Home All Which Comes First? The Inspiration or the Well-Being

Which Comes First? The Inspiration or the Well-Being

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 26 February 2010

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.

Looking for Inspiration

Looking for Inspiration

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?

Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan

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?

thank you by TheAlienessGiselaGiardino23

Thank you

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

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Christine Duvivier 27 February 2010 - 2:57 pm

Bridget, excellent article, thank you!! This research is very timely and I appreciate you bringing it to our attention.
Best wishes,

Jeremy McCarthy 27 February 2010 - 3:55 pm

Hi Bridget,

I totally get the inspiration>purpose>well-being pathway with maybe “action” being a mediator between purpose and well-being. This really resonates with me personally. On a discussion on Marie-Josee’s recent review of “The Happiness Project”, Wayne (“WJ”) and I were discussing the importance of action and how “doing something” may be the key, regardless of what that something is. So inspiration, as it inspires action, could lead to greater well-being.

I have a harder time understanding how gratitude fits into all this. We’ve all seen the research on gratitude>well-being. But why does inspiration lead to gratitude? If I watch Michael Jordan I feel humility, awe, inspiration, but I’m not sure about gratitude. Is it gratitude at having had the opportunity to experience the inspiration? I’d be curious to know how that link was explained in the research.

On a separate note, this article was beautifully written. I not only enjoyed the content but your way of delivering it which was as much art as science. Thanks, look forward to your next one!

Chris Malcomson 28 February 2010 - 5:20 pm

Thanks for the clear article. As an abstract painter I would like to suggest that the sequence is longer and goes,sometimes like Decision/Resistance/Preparation/Action/Inspiration. Not talking technically
it sometimes seems if as is part of you reaches a decision which then sets up vigorous resistance
which is followed by preparation. Consider stopping smoking as an example. The decision is sometimes taken almost “behind”one’s back. The affect is a vigorous increase in the number of cigarettes smoked. Preparation is sometimes then made “behind” one’s back.
Leaving that and talking about painters it is very common to find that they go through some crazy rituals in preparation before starting work,particularly if it is a bit threatening like the start of a new series or change of style, like sweeping the studio floor,washing brushes etc. Actions of tidying that are centreing. Sometimes you have an idea and other times,more exciting,you just start. In both cases there comes a point, and my toes curled when I first heard this expression, when you need to ask the painting “what it wants/needs”. Another point is that it is important,particularly, when you first start
to paint to make a regular date to meet one,s muse (again preparation). Hope some of this is clear !!

Bridget 1 March 2010 - 7:55 am

Hi Christine

Thanks for your comments. It was completely by chance that I came across this research – I was inspired by a colleague (Gill Weston) after a discussion at the beginning of the week – clearly an example of inspiration leading to action, and yes I’m grateful to her for that!


Bridget 1 March 2010 - 7:57 am

Hi Jeremy, thanks for your comments, I’m glad you liked the article and I must add that Senia’s expert editing has added huge value to the original script, as always.

As for gratitude, you raise a crucial point here.

The researchers firstly explain that gratitude results from receiving a gift/positive outcome which someone else is responsible for. They go on to say:

“Because inspiration involves the gains associated with transcendence (i.e., a new source of intrinsic value) and approach motivation (i.e., energy to pursue a new, valued goal), as well as the perception that something beyond the self is causally responsible, we posit that inspiration leads to feelings of gratitude toward the source of inspiration. Other theorists, representing the domains of interpersonal (Simmel, 1950), religious (Bradley, 1929), and creative (Swaffer, 1929) inspiration, have previously suggested that inspired individuals are grateful to their source” (p490).

[Let me know if you want the full references mentioned here]

In the ‘Limitations’ part of the research paper, they discuss ‘being inspired by’ with/without ‘being inspired to’, and suggest that merely being inspired by someone or something without then being inspired to take action doesn’t result in feelings of gratitude/enable one to derive a sense of purpose (and therefore is less likely to result in well-being).

How does that fit with your previous discussions with Wayne J. about taking action?

Hope that helps!

Bridget 1 March 2010 - 7:59 am

Hi Chris

Thanks for your comments and insights from an artist’s perspective. It’s lovely to make contact again – we met briefly at the Pennsylvania conference last summer and I recall you talking passionately about your painting. I hope it is all going well.

What you said about the longer sequence reminded me of i) change management theory, e.g. Prochaska & DiClemente’s “stages of change” model and ii) systems theory, e.g. Kurt Lewin’s Force Field Analysis. It’s interesting that the resistance stage you describe leads to positive action in the form of preparation, whereas I’ve not come across the idea expressed in this way in CM theory. But perhaps they are similar. Perhaps the artist’s rituals are also about mental preparation such as flow?

Can other readers/artists comment on their experiences?


Christine Duvivier 1 March 2010 - 11:51 am

Hi Chris, I think you described beautifully the sequence in any creation. I love your lines about “ask the painting what it wants/needs” and “check-in with your muse!!”

Thanks for sharing,

Jeremy McCarthy 3 March 2010 - 4:37 pm

Thanks for those additional notes that helped fill in a few gaps for me. I think that ties into our previous discussion on action which seems to be a key component.

Regarng the gratitude piece, I’ll have to think about that one. I think it makes sense although if I feel inspired by watching Michael Jordan play basketball I think I feel grateful for having that experience, but not so much grateful towards Michael Jordan (who I assume would be the source in this case.) However, this is a distinction that doesn’t really impact the theory that inspiration>gratitude>well-being.

Thanks for enhancing my understanding of inspiration . . . Great topic!

Bridget 3 March 2010 - 4:51 pm

Hi Jeremy

Yes I guess we’ll have to wait on further research into inspiration to answer the inspired by/inspired to question. Gill Weston a MAPP student at the University of East London is currently doing research into inspiration, so that will provide us with some isights. If I come across anything else on this, I’ll let you know.

BTW you have also raised another interesting question and that’s whether feeling grateful for something is the same as feeling grateful to someone for something.

Does anyone know the answer?


Amanda Horne 5 March 2010 - 9:00 am

I loved reading your article and the consideration of something we don’t often hear about in the field of Positive Psychology. I wonder if there is any connection between inspiration and awe? Not all inspiration is awe, however I wonder if when in awe, it can lead to inspiration.

Inspiration is a less easy concept to grapple from a practical perspective. E.g. if I decide that to enhance my well-being through inspiration, it’s not so easy to ‘do’ inspiration interventions. As you say, “but you can’t make yourself feel inspired just at the drop of a hat, can you?”, and you quote Todd Thrash “inspiration which is itself difficult to bring under volitional control.”

I wonder whether this is one of those areas where we become more alert to and aware of what inspires us, and over time gain greater understanding in a way that we can help promote more inspiration in the future.

Thanks again!

Bridget 8 March 2010 - 4:52 pm

Hi Amanda

Good question about the link with awe. The researchers discuss this in relation to the potential difference between “inspired by” vs “inspired to”. They point out that the character strength of appreciation of beauty and excellence (subtitled awe, wonder or elevation) which is like the process of being inspired by, tends to be a poor predictor of well-being (p503). It’s as if feeling awe on its own isn’t enough, you have to feel moved to take action as a result of it in order to also increase your well-being.

As for self-awareness, it’s surely central to increasing one’s own well-being, which is why I think positive psychology education is so important. And you can certainly increase your chances of being inspired (by or to) – I’m going to hear one of my heroes (Camila Batmanghelidjh) speak this coming weekend. I don’t know in advance whether it’ll lead to action of course, but nevertheless I can’t wait!



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