One of the key psychological theories behind positive affirmations is self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988). A key empirical study based on the idea that we can maintain our sense of self-integrity by telling ourselves (or affirming) what we believe.
Self-affirmation theory shows us how to understand how positive affirmations work.
- 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 means we can see ourselves flexibly as adopting a range of different identities and roles. This means we can define success in different ways, too. We can view different aspects of ourselves as being positive and can adapt to different situations much better (Aronson, 1969).
- 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).
- 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). 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).
- 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; Weisenfeld et al., 2001).
The dhyana of Ashtangha Yoga or the Vipissana of Buddhist traditions show the way to disparate goals. MBSR (Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction is another form of meditation with yet another goal. The New Age showed us countless guided meditations and a variety of meditation goals like chakra opening, spirit guide contact, sensual partnership, etc. To answer whether or not any of the styles has value, or really works, we would need to define and narrow the parameters just a bit. Take MBSR for instance. There are plenty of studies to show how this form of meditation is heping countless sufferers of stress-based syndromes such as PTSD and the like.
Meditation and affirmations really do work, but it’s also important to define one’s goals clearly, too, in order to measure the efficacy of the approach and make adjustments along the way.
…is a Saiva Tantrika, Gyana Yogi and founder of Uma Maheshwara Yoga & Ayurveda. David has an MA in Semiotics, lives in Japan with his family and works as a coach in L & D, devoting his time to developing science-based tools and programs that help people reach the fullest potential of the human condition.