Self-help books often promote the power of positive affirmations. You, me, and almost everybody in the 21st century have heard of them. But if you’ve never tried them before, the idea can seem incredibly awkward.
Telling yourself how awesome you are can seem bizarre, but if that’s all you’re doing, there are probably more effective ways to go about it. And if you’re a skeptic, it doesn’t hurt to understand how and why positive affirmations became so popular.
And yes, there is genuine theory and a fair amount of neuroscience behind this practice. Let’s have a look!
Fortunately, positive affirmations are almost as easy to define as they are to practice. Put simply, they are positive phrases or statements used to challenge negative or unhelpful thoughts.
Practicing positive affirmations can be extremely simple, and all you need to do is pick a phrase and repeat it to yourself.
You may choose to use positive affirmations to motivate yourself, encourage positive changes in your life, or boost your self-esteem. If you frequently find yourself getting caught up in negative self-talk, positive affirmations can be used to combat these often subconscious patterns and replace them with more adaptive narratives.
Science, yes. Magic, no. Positive affirmations require regular practice if you want to make lasting, long-term changes to the ways that you think and feel. The good news is that practice and popularity of positive affirmations is based on widely accepted and well-established psychological theory.
One of the key psychological theories behind positive affirmations is self-affirmationtheory (Steele, 1988). So, yes, there are empirical studies based on the idea that we can maintain our sense of self-integrity by telling ourselves (or affirming) what we believe in positive ways.
Very briefly, self-integrity relates to our global self-efficacy—our perceived ability to control moral outcomes and respond flexibly when our self-concept is threatened (Cohen & Sherman, 2014). So, we as humans are motivated to protect ourselves from these threats by maintaining our self-integrity.
Self-affirmation theory has three key ideas underpinning it. They are worth having in mind if we are to understand how positive affirmations work according to the theory.
First, through self-affirmation, we keep up a global narrative about ourselves. In this narrative, we are flexible, moral, and capable of adapting to different circumstances. This makes up our self-identity (Cohen & Sherman, 2014).
Self-identity (which we’re seeking to maintain, as mentioned before) is not the same as having a rigid and strictly defined self-concept. Instead of viewing ourselves in one “fixed” way, say as a “student” or a “son”, our self-identity can be flexible. We can see ourselves as adopting a range of different identities and roles. This means we can define success in different ways, too.
Why is this a good thing? Because it means we can view different aspects of ourselves as being positive and can adapt to different situations much better (Aronson, 1969).
Secondly, self-affirmation theory argues that maintaining self-identity is not about being exceptional, perfect, or excellent (Cohen & Sherman, 2014). Rather, we just need to be competent and adequate in different areas that we personally value in order to be moral, flexible, and good (Steele, 1988).
Lastly, we maintain self-integrity by acting in ways that authentically merit acknowledgment and praise. In terms of positive affirmations, we don’t say something like “I am a responsible godmother” because we want to receive that praise. We say it because we want to deserve that praise for acting in ways that are consistent with that particular personal value.
The development of self-affirmation theory has led to neuroscientific research aimed at investigating whether we can see any changes in the brain when we self-affirm in positive ways.
There is MRI evidence suggesting that certain neural pathways are increased when people practice self-affirmation tasks (Cascio et al., 2016). If you want to be super specific, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—involved in positive valuation and self-related information processing—becomes more active when we consider our personal values (Falk et al., 2015; Cascio et al., 2016).
The results of a study by Falk and colleagues suggest that when we choose to practice positive affirmations, we’re better able to view “otherwise-threatening information as more self-relevant and valuable” (2015: 1979). As we’ll see in a moment, this can have several benefits because it relates to how we process information about ourselves.
Now that we know more about the theories supporting positive affirmations, here are six examples of evidence from empirical studies that suggest that positive self-affirmation practices can be beneficial:
If you’re interested in finding out more about the proven benefits of practicing positive affirmations, this article by Critcher and Dunning (2015) is worth a read. The article looks at the ways in which practicing affirmations has been shown to foster a broader sense of self-concept.
As the studies above suggest, positive affirmations can help us to respond in a less defensive and resistant way when we’re presented with threats. One study that was mentioned above showed that smokers reacted less dismissively to graphic cigarette packet warnings and reported intention to change their behavior (Harris et al., 2007).
