The Science of Affirmations

My first experience of affirmations was when I was a teenager and my Mum would frequently repeat, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”

She had suffered with post natal (partum) depression in the mid-late 70s after my youngest sister was born and, as the condition wasn’t as well understood at the time, she hadn’t received the proper help she needed. 

It was a self help book called, ‘The Magic Power of Your Mind’, by Walter M. Germain, which I found in a library when I was 11 years old, that taught her some things she could do to help herself, like meditation, visualisation, and affirmations. These are techniques that she subsequently used for years (and still does) and have been of great help to her.

The affirmation above was invented by French psychologist, Émile Coué. Coué had observed that his patients often recovered faster if he helped them to expect to recover. So he developed what he called optimistic autosuggestions, essentially positive suggestions that a patient would repeat for her or himself over and over again, including the one above.

He actually began his career as an apothecary (pharmacist) in the late 19th century and discovered that if he praised up each medicine’s effectiveness, it would often work better for people. We now know this to be true from modern research into the placebo effect. He would even write a short positive note which he gave to each person along with their remedy. Later, upon retiring from the business, he set up The Lorraine Society of Applied Psychology with his wife and further developed his autosuggestion techniques.

His work influenced many US authors in the early 20th century, including Napoleon Hill, W. Clement Stone, and Norman Vincent Peale.

Over the years, the term ‘optimistic autosuggestion’ has gradually become replaced by ‘positive affirmations’, but the basic idea is the same.

Affirmations are now used daily by millions of people around the world. They were hugely popularised in the 1980s and onwards by Louise Hay, who had observed something similar to Coué in her own practice.

Serious academic research began in the late 80s when social psychologist, Claude Steele, presented ‘Self Affirmation Theory’, which posits that humans are fundamentally motivated to maintain a positive self view; a view of ourselves as good, virtuous, and having control over some of the important aspects of our lives.

A little different from Coue’s autosuggestions-come-affirmations, a self-affirmation is one that specifically affirms a person’s core values. So if a person had a core value of kindness, for example, then a self-affirmation might go something like:

I am a kind person. I try my best to think kindly of people, speak kindly, and do what I can to help others.”

If a person had a core value of friendship, on the other hand, then they might write a self-affirmation something to the tune of:

I enjoy being a good friend to people. I’m always there for friends and family when they need me.”

In each case, the affirmation has affirmed one of the person’s core values.

Scientists have since discovered that when people write self-affirmations, they tend to subsequently make positive, healthy, life choices and even feel a stronger, larger sense of self.

Standard affirmations – of the stye of Emile Coue’, Louise Hay, and others – which I shall call them here to distinguish from self-affirmations, have been hugely helpful to people. I have used them for decades for various reasons, from helping with confidence, self esteem, and even for self-motivation to make positive changes in my life. I remember a time when I was working as a scientist and was struggling with my mental health and self-confidence for a while and I wrote the affirmation:

I am a worthy person and I have a divine right to experience happiness and to have positive things happen in my life.”

I repeated it ten times each morning and ten times each night and started to notice a change in how I was feeling after just a few days.

Affirmations have been a little criticised in academia, especially when the affirmation affirms something that feels out of reach for someone. If the gap between where you are and where the affirmation says you are is too big, then they can make some people feel worse. That’s the root of the criticism as I understand it.

But affirmations can be written in many different ways. They don’t have to state where you are, like, “I love myself” when perhaps a person might feel very far from that. Some research found that while that sort of affirmation did help some people with their self esteem, it made others feel worse because it seemed too big a hill to climb for them. A more effective affirmation for self love might be a take on Coué’s and read:

Every day, in every way, I am feeling better and better about myself.”

Here, the affirmation is more about helping to facilitate change or growth. That’s what Coué’s famous one did: Every day in every way I am getting better and better.

It didn’t state that I am already better, but more that I am moving forwards in my wellness journey. But that’s not to take anything away from affirmations of the type that state I am already better, or I am already this or that, because they are enormously helpful for some people.

The boxer, Muhammad Ali was famous for repeatedly stating, “I am the greatest.” He wasn’t when he first said it, but he arguably eventually became the greatest of his time.

Many standard affirmations like these are indeed self-affirmations, especially when a person states a value. But they’re generally more powerful when it’s one of their core values rather than one that isn’t.

Unlike standard affirmations, self-affirmations have been much more studied in science. University of Pennsylvania researchers showed that repeating self-affirmations produces physical changes in brain regions associated with self-processing, ultimately impacting their view of themselves, and these changes are associated with subsequent positive changes in people’s behaviour.

I’d suspect that many standard affirmations would have a similar effect, but as far as I know they’ve not been investigated in this way. For example, it’s quite likely that Muhammad Ali’s affirmation produced some brain changes that helped his quest. 

In one study by researchers at Aston, Sussex, and King’s College London, volunteers were asked to write self-affirmations that affirmed their core values. Then each person was shown a fact sheet that outlined the health benefits of exercise.

When followed up a week later, those who had written self-affirmations had undertaken significantly more physical exercise than those in a comparison group who had also been shown the fact sheet but hadn’t written any affirmations. They also had much more positive attitudes towards exercise and had higher intentions to exercise in the future. Self-affirmations had motivated healthy behaviour. In a sense, when we write self-affirmations, we are much more likely to do the things that we know are good for us.

A similar study at the University of Sheffield instead gave volunteers information about the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables after they had written self-affirmations. 

Again, motivating people to do what they know is good for them, those who had written the self-affirmations had eaten 5.5 more portions of fruits and vegetables on average over the following week than those who were in the comparison group.

Self-affirmations have even been shown to help people overcome challenges. UC Santa Barbara and Cornell psychologists wrote that self-affirmations help us to expand and broaden our sense of self, while at the same time making a challenge or a threat seem smaller. It’s a relative shift: self-affirmations make us feel bigger and challenges and threats feel smaller as a consequence.

My take on affirmations in general is that whatever type of affirmation you choose, if they are positive and feel achievable, then they will probably do some good as they will likely help motivate meaningful changes in your behaviour towards your goals.

On the whole, though, self-affirmations seem really good for broadening and building our view of ourselves. From a greater self-view, we are more likely to not only make healthy changes, but also more likely to feel motivated to pursue our goals and, importantly, believe they we can achieve them.

Additional References

You can find more on self affirmations and similar topics in my book, ‘Why Woo Woo Works: The surprising science behind meditation, reiki, crystals and other alternative practices‘ (David R Hamilton, PhD, 2021)

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David R. Hamilton PhD

David R. Hamilton PhD is the bestselling author of 6 books that fuse science, the mind, and spiritual wisdom.

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