A quick scan through Instagram will confirm something everyone already knows: People love inspirational quotes. We love them in beautiful hand-lettering. We even like them when they’re the product of a shoddily Photoshop job. We print them on t-shirts, we hand them on posters, and we even tattoo them on our bodies. But why? What is it about quotes and mantras that we find so motivational?
The science of motivation and inspiration are tricky to study; we know that there are neurological reasons behind almost everything we do (and everything we make), but it can be hard to capture those moments in a scientific setting. But what we do know is that there’s a kind of feedback loop of ideas — or, more simply, ideas create other ideas.
This is why brainstorming with others can be really effective, and why reading the thoughts (and, specifically, quotes) of others is so inspirational. Even just reading an excerpt or a line of text that offers a new perspective or idea to your own set of thoughts, beliefs, and understandings can spur further ideas in you, and back up the ideas you’re already forming. In a way, reading quotes is kind of like having a conversation with friends — only it can be done alone, and any time you need it.
Quotes are also really useful because they’re succinct distillations of larger texts or concepts — which, when we’re in a hurry or need a piece of art that doesn’t cover the entire cubicle wall, is really, really helpful. As Timm Gunn explains in his book, Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life Lessons In Making It Work, there’s no shortage of places to find inspiration, either.
In the internet era, finding motivational quotes is as easy as, well, Googling “quotes about…” and then narrowing your search. Websites like BrainyQuote and GoodReads specialize in just pulling out the most salient or affecting pieces and making them accessible and relatable.
Another reason we love inspirational quotes? They affirm what we already know (or think we know) about ourselves. One of the greatest human motivations is our desire to be able to both fit into categories or types of people, and to feel like we’re in good company (and, often, limited company) once we’re there.
On a recent episode of the NPR show, Invisibilia, host Alix Spiegel explained it as “a powerful impulse that is written into people…this urge to want to clearly differentiate themselves, to declare their category.”
And indeed, it is extremely powerful. When you find yourself drawn to quotes like “execution eats strategy for breakfast” or “a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor,” you’re defining yourself as a kind of person — one who acts, one who gets things done, one who is resilient and preservers through hardship. Not only does this reinforce what you believe about yourself, it can shape how others feel about you if you, say, put it on Pinterest or your Instagram account. Quotes can be both personally satisfying and a marker of social status or personal preference.
Not everyone believes in the power of inspirational quotes, however. In a 2013 blog post, Peter Shankman wrote that, while they may motivate you in the short term, “those inspirational posts simply won’t help you to truly reach your goals”
“Here’s the major flaw: Inspirational quotes are designed to motivate immediately, and for a defined time,” he writes. “A quarter. A turn at bat. A 3rd down. No inspirational quote, no matter how amazing it sounds when you hear it, no matter what awesome person said it, can fuel you day in and day out without fail for six months by itself.”
Instead, says Peter, remind yourself to “do today what you can do again tomorrow.” Focusing more on repetition and habit-building than short bursts of inspiration, he argues, is the real crux of success.
But could it be that a balance of the two is necessary, like a healthy diet that contains a combination of both caffeine, which fuels your energy when you need it, and fiber, which keeps you full and awake all day? Most likely.
In times of hardship or self-doubt, inspirational quotes can be the must-needed pick-me-up that gets you re-motivated to do the thing that you do every day, whether it’s hit the gym, go to work, or work on your side project. It might not be substantive enough to live on, but it will be helpful in getting you moving again.