But more generally, an adaptive, broad sense of self makes us more resilient to difficulties when they arise. Whether it’s social pressures, health information that makes us feel uncomfortable, or feelings of exclusion, a broader self-concept can be an extremely helpful thing to have.
As inherently positive statements, affirmations are designed to encourage an optimistic mindset. And optimism in itself is a powerful thing. In terms of reducing negative thoughts, affirmations have been shown to help with the tendency to linger on negative experiences (Wiesenfeld et al., 2001).
When we are able to deal with negative messages and replace them with positive statements, we can construct more adaptive, hopeful narratives about who we are and what we can accomplish.
This kind of affirmation is a positive statement about your physical well-being. Popularized by author and speaker Louise Hay, these affirmations are based on the idea that your thoughts can influence your health for the better. You don’t have to be unwell to practice healing affirmations; this idea can be just as helpful for healing emotional pain if you find the idea rings with you.
Examples from Hay’s website include:
“My happy thoughts help create my healthy body,”
“Wellness is the natural state of my body. I am in perfect health.”
Louise Hay, mentioned above, was an author, teacher, and lecturer who was well-known for her 1984 internationally bestselling book You Can Heal Your Life. Born in the U.S., Hays survived many difficult experiences, including abuse and domestic violence, before she established the First Church of Religious Science.
In the 1970s, Louise was diagnosed with what medical professionals called irreversible cervical cancer, and as a result, she began looking into non-medical healing alternatives. In doing so, she created an approach that combined visualization, forgiveness, psychotherapy, and dietary health. In later interviews—Hays lived to the age of ninety—she shared how she believed that this was what led to her being cured within half a year of her diagnosis.
Louise argued that self-perspectives and other negative beliefs are often the causes of our health problems. Through affirmations and other alternative approaches like positive thinking, she argued, we have the power to transform our lives and health.
You may have seen Hays on Oprah, or you may have read one of her books, in which you can learn more about the techniques, practices, and affirmations that explain her beliefs.
If you haven’t practiced positive affirmations before, you might have a lot of questions at this point. Here, we’ll address some of the most common questions asked about the topic.
There are no hard and fast rules about timing or frequency when it comes to practicing self-affirmations.
According to psychotherapist Ronald Alexander of the Open Mind Training Institute, affirmations can be repeated up to three to five times daily to reinforce the positive belief. He suggests that writing your affirmations down in a journal and practicing them in the mirror is a good method for making them more powerful and effective (Alexander, 2011).
The idea of affirmations as a means of introducing new and adaptive cognitive processes is very much the underlying premise of cognitive restructuring. This is supported by a study of cancer patients that suggests that spontaneous self-affirmations are have a significantly positive correlation to feelings of hopefulness (Taber et al., 2016).
Affirmations can sometimes be very useful for boosting your self-esteem—but there’s a caveat.
The most important thing, according to self-affirmation theory, is that your affirmations reflect your core personal values (Cohen & Sherman, 2014). There is little point in repeating something arbitrary to yourself if it doesn’t gel with your own sense of what you believe to be good, moral, and worthwhile.
To have any kind of impact on your self-esteem, your self-affirmations should be positively focused and targeted at actions you can take to reinforce your sense of self-identity. Use your real strengths, or strengths that you consider important, to guide your affirmations.
A large number of anxiety-sufferers experience disturbed sleep (Staner, 2003). In the sense that affirmations can sometimes help to relieve anxiety, they may have some beneficial effects in promoting better sleep.
In addition, incorporating your affirmations into meditation can be relaxing and soothing. Meditation has been found to have numerous benefits in terms of sleep quality, so positive affirmation meditation could very well be a good way to improve your sleep (Nagendra et al., 2012).
If you are interested in trying this, you’ll find some audio and video below that may be helpful.
If you start digging into the academic literature, you’ll find that the terms “affirmation” and “mantra” are regularly used interchangeably. The same goes with more colloquial uses of the terms. There is a difference, though.
Technically, mantras are sacred words, sounds, or verses that carry more spiritual meaning than affirmations (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). Frequently said aloud or mentally, they are believed to have deep significance and they feature a lot in meditation. More specifically, according to Encyclopedia Britannica (2019):
“Most mantras are without any apparent verbal meaning, but they are thought to have a profound underlying significance and are in effect distillations of spiritual wisdom.”
Positive affirmations, in contrast, are described by the Psychology Dictionary as brief phrases, repeated frequently, which are designed to encourage positive, happy feelings, thoughts, and attitudes. They hold no spiritual or religious meaning in the traditional sense and can be used for many purposes.
Based on this definition, here are some examples of positive affirmations:
Listed below are more positive affirmation examples, focused on specific areas.
Looking for some ideas to create your own affirmations? Here are some nice examples:
Here are some affirmations for men, including affirmations of self-acceptance and positive body image. These affirmations are based on a larger list of 30 affirmations and was adapted using the cognitive behavioral therapy idea of “negative core beliefs.”
Social pressures and academic stresses can take their toll on teens, but they can turn around negative self-talk and do something positive about they think and feel. Here are some affirmations that are well-suited for teenagers:
By learning to practice positive affirmations at a young age, kids can become much more prepared to use them when facing difficulties later in life (Bloch, 2015). These are very simple affirmations because the easier they are for young kids to remember, the more likely children will be able to practice them without an adult’s help.
Similar affirmations for kids can be found at TheTeacherToolkit.
Students may find that affirmations are helpful for coping with the stress of academic life as well as their extracurricular and social lives. Here are some examples from the full list that you or a student you know can use for motivation or inspiration.
Most people who have suffered from anxiety will likely know how important it can be to cut off negative thought patterns before they begin to spiral. These affirmations can be used at any time, and even those who don’t typically feel anxious may find them useful during stressful moments.
During times of anxiety or depression, this list of 72 positive affirmations can be used for reassuring yourself. A few examples inspired by this resource include:
Some other affirmations related to nonjudgment and mindfulness for anxiety can be found on this list. Here are some that draw inspiration from the list:
Another 52 mantras can be found at Anxiety Gone. Here are some based on these principles:
While practicing these affirmations, try to take deep, slow, soothing breaths. As you become more attuned to the flow of your breath in and out, try not to let your feelings distract you. Focus on the affirmation that you’ve put time into creating for yourself, and each time you practice, it will feel more natural.
As with anxiety, depression is often linked closely to—if not underpinned significantly by—thought processes such as overgeneralization and cognitive distortions (Beck, 1964).
Selective abstraction is a common distortion that is associated with depression and describes the tendency to overexaggerate negative things while underemphasizing the positive. Affirmations can help us to try and correct this balance by acknowledging and focusing on more positive aspects of both ourselves and our lives.
Here are 5 daily affirmations you can adapt, as we have. You can also view them at their original source.
Here are five positive affirmations that are designed to help you increase your self-esteem:
If you are expecting, here are some suggestions from midwife, reflexologist and practicing nurse Marie Drake Boyle. These can even be useful during labor, she says.
Here is the full list.
Just like you can practice mindfulness in a quiet moment at work, there’s no reason not to take some time out to practice your affirmations at your desk.
Some examples might include:
If you find that writing down your positive affirmations is helpful, or you want to carry them around with you throughout your day, why not make your own positive affirmation cards?
A quick internet search will reveal an abundance of these products, but all you really need is your own affirmations, a piece of paper or notecard, scissors and a pen. Quite simply, affirmation cards are pieces of paper about the size of a credit card that you can pop into your wallet, bag, or pocket that can be useful as a little reminder when you’re on the move.
If you’re after an app that can whip up a positive affirmation for you, here are some great examples.
ThinkUp is an app featuring affirmations that are personally used by dozens of notable people, including coaches, athletes, authors, and more. If it seems difficult at first to think of a meaningful set of affirmations, this is a great source of inspiration.
Prefer to receive your affirmations via uplifting SMS messages? Try Shine. When you sign up on its website, Shine will send you one text each weekday. Shine claims that 93% of its users have reported noticeable improvements in their happiness each day.
It’s as simple as one unique positive affirmation each day with this app, which you can either visit daily to see the affirmation, or you can set it up to send you push notifications. In addition, Unique Daily Affirmations has a nice feature in which you can record your own affirmations and upload your own photos to make it more “you.”