Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.
Inspiration, or more precisely the lack of it, strikes fear into the hearts of many students faced with an assignment or test, a blank sheet of paper and a ticking clock. I can remember countless times, sitting nervously in an exam hall, trying hard not to be distracted by others frantically scribbling as if their lives depended on it, whilst I was casting around for something, anything worth saying. Usually under the right pressure the penny drops, and ideas suddenly flow. As I prepare to write my Positive Psychology News Daily (PPND) articles, the same frequently applies.
By pure chance I stumbled across a new piece of research by Todd Thrash and colleagues at the College of William and Mary, exploring the link between inspiration and well-being. This is definitely worth a look I thought, bearing in mind my impending mental and emotional tussles with The Muse.
Regular readers of PPND will be familiar with the 50/40/10 equation of Sonja Lyubomirsky’s “Happiness Pie” which is frequently used to explain the origins of happiness to non-scientists. In other words our happiness is derived from an unequal combination of genetic inheritance, intentional activity and life circumstances. The message from positive psychology is that even if we’re unlucky enough to be born under a black cloud, we needn’t stay that way because there are certain things we can do differently which will increase our well-being. In other words, agency is key.
The Intriguing Link between Inspiration and Well-Being
So far so good. But Todd Thrash’s research takes a more left-field approach to well-being, starting with the suggestion that by focusing on agency, and what we can do to intentionally increase our well-being, we might be obscuring other important influences. Now that sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? As I start reading, it occurs to me that this is another example of the paradox of happiness: inspiration may very well be a source of well-being, but you can’t make yourself feel inspired just at the drop of a hat, can you?
So what is this research telling us about the origins or development of greater well-being which is new and useful?
Through a series of four linked experiments, Todd Thrash and colleagues showed that
- When people feel inspired, they are in a better mood [inspiration (in this case, inspiration induced by watching between 1 and 2 minutes of the awesome Michael Jordan in action) increased positive affect]
- If you have inspiration as part of your personality, this predicts that three months later, your well-being increases [trait inspiration uniquely and positively predicted an increase in hedonic and eudaimonic well-being (as measured by life satisfaction, positive affect, vitality and self-actualization) over a 3 month period, even when the Big 5 traits, initial levels of well-being and social desirability biases were controlled].
- It appears that inspiration leads to well-being rather than the other way around [inspiration predicted an increase in well-being across a 3 month period, but importantly well-being did not predict a change in inspiration, so it is causal].
- Why does inspiration lead to increased well-being? It appear that inspiration makes us feel more grateful and to have a higher sense of purpose, and then gratitude and purpose make us feel greater well-being [both gratitude and sense of purpose mediate the relationship between inspiration and well-being, in other words, inspiration leads to gratitude and sense of purpose, which then lead to well-being].
Once More with Feeling?
The key to these research findings is intentionality, and as such they are crucial to our understanding and application of positive psychology in the field. For example, many regular PPND readers will already be familiar with the idea that gratitude leads to greater well-being: simple suggestions include expressing your gratitude in some form, such as counting your blessings, and writing a gratitude journal or a Thank You card or letter to someone who has helped you in the past. Similarly, we know than life purpose is central to our well-being: Seligman’s authentic happiness model is based on a meaningful life, as well as a good life and a pleasant life. But as Todd Thrash and colleagues point out, you cannot just adopt a sense of purpose in the same way that you can adopt a goal. “Rather a sense of purpose tends to be furnished (italics in original), at least in part, by inspiration which is itself difficult to bring under volitional control.” Similarly, whilst it is easy to say thank you, doing it in way that makes a difference to the giver and receiver is another matter: “The fact that individuals tend to deny responsibility for their inspiration and feel grateful to its source speaks to the limits if personal volition. One cannot awaken oneself – one must be awoken – to something that is more worthy of concern than one’s current concerns.” Could it be that those activities aimed at expressing gratitude or seeking purpose in life to increase well-being might be made even more effective for more people by focusing first and foremost on finding a source of inspiration? Giving thanks, or eliciting values or purpose could come afterwards.
So perhaps Frank Tibolt (1897-1989) was only half-right when he said that “we should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action.”
I’m off to find some Michael Jordan videos on Youtube.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Press.
Thrash, T.M., Elliot, A.J., Maruskin, L.A. & Cassidy, S.E. (2010). Inspiration and the promotion of well-being: Tests of causality and mediation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(3). 488-506.
1. Looking for Inspiration courtesy of Danilo Prates
2. Michael Jordan courtesy of PVBroadz
3. Thank you! courtesy of TheAlienessGiselaGiardino23