It’s a truism we’ve all heard before, but does it hold water? According to positive psychology experts, there may, in fact, be some pretty convincing science behind it.
But if you’re like most people, knowing this only raises more questions. Like, how does it all work? How does it look?
Here, we’ll explore some of the research that suggests positive reminders could indeed change your life, and how you might start supercharging the way you feel about yourself by choosing your own reminders.
The Stories We Tell: Self-Affirmation Theory
Most of the research about positive affirmations is related to our inner narratives, so, to dive into how our thoughts shape our realities, it helps to start from the top.
In other words, with a long-established psychological tenet: that as humans, our thoughts, beliefs, values, and narratives can all define how we behave (Baumeister et al., 2011).
They are the stories we tell ourselves. About the world around us, the way things are, and most importantly, in our case - about who we are.
In clinical psychology, such as in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), these narratives are most apparent when things go wrong. But in positive psychology, they are the very core of what researchers call “Self-affirmation Theory.”
Here, they’re about how we see our inner resources (strengths, talents, traits, and more) to form integrated views of ourselves and our capabilities (Howell, 2017).
How Self-Affirmation Works
In psychological terms, a Self-Affirmation is“an act that manifests one’s adequacy and thus affirms one’s sense of global self-integrity” (Cohen & Sherman, 2014, p.337).
In everyday language, self-affirmations simply refer to actions we carry out that have two critical positive consequences (Howell, 2017).
First, self-affirmations make us feel effective, virtuous, free-willed, and “Like a Good Person” internally.
Secondly, and in this way, self-affirmations can enhance our sense of wellbeing.
We’ll see exactly why in a second, but one good example of a self-affirmation would be deciding to respond to a challenge with a “Keep Calm” or “You Got This” attitude, telling yourself that you’re capable. Another might be opting to brush off a critical comment from someone else, reminding yourself that how you see yourself matters.
And yet, another might be consciously deciding to focus on your strengths instead of your weaknesses when facing a setback.
In practice, self-affirmations form part of our inner narrative, but they might just as easily be environmental reminders that trigger the internal affirmation. (Rather like reminders to remind ourselves!).
Choosing Your Positive Reminders
In everyday life, daily positive reminders can be an effective way to self-affirm and deal with setbacks. We’ve also seen how they can even help us cultivate a more positive mindset. Finally, by helping us use our resources more adaptively, they may even push us further forward toward our bigger life goals.
But like most things in life, they need to be done right. According to the research, that means that our self-affirmations need to be wisely chosen to have their intended positive impact.
Specifically, our affirmations or reminders need to be personally meaningful.
And, even more specifically, they should be aligned with our personal values - our fundamental attitudes about what matters most in life (Halama, 2007).
How To Choose Value-Aligned Affirmations
According to positive CBT researchers, there are ten types of values we can have in life (Vyskocilova et al., 2015).
Using the list below, you may be able to get a better sense of what a purposeful life means to you; choose reminders for yourself that align with them.
Each relates to a different life domain, for instance:
Romantic relationship values describe how important you consider intimate relationships, and acting in alignment with them might mean being sensitive to your partner.
Parenting values and Other Family values are similar and cover how you’d like to live as an aunt, nephew, or sibling. Here, your affirmation might be: “I’m a patient, loving brother.”
Friendship/Social valuesdescribe how you aspire to act as a friend.
Career values relate to how you want to behave as a boss, employee, or entrepreneur, e.g., being a loyal teammate or supportive colleague.
Personal growth/Education/Training valuesmight be linked to a reminder about what you want to learn or accomplish in terms of self-improvement.
Leisure valuesare about what brings you joy - or what you feel are meaningful ways to spend your downtime.
Spirituality values, like having faith, concern what makes you feel connected to the universe or a higher power
Citizenship valuesdescribe how you’d like to act toward your society, e.g,. being kind to others or believing that charity matters, and
Health valuesrelate to the intentions you want to set for your physical wellbeing, such as feeling good, being strong, or having endurance.
Making Your Reminders Visible
Once we know our values - and in life, we each have many - we know what shapes our thoughts, feelings, desires, and needs. As such, we can choose affirmations that remind us of them, thus triggering ourselves to shape our actions accordingly.
It’s precisely why reminders like elastic wristbands can help us practically set off processes and events that are geared toward our deeper meaning (Frankl, 1963).
There is one more ‘but,’ however. According to the research - and despite our capacity to be thoroughly familiar with our value systems - they often sit a little outside our full conscious awareness.
It’s why positive CBT researcher Vyskocilova believes that effectively using them to shape our behavior (or ‘self-regulate’), we must at least be occasionally consciously aware of them (Vyskocilova, 2015). By physically picking out your reminder at regular intervals, you can bring your values and affirmations back into your conscious awareness and start to live a more meaningful life.
Catherine is an avid surfer, MBA, and Positive Psychology researcher and advocate. Working remotely around the world, her goal for 2021 is to catch the wave of her life.
She holds an MBA at the University of Bradford and a BSc in Organizational & Industrial Psychology from the University of Melbourne, including studies in neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, behavioral psych, personality, and social psychology, quantitative & qualitative research methods, positive psychology.
Baumeister, R. F., Masicampo, E. J., & Vohs, K. D. (2011). Do conscious thoughts cause behavior?.Annual Review of Psychology,62, 331-361.
Cohen, G. L., & Sherman, D. K. (2014). The psychology of change: Self-affirmation and social psychological intervention.Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 333–371.
Frankl, V.E. (1963).Man’s search for meaning: an introduction to logotherapy. New York: Washington Square Press.
Halama, P. (2007).Zmysel života z pohľadu psychológie.Bratislava: Slovak Academic Press.
Howell, A. J. (2017). Self-affirmation theory and the science of wellbeing.Journal of Happiness Studies,18(1), 293-311.
Vyskocilova, J., Prasko, J., Ociskova, M., Sedlackova, Z., & Mozny, P. (2015). Values and values work in cognitive behavioral therapy.Activitas Nervosa Superior Rediviva,57(1-2), 40-48.