You can divide the world into two kinds of people. Those who have cushions embroidered with inspirational quotes (“Dance like there’s nobody watching”, “If life gives you lemons…” etc), and those who have cushions embroidered with the artist Banksy’s quote,
And yet we do. We adore advice from a cushion.
Particularly now, given how we are living a day at a time through a frightening, uncertain pandemic, for which we have no reference points. Advice from a cushion never seemed more comforting, especially the old war time classic to Keep Calm And Carry On.
Perhaps this current situation will give rise to some new slogans — Keep Calm And Don’t Hoard, or Keep Calm And Stay Close To Home. Keep Calm And Look After Each Other. That’s the thing with inspiration quotes — their original intention has always been positive, it’s just that they got hijacked by schmaltz and commerce along the way. Which inevitably gave rise to a mildly sarcastic backlash.
The inspirational quote is everywhere — on our walls, soft furnishings, t-shirts, bags, accessories, notebooks, and most of all, on our social media feeds. Little sentences that do not offer advice, or information, or facts, or hacks, or jokes, or anything beyond earnest affirmations that life is indeed beautiful, that without rain there are no rainbows, that you are amazing, alongside exhortations to be more unicorn, because you got this, you warrior/bad ass etc.
What purpose do they serve? Who likes them? And how have they managed to take over the internet?
For every person who adores these little bon mots, there is another person who is quietly being sick in their handbag at the very thought of them. Yet inspirational quotes, for all their flowery fonts and glittery lettering, are not exclusively a lady thing. It’s just that menfolk prefer to call their quotes motivational, because inspirational is a bit wet and not terribly go-get-em-tiger.
Yet the most read online article ever from the business magazineis their 'Top 100 Inspirational Quotes', compiled by inspirational quoter Kevin Kruse, who gave himself the number one spot (“Life is about making an impact, not making an income” — although he did tell an interviewer how he made zero income from his compilation despite its 29m views).
His list includes just 24 women; the rest, apart from a few from the Buddha and Jesus, are about striving, winning, not quitting, self-belief and general chest-beating. (Plus terrible English, from life coach guru Tony Robbins: “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”)
Inspirational quotes remain gendered. Broadly, inspiration targeting women is about not feeling too bad about yourself despite being a woman, while the stuff aimed at men is about never, ever giving up, because giving up is for losers. And because the genre is so twee, bland, anodyne, obvious, trite – one friend calls them "haikus of stupid" — it provides a rich source of satire. As Gandhi never said: ‘If you put an inspirational quote underneath your selfie, nobody can see your narcissism’.
Thankfully, there are plenty of bitter old cynics out there to counterbalance all the "you are a freaking rock star" and "stars can’t shine without darkness"— you can find them on Instagram at Uninspirational, a bracing antidote to all the positivity. Samples include "your family only loves you because they have to"; "you’re only as deep as your more recent inspirational quote"; and my personal favourite, "I wish you were pizza".
Taking this a step further is the New Age Bullshit Generator (“Namaste. Do you want to sell a New Age product and/or service? Tired of coming up with meaningless copy for your starry-eyed customers? Want to join the ranks of bestselling self-help authors? We can help.”) which creates randomised snippets of what may initially sound inspiring (“To follow the quest is to become one with it”; “Rebirth is the growth of passion”; “You and I are dreamweavers of the cosmos”, etc) until you realise that it is randomly generated gibberish. It is glorious fun.
Click on the Reionize Electrons button and it spits out combinations of New Agey words that sound deep but are entirely without meaning. Not unlike actual inspirational quotes, even ones from famous people. (Such as Rhianna — “Success for me isn’t a journey, it’s a destination.”) When Canadian behavioural scientist Dr Gordon Pennycook discovered the New Age Bullshit Generator site, initially it made him laugh, until he decided to investigate further. He conducted an actual academic study into the kinds of people who gravitate towards and are most likely to share inspirational quotes, and his findings confirmed the worst.
The study, titled, which went on to win the annual spoof Ig Nobel Peace Prize, surveyed 800 people, and found that those most receptive to what he terms ‘bullshit’ (defined as “in contrast to mere nonsense, something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth”) tend to also believe in conspiracy theories, the paranormal, employ non-science based thinking, and are socially more conservative. When the randomly generated bullshit was mixed with genuine quotes from New Age guru Dr Deepak Chopra, many participants could not differentiate between the two. Yikes.
Although to be fair, Dr Chopra, who has 3.3m Twitter followers, once wrote: “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.” However, to dismiss the tsunami of harmless and mostly life affirming inspiration on and offline as the opium of the Trump supporter would be a generalisation too far, and perhaps a little unfair. Yes, the Canadian study reveals a link between a fondness for such quotes with a less rigorous intellect, but their growing popularity seems to primarily reflect a need for hope and perspective in an increasingly awful world. Particularly now, when events change on a daily basis and anxiety has gone viral.
Hence the unexpected success of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, a book of illustrations about “hope, kindness and friendship” by the artist Charles Mackesy, which began as an Instagram page. After an initial print run of 10,000, a further 115,000 copies had to be produced for the Brexit-riven UK alone – clearly people are feeling a strong need for hope, kindness and friendship.
Online, between 2018 and 2019, there was a sixfold increase in ‘inspirational poetry quotes’ searches and triple the amount of searches for ‘positive quotes’ on Pinterest, while Etsy searches for inspiration-themed art more than doubled. The internet is bursting with inspirational podcasts, interviews, and subscriber sites, from Russell Brand to Awesome With Alison to parody sites like Awaken With JP Sears (although the line between the genuine and the parodic is becoming increasingly harder to discern). It will be interesting to see just how much more 2020 spikes this trend.
Psychologically, there are a few reasons we may gravitate towards these one-liners of ersatz wisdom, even before we had ever heard of the corona virus. Humanity has always embraced the mantra; the inspirational quote is a form of mantra, albeit without quality control. Anyone can trot one out, no matter how inane. But repeating to yourself that you are worth it / can do it / are good enough can help reprogramme your inner critic; the danger lies in taking literally statements like ‘happiness is a choice’, which it is clearly not if you suffer from, say, clinical depression and need a lot more than an Instagram sunset to remain functional.
Inspirational quotes are, in essence, snippets of positive communication, offering encouragement, reassurance and identification. Life can be hard, carry on, you’ll be alright in the end. We all need these – except we are currently more likely to get it more from our feeds than our actual peers. The effect remains similar – our brains’ reward centres are triggered. When the quotes are from famous names – Walt Disney, the Dalai Lama, Oprah, Winnie the Pooh, Albert Einstein – they are afforded further gravity; but essentially, the outcome is the same. A teeny ripple of hope and connectivity. And perfect in times of social distancing, when we can’t hug each other in real life.