Is there evidence affirmations work or is it just self help jargon aimed at pumping yourself up? Measuring the effectiveness of affirmations is not that easy.
The vast majority of studies into affirmations look at how specific affirmations can affect a general group of people.
Our beliefs are complex mixes of ideas and experiences.
Most of the evidence affirmations work is empirical. There are thousands of cases as a result of the work of people like Louise Hay who started a whole movement of self healing through affirmations and positive thinking.
Through simple muscle testing we now know that a negative thought weakens you while a positive thought has the opposite effect.
On a more practical level we all know how great it feels when someone else praises us or gives us a compliment.
The problem is not so much with what others tell us but rather what we tell ourselves.
Our minds are constantly engaged in a process of self-talk and thinking.
Affirmations is a way to interrupt these inner conversations that could be negative, disempowering or even destructive.
Scientific Studies About Affirmations
The big question is this: is there scientific evidence affirmations work? The answer is (unfortunately) both yes and no.
Measuring the effectiveness of affirmations is incredibly complicated – especially in a scientific sense where double blind studies try and determine specific results across a spectrum of test subjects.
There are so many factors that impact the effects of affirmations on individuals that it becomes incredibly complicated to do any real scientific measurements.
Self-affirmation Theory, first published by Claude M.Steele in 1988 is often referenced in affirmation studies. It basically comprises your concept of self – that which you believe ‘I am’.
It acts as a sort of moral compass that helps you steer through various social and moral challenges in life.
The fact that most of the benefits of affirmations happen gradually and subconsciously is part of the reason why it is hard to measure.
Psychologist Christopher Cascio from the University of Pennsylvania used brain imaging to study the effects of affirmations on the brain.
The conclusion was that there are 3 measurable advantages that can be detected and identified in a brain scan while someone is engaged in positive affirmations.
The first and most obvious is that it feels good. Pleasure centers in the brain get activated and dwelling on positive ideas helps lift our mood.
The second is that when we are criticized or face the idea of failure, affirmations can act as a powerful reminder to redirect our thoughts.
Lastly, affirmations can help us regulate our emotions and strengthen our sense of self worth. As a tool to help direct and control our emotions is is incredibly powerful since the way we think and feel are so intricately connected.
Evidence That Affirmations Work For Everyone Already
Almost everything you ‘know’ about yourself and your life is the result of affirmations. Affirmations are statements about yourself and life in general that gets repeated over and over again.
The most basic evidence that affirmations work is simply to look at how any child ‘learns’ to become what they are.
We learn mostly through unconscious observation. We see something over and over again and the mind learns that this is ‘true’.
We hear something over and over again and we accept it as true.
As children our minds are wide open and we accept almost everything we are given from our parents or other authority figures.
Almost everything that you believe about yourself is the result of direct or indirect affirmations.
It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.– Claude Bristol
Affirmations create neural pathways in your brain – each time you hear it it becomes stronger and more resilient.
When you have a belief it acts as a guide and much of your life experiences will back up the beliefs. When experiences help to reinforce beliefs it can become incredibly strong convictions.
Before the age of 10 we tend to rely completely on our parents to think for us. It is mostly during this time that the foundational beliefs in our lives are laid down.
It is not until adolescence that we start understanding our own beliefs, where they come from and most of all when we start realizing that much of it does not serve us.
The practise of affirmations as a tool for change has been promoted in self help literature for decades.
While we know that our original beliefs are ‘installed’ through unconscious affirmations, the real question is whether we can ‘install’ new beliefs through the same process?
As we’ve seen from some of the scientific experiments, there is ample evidence affirmations work but it is far more subtle and requires much more work than most would have you believe.
Building new neural pathways in your brain is much like rewiring yourself. It is essentially a process of relearning and convincing your mind that a ‘lie’ is now true.
Affirmations are not bound up in rules. An affirmation can be long or short, poetic or plain. If you love a phrase and find that it helps you, that is a valid affirmation.– Eric Maisel
As adults our minds are much less susceptible than that of a child. Installing new beliefs consciously can be much harder than it was for these beliefs to get set initially.
It may sound strange but the mere belief that affirmations work will in fact ‘make it work’.
Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda under Hitler said that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself.
The 2 Main Types of Affirmations
With so much being written about affirmations there are hundreds of techniques, approaches and ideas on how to best use it.
There are essentially two types of affirmations.
1. Generic Affirmations
These are generic positive statements that are often what most people perceive affirmations to be. Things like:
- I am happy, healthy and prosperous
- Every day in every way I am getting better and better
- I am abundant, prosperous and wealthy
These are all statements that have very little meaning. Yes, they are positive but the mind has a hard time understanding these statements in terms it can act on.
According to this study, positive self statements can actually have the opposite effect as it often reminds you what you are not.
If you are depressed and unhappy then the statement “I am happy” can actually cause the opposite effect.
2. Specific/Personal Affirmations
Generic affirmations are nothing more than a warm shower. It has the power to make you feel good in the moment but rarely have the power to create any meaningful and long term change in your life.
Affirming “I am confident” has very little meaning. Only when you can see yourself being confident in specific situations can the mind truly act on the instructions given through the affirmation. vs. what causes you to feel confident.
When your affirmation is something like this:
“I now see myself being confident around women. I approach them easily, free from fear and absolutely strong and sure of what I say”
It creates a clear image in your mind in a specific setting. Your mind is far more likely to react positively to this image than a general statement like “I am confident”.
Specific affirmations that are unique and deeply personal are by far the most effective. When they mean something to you there is an emotional connection.
Most of all, when affirmations can create a visualization it is incredibly powerful. Your subconscious mind is always moving towards the images you hold in your mind.
How Do You Judge The Effectiveness of Affirmations?
Affirmations work at many different levels. On the most basic level, a positive thought instantly creates a positive response in your mind and your body.
For me, that alone is evidence affirmations work. It means that you can use positive affirmations to manage your mood. We’ve seen evidence of this with Christopher Cascio’s MRI scans.
Can you use affirmations to make a lot of money, become a CEO, win a marathon or become more confident and charming?
You most certainly can but it is a process. Affirmations are effective but are usually part of a bigger process that involves changing your self concept.
When affirmations are used as a tool to visualize then it is far more effective as that directs the mind to a new reality.
You can repeat the affirmation ‘I am rich’ millions of times, until and unless you FEEL rich and can see yourself as rich it will remain empty words.
Affirmations in and of themselves will not work. They are a tool and ultimately a tool to help direct and control your thoughts.
They way to judge if affirmations work for you is not to look at whether they ‘make’ your dreams come true but rather to look at how it changes the way you think and feel about something.
The Power of Words and Ideas To Affect Reality
One of the most powerful illustration of the effects of words and ideas on reality is with the work of Dr. Masaru Emoto in his book The Hidden Messages in Water.
He did an extensive study on water molecules and determined that we can affect the molecular structure of the water through our thoughts.
When sending thoughts of love to water, the crystalline structure is beautiful and ordered. When sending thoughts of hate, the crystalline structure is fractured, unordered and looks disjointed.
His work for me is also evidence affirmations work.
If you consider that your words and your thoughts can have such a profound effect on water, imagine the effect that words have on yourself (and even other people).
What you say to yourself matters.
It matters a lot. It affects you in so many profound ways as we so clearly see in Dr. Emoto’s work.
From this point of view, even the most basic and most generic affirmation works. It works because the words/ideas have an energy and that energy is somehow transmitted to that at which you direct the energy.