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Inspiration can be a hard thing to pin down, but scientists actually have found evidence-backed ways to encourage it to happen!

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This episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus [ ♪INTRO ].

Inspiration can be a hard thing to pin down. It’s not the same as creativity, even though they often go hand-in-hand.

But then again, inspiration is often the jumping-off point for creativity... although, sometimes a creative thought is the spark for inspiration. Then there’s the whole issue of how to actually get inspired, because it seems like every article on Pinterest tells you something different. Thankfully, scientists haven’t spend much time on Pinterest and have come to the rescue with actual research.

In the last few decades, they’ve actually begun to understand inspiration, and they’ve even found evidence-backed ways to encourage it to happen. So add this one to your Pinterest board, we guess. Some of the most important studies on inspiration have come from two psychologists: Todd Thrash and Andrew Elliot.

Starting in the early 2000s, they studied inspiration from every angle: what it is, how it works, who gets it most, and what situations bring it about. And they were able to turn this nebulous concept into something more concrete and researchable. According to them, inspiration has three main qualities.

One is evocation — it’s evoked spontaneously, without your conscious control. Another is approach motivation, or the feeling that you just must make your vision happen right this second. And the third — which is probably inspiration’s most famous feature — is transcendence.

It’s that sense of clarity and singlemindedness where all of your other concerns just fall away. And great, wonderful words fall out of your brain and it in the keyboard. That’s just me, I don’t know how you create.

But that’s how I do it. The researchers also noted that you can both be inspired by something, where you appreciate the value of an inspirational thing for its own sake, and be inspired to do something. That’s where you feel motivated to extend that value to yourself, your work, or the world.

According to Thrash and Elliot, real inspiration includes both. Over the years, these two researchers have been able to put meaningful words to what inspiration is. But they’re not only ones who have studied it.

Other papers have also focused on inspiration, and they’ve shown that — to no one’s real surprise — amazing things happen when you’re inspired. Research has found that it makes people more productive, more creative, and more satisfied with life overall. For example, in a study where almost 150 undergrads were given a writing assignment, those who reported being more inspired wrote things that their peers judged to be more creative.

They also wrote more and deleted fewer words. Also, in a sample of almost 200 U. S. patent holders, those who reported being inspired most frequently also often had the most patents.

Of course, that all sounds great, but the question we really want to know is, how do you actually make this feeling happen? Well, for one thing, you don’t make it happen — that’s the point of the “evocation”. It has to happen on its own.

That said, researchers have found a few qualities that can encourage it to show up. In their first study, Thrash and Elliot uncovered correlations between people’s personality traits and how often they were inspired. They found that inspiration is more associated with openness to experience than it is to conscientiousness.

That suggests that to be inspired, you need to be accepting of what comes rather than trying to control those possibilities. Inspiration was also linked to intrinsic motivation, and negatively correlated with extrinsic motivation. That is, those who were most frequently inspired weren’t driven by some external reward, like money or a promotion.

They were motivated by something within them. In a sense, feeling inspired was its own reward. But don’t think that all it takes is to gaze up at the clouds and wait for this feeling to come, either.

Another trait associated with it was work mastery — that is, having well-developed skills. It was also negatively associated with competitiveness and fear of failure. The lesson there?

Get good at what you do and hater’s gonna hate, don’t listen to them. There’s a lot to sort through there, but if you want to make inspiration happen, there are ultimately four research-backed ways to help it along. First, don’t pressure yourself.

Trying brings willful control into the mix, and that’s opposite to the spontaneous nature of inspiration. Second, get in a good head space. Thrash and Elliot found that two precursors to inspiration are optimism and self-esteem.

If you’re feeling down, it’s harder to trust that the feeling will come. Third, do something else that’s related to the task at hand. For an example of this in action, researchers in a 2019 study asked 21 design students to come up with solutions to open-ended design prompts, like “a device to fold hand towels.” Each problem was paired with a list of words that either came directly from the problem, was somewhat related to the problem, or was completely unrelated.

And those who got a list of related words came up with more ideas for a longer period of time. So if you’re working hard, waiting for your muse to arrive, maybe take a break to admire the work of others in your field. Talk to your friends about what they’re working on.

Read up on one of your heroes. Let your mind wander around the fringes of your focus, and inspiration might pay you a visit. Finally, it’s probably worth developing your skills, too.

Remember, “work mastery” is associated with more frequent inspiration, and Thrash and Elliot also found it’s a precursor to this feeling happening in the first place. Plus, it’s important in its own right. In that study that gave people writing assignments, those who reported being more inspired wrote more creative pieces, sure, but pieces written by those who reported putting in more effort were rated as having more technical merit.

So for the best work, you need both. And that just goes to show that, for as great as this feeling is, being inspired isn’t the only way to make something that you’re proud of, and that is great. Working hard is important, too.

And indeed, it might even be that the hard work has to come first. Sometimes, though, hard work doesn’t have to feel hard. If there’s anything we know at SciShow, it’s that learning can actually be really interesting and a lot of fun — which is why we’re excited about The Great Courses Plus.

It’s a subscription-based, on-demand video learning service, and it’s packed with amazing lectures and courses. We’re talking top-notch content from Ivy League professors, great universities worldwide, and experts from places like National Geographic, The Smithsonian, and the Culinary Institute of America. They have more than 11,000 video lectures to choose from, and they’re not just about science.

You can learn about math, literature, history, or even things like how to become a better photographer. There’s a great course by a National Geographic photographer, for example, that treats photography like problem-solving, which is cool to think ab_out. And it definitely makes me feel inspired.

Right now, The Great Courses Plus is giving SciShow viewers the chance to try their content for free! And if you choose to subscribe after the trial, you’ll be supporting SciShow, as well. To learn more, you can visit thegreatcoursesplus.com/SciShowPsych, or just click the link in the description to start the free trial. [ ♪OUTRO ].