Talking Yourself Happy: Affirmations and How They Work

July 24, 2012 1:54 pm

For many of us, maintaining our happiness is the most important thing.

With today’s constant quest for happiness, affirmations appear to have proudly taken a seat at the table of personal change. A quick scan on Amazon reveals in excess of 11,700 publications on the topic available, with Louise L. Hay topping the best seller lists with a whopping 27 published books dealing exclusively with self-help issues and, in particular, positive thinking and affirmations.

Of course, the use of affirmations is nothing new and books training readers to utilise positive self-talk in order to improve aspects of their life have been around for over a century. One of the books that started it all was The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D Wattles, published in 1910. Wattles was a member of the New Thought movement, which today encompasses writers, philosophers and individuals who all buy into ideas of, amongst others, positive thinking, creative visualisation and personal power.

WD Wattles with his seminal book.

The advent in the 1970s and subsequent success of Neuro-Linguistic-Programming had a snowball effect on the self-help industry as a whole but especially the use of affirmations. Since the early days of the New Thought Movement, we’ve seen writers revere the power of self-affirmation and now we’re see a huge number of authors like Rhonda Byrne (The Secret series), Louise L. Hay and Tony Robbins grow rich on our pursuit of happiness.

But the questions we should be asking are ‘what are affirmations?’ and ‘do we really need them?’
‘Affirmations’ is just another word for self-talk consisting of frequent phrases in your inner-dialogue directed at yourself. For instance, when you make a mistake, you might utter the words ‘You’re so stupid’ under your breath. Every time you tell yourself ‘You’re so stupid’, it becomes an affirmation, a truth that you tell yourself over and over and gradually believe so completely that it becomes fact. You may eventually display behaviours and use language displaying this ‘truth’ to others and making it a reality.

So, every affirmation we use reflects something we believe about ourselves. The problem is that most negative affirmations are learned in childhood. The self-belief we have today reflect the hang-ups our parents had, the anger of caregivers and even the abandonment we felt as the result of a father or mother leaving the household. Whilst these affirmations were very useful at the time and some may even have served to protect us, self-help practitioners argue that as adults the same affirmations merely hinder personal progress and stop us from being well rounded individuals.

Positive affirmations are therefore a way of reprogramming the mind with a different set of rules and expectations, thereby altering our mind-set and ensuring that we feel happier and more fulfilled than we would without them. In the same way that negative affirmations could eventually convince you that you’re stupid (as in the example above), so positive affirmations could give you a whole set of positive beliefs about yourself as well.

So, we use affirmations to helps us feel positive about ourselves but do they really work? Psychologytoday.com reports that affirmations are a powerful method of changing your mind set, your general mood and can help along the changes you want to see in your life, but it goes on to say that in order to make them work, we must first identify the cause of the negative affirmation we want to replace; it is not enough to use affirmations to boost self-confidence without first identifying the cause of low self-confidence.

Further, it is important to note that our cultural expectations of happiness have risen drastically over the past few years. So much so, Oliver Burkeman reports in The Antidote, that we seem to view happiness as a state of constant excitement whereas perhaps we should instead want to be realistic, stoic or even authentic in order to be truly happy. It is insufficient to simply try to tell yourself that you are happy through affirmations, without first identifying what true happiness is to you as an individual.

It would seem then that affirmations do in fact work, provided they are realistic and the causes of negative self-talk are thoroughly examined and understood.

There are many online guides describing how best to prepare a set of positive affirmations but the rules are really very simple and it is generally recommended that you prepare your own affirmations, those which really mean something to you.  Using a list published by someone that doesn’t know you as an individual is unlikely to have the same positive affect.

The rules:
• Always refer to yourself in an affirmation: Start with the words ‘I’ or ‘your name’.
• Always word an affirmation as if you are already carrying out the action and always use the present tense: ‘I am always on time…’ (rather than ‘I will be on time…’)
• Don’t overwhelm yourself with affirmations right from the beginning –start with a small number and work with them for a while before building up your list.
• Recite them to yourself in front of a mirror whilst in a relaxed state and try to visualise the affirmation as you say it, really focus on and believe in the words you hear.
• Get into a daily affirmation routine -just after waking or just before bedtime works for most people-and stick with it. Some people find that they can see a difference after just a few sessions whilst for others it can take a lot longer.

Unfortunately Wallace Wattles didn’t have an enormous amount of time to find out if his theories on positive thinking and affirmations really worked as sadly he died a sudden and unexpected death in 1911 aged 51. But perhaps some indicator of his triumph is the fact that he became an overnight success, managing to publish two books (The Science of Being Well as well as The Science of Getting Rich) and run for public office, all in the 12 months before his death.

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