Using Positive Affirmations To Find Happiness: What You Need To Know

Using Positive Affirmations To Find Happiness: What You Need To Know

 

There’s no doubt that compassion and encouragement are better for you than personal attacks and threats. Medical, psychological, and behavioral experts all agree: Affirmations and positive commentary make people happier and healthier, as well as more productive, goal-oriented, and resilient, than negatively-focused feedback [1].

Yet nearly half of us never say anything kind or encouraging to ourselves [2].

This is despite evidence that giving genuine praise has an even greater impact on how we see ourselves than just listening to the nice things other people have to say — especially when it’s self-directed as positive self-talk and affirmations [3, 4].

 

The Simplest Tool To Find Happiness

This lack of self-compassion (a.k.a positive self-talk) comes at a critical time for young and working-age adults.

That’s because we demonstrate and report lower levels of self-esteem and confidence and higher degrees of anxiety and perfectionism than any past generation [5]. For many of us, the deciding factor between feeling depressed and despairing about the future vs. feeling hopeful and being able to find purpose in life is our self-concept; that is, how we define ourselves [6].

Here’s the thing: Self-talk — especially self-affirmation — is how you define who you are and find your purpose in life.

 

What Is Self-Talk?

Generally speaking, self-talk is the (mostly) internal conversation you have with yourself about your actions/experiences. Its most frequent functions in daily life include:

  1. Self-Management – where you use self-talk to prepare for future events by “telling” yourself what to do, say, or expect;
  2. Self-Reinforcement – self-talk that happens in response to positive experiences, especially those that make you feel proud, accomplished, and capable; and
  3. Self-Criticism – self-talk that happens in response to mistakes, failure, or other negative experiences that leave you feeling discouraged, embarrassed, incapable, etc. [7]

What Does Self-Talk Mean For Who You Are?

Self-talk is the tool that shapes the building blocks of who you believe you are.

Specifically, it has a significant impact on self-esteem (confidence/security) and self-integrity (your sense of whether your actions align with your values/morals) [4]. People with high self-esteem and a strong sense of self-integrity tend to find happiness more easily, even in challenging situations. That’s because they:

  • Believe that they can accomplish the goals they set for themselves;
  • Know they did their best — and that their best was a good job — whenever they attempt something, regardless of what happens (their emotional attachment is to their action, not the outcome);
  • Are unlikely to fixate on finding ways to be “better” [8].

Nevertheless, as many as 93% of us have felt a drop in our self-esteem or self-integrity (as a result of some unexpected or unwanted outcome) in the last six months [9]. This underscores the reality that many of us are still struggling to find purpose and feel happy about our decisions, even on a day-to-day basis. What’s more, it highlights the fact that few of us know the best ways to use self-talk for success and to foster self-love.

 

The Key To Using Self-Talk For Success

It’s not surprising that positive and negative self-talk each influence attitude and behavior — and, by extension, self-esteem and self-integrity — differently. Given what we know about the benefits of affirmative, positive feedback, it makes sense that affirmative, positive self-talk would yield good results.

To that end, effectively using self-talk for success in life requires that you practice it right.

The basic steps for engaging in the right kind of self-talk are: (1) recognize what self-talk is when it’s done right; (2) understand where negative self-talk comes from; and (3) replace negative self-talk with positive affirmations.

 

Step 1: Recognizing Self-Talk Done Right

The “best” self-talk is positive and process-focused.

Positive self-talk is compassionate (“I’ trust my own impulses”), optimistic (“I’m confident and capable, and I will do my best!”), and celebratory (“I’m proud of myself for trying”). It has proven benefits like:

  • Athletes who engage in positive self-talk experience less competitive anxiety and perform better than those who don’t [10].
  • Performers who practice positive self-talk raise their self-confidence and decrease their stress levels [11].
  • Students who learn to use positive self-talk earn higher scores in subjects they find challenging [12].
  • People use positive self-talk for success in relationships and social interactions [13].
  • Positive self-talk helps reduce stress and its associated mental and physical health consequences [4].

[READ MORE: check out of upcoming post about the physical effects of stress?]

 

Process-focused self-talk praises your work, your effort, or your actions. You could also focus your self-talk on personal traits, but that can unintentionally make your sense of self-worth contingent on success [14].

For example, positive self-talk can sound like both:

  • “I’m a natural at this. There’s no way I’ll fail”
  • “I’ve prepared myself for this. I can and will give it my all”

The first (person-focused) triggers self-doubt and a sense of failure if the outcome is unfavorable. Conversely, the second (process-focused) ensures that, no matter what happens, you know you are behaving like the person you want to be (boosting self-integrity), and you can feel proud of the effort that you made (boosting self-esteem).

 

Step 2: Seeing Where Negative Self-Talk Comes From

Negative self-talk is belittling (“I’m dumb”), destructive (“I shouldn’t even bother”), and pessimistic (“I’m never going to do it”).

People who engage in negative self-talk feel more stressed and depressed than their more positive peers. This is because they create a reality where they don’t have the ability to be successful [8]. That’s how negative self-talk creates a limiting pattern: Negative self-talk keeps you from seeing how to achieve your goals, which prevents you from making progress, which triggers self-criticism (manifesting as negative self-talk).

 

Challenging negative self-talk can be difficult; in those moments, it feels like what you are thinking/saying is factual. It’s important to realize that negative self-talk comes from a skewed assessment of reality.

More specifically, negative self-talk comes from:

  1. A destructive inner-critic – Self-criticism parallels negativity coming from people around you; it’s a learned behavior and common among people who feel shame and fear of what others will think/say [15].
  2. The cognitive impact of negativity – Negative feedback has a significantly stronger impact than positive feedback; it diminishes executive and normal brain function and puts your brain in crisis-mode, limiting your ability to think clearly, absorb new information, concentrate on work, or listen to others [1].
  3. Your natural negativity bias – The human brain is hardwired to be highly sensitive to threatening situations; people are more likely to look for, attend to, learn from, and use negativity more than positivity [16].

Step 3: Understanding Why To Use Affirmations To Maximize Your Happiness

All that being said, the best kind of positive self-talk is more than just giving yourself compliments. Affirmative self-talk (or using affirmations for success) is arguably the most powerful kind of positive self-talk.

Like process-focused self-talk, affirmations bypass self-judgement (“I’m good/bad at this”) in favor of identifying things that you can own and feel proud of (“I worked hard on this”).

Research shows that successful self-affirmation changes neural pathways in the brain [17]. As a result, the parts of the brain that are most involved in positive valuation and processing information about the self are highly active [4]. This makes you more likely to see the good in a situation and feel good about your actions and efforts.

What’s more, positive affirmations directly combat all the places where negative self-talk comes from. They do this by conditioning the brain to be less reactive to “threatening” negativity, making us less likely to internalize harmful messages and more likely to respond by looking for opportunities to change for the better [4].

In theory, stopping negative self-talk simply requires that you interrupt negative thinking with the best possible self-talk. In practice, directly overriding negative self-talk can be challenging.

 

The Secret To Turning Negative Self-Talk Into Positive Affirmations

So how much do you have to “buy in” to the idea of affirmations to reap the benefits of positive self-talk?

There is some evidence that even trying it out begins a mental reframing process that empowers us to see ourselves and our reality differently [18]. For some of us — especially those who struggle with negative self-talk — practicing positive self-talk and saying affirmations may feel silly or inauthentic. That can make it hard to stick to staying positive.

What’s more, the benefits of giving praise are diminished if you feel like you’re lying [3].

 

The Importance Of Neutrality

That’s why many psychologