterpiece, you practice your methods of line-making. Perhaps you experiment with a new medium. You might even get to the point where you’re so discouraged by making art that you go to a museum.
While you’re there, you realize that a particular artist uses a similar technique as you do. You notice something interesting that they do with the brush. At that moment, you have an epiphany. You get inspiration for your next great work.
In instances such as these, you can trace where the inspiration came from. You realize after the fact that all the work that you did while you were feeling uninspired was actually helpful. You connect the dots.
But it’s not as though you intentionally made those connections. You simply kept your mind open and continued taking action.
Inspiration and the Law of Attraction
The idea that taking action can produce inspiration is grounded in the idea of neuroplasticity. If you keep making new pathways, some of them are bound to connect.
There is also a metaphysical inspiration. According to the Law of Attraction, you should act as though you already have what you want. This theory says that everything that you want already exists in the universe. Just because it’s not in your wheelhouse doesn’t mean that you don’t have it. Therefore, it will appear for you if you behave the way you would if you were living your deepest desires.
If you want to feel inspired, act as though you are. There is a bit of “fake it till you make it” mentality in this concept. The Law of Attraction explains that acting as though you’re living your dream will put out energy at a frequency that matches the vibration of your dream. Like attracts like, and—boom—you’ve achieved what you wanted.
Therefore, behaving with the energy of inspiration may magnetize it to you. On the other hand, if you mope around complaining that you can’t do anything because you’re not inspired, you’re going to be putting out stagnant energy. It will be much harder for you to receive inspirational energy when it does come around again.
Do You Know What Kills Inspiration?
You’re going to lose inspiration at some point. Even if you follow the tips in this article, you may not feel 100% inspired throughout your life. Inspiration comes in waves. But it’s helpful to understand what destroys inspiration so that you can hold onto it for as long as possible.
Doing the same thing over and over again is like walking down the original path that you created in the woods. Eventually, it not only gets boring but also prevents you from considering that there might be other options.
You create a strong connection between the circuits in your central nervous system that allows you to function on this route. However, you haven’t built many other circuits. Therefore, it’s harder to make new connections that stimulate inspiration.
If you doubt yourself, you won’t see inspiration even when it hits you. It may seem like a fantasy, and you’ll brush it off before you have a chance to act on it.
Moreover, insecurity and self-doubt prevent you from leaving your comfort zone. When you’re afraid to take action and break boundaries, you end up doing the same thing repeatedly, resigning yourself to a life of monotony.
The same goes for fear of failure. Many people are so afraid to make mistakes that they pave one path and carefully walk along with it for the rest of their lives. Think about what could happen if you ventured off into the woods. Maybe you don’t even need a path.
The worst that can happen is that you have to turn back and look for another connection. The best that can occur is that you discover a whole new route to take along your journey.
Although excuses don’t necessarily kill inspiration, they do destroy motivation. When you give yourself reasons to avoid acting on your inspiration, the spark goes away. Eventually, your subconscious mind may stop prodding you altogether.
The more you resist your intuition, the less it’s going to speak to you. Making excuses is one way to ignore motivation and stay in a rut forever.
Keeping your emotions, projects and big ideas a secret keeps you contained in a box. It’s difficult to make novel connections when you’re stuck within your own boundaries. Therefore, isolating yourself from nature, new experiences, current events, and other people can make you lose motivation.
You should surround yourself with inspiring people if you want to maintain your fire. The things that you will learn from them are never-ending sources of inspiration.