What are Positive Affirmations? A Definition
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.
Is There Science Behind Them?
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 the practice and popularity of positive affirmations are based on widely accepted and well-established psychological theory.
The Psychological Theory Behind Positive Affirmations
One of the key psychological theories behind positive affirmations is self-affirmation theory(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-Identity and Self-Affirmation
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 deservethat praise for acting in ways that are consistent with that particular personal value.
A Look at the Research
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.
Benefits of Daily Affirmations
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:
- Self-affirmations have been shown to decrease health-deteriorating stress (Sherman et al., 2009; Critcher & Dunning, 2015);
- Self-affirmations have been used effectively in interventions that led people to increase their physical behavior (Cooke et al., 2014);
- They may help us to perceive otherwise “threatening” messages with less resistance, including interventions (Logel & Cohen, 2012);
- They can make us less likely to dismiss harmful health messages, responding instead with the intention to change for the better (Harris et al., 2007) and to eat more fruit and vegetables (Epton & Harris, 2008);
- They have been linked positively to academic achievement by mitigating GPA decline in students who feel left out at college (Layous et al., 2017);
- Self-affirmation has been demonstrated to lower stress and rumination (Koole et al., 1999; Wiesenfeld et al., 2001).
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.
What Are the Health Benefits?
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.
Can They Help One’s Outlook on Life?
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.
What Is Healing Affirmation?
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.”