The psychology of inspiration

Inspiration opens our minds to new possibilities and helps us respond to concerns in constructive ways. Chris Johnstone explains how we can become inspired and inspire others too

If you began a sentence with the phrase “what inspires me is…,” what words might naturally follow? I often use this sentence completion process when I’m teaching about the psychology of inspiration. One day, I was intrigued when many on my course gave the answer “Mike”. Who was Mike? And what had he done to have such impact on this group? I was keen to find out more.

The Mike in question was Mike Feingold, a permaculture teacher in Bristol. He’d recently given the group a slideshow revealing how a ravaged landscape, which looked like the surface of Mars, had become transformed through permaculture intervention into an abundant and productive forest. When the impact of human activity so often turns forests into deserts, it was deeply inspiring, and reassuring, to see this process in reverse.

Inspiring examples give us a glimpse that something else is possible. They provide a new reference point that ups our bar when considering what we might do. As we learn by watching others, one of the biggest influences on human behaviour is what we see other people do. Unfortunately, our tendency to follow the example of role models can also work in a negative way, as the following experiment illustrates.

“If all we see is people carrying on as if nothing is wrong, that becomes a reference point that influences our response”

Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley recruited volunteers for their research and asked them to fill out a questionnaire while they waited in a room. While they worked, smoke started trickling in through a vent in the wall. If a volunteer was in the room by themselves, it didn’t take long before they raised the alarm. But if several people were in the room together, they’d look to see how others responded before doing anything themselves. In some groups, two people had been instructed to ignore the smoke and carry on with their questionnaires. When volunteers saw others filling in their forms even as the room filled with smoke, they’d be much more likely to do this too. Many carried on writing even when the room was so smoky it was difficult to see.

This experiment can serve as a metaphor for responses to world problems. When we become aware of disturbing information, we’re likely to look around to see how others respond. If all we see is people carrying on as if nothing is wrong, that becomes a reference point that influences our response. How important it is then to look out for and notice responses that are creative, constructive and inspired. And how important too is the work of Positive News in bringing such responses to our attention.

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There’s one more step we need to take though if we want inspiration to spread. We need to pass it on. One way of doing this is by having conversations where we hear each other describe what we find inspiring. Another approach is to remember that whatever people see us doing can become a reference point for them. When they see us acknowledging concerns and responding in a constructive way, they’re more likely to as well.

So to become inspired, focus your attention on what you find inspiring. If initially you can’t find anything, begin the quest of searching it out. When you find something, you can help inspiration grow by following the examples you’re impressed by. Inspiration is an energy we can open to and a direction we move in. When we follow its trail, we help others move this way too.

Chris Johnstone is author of Find Your Power and co-author of Active Hope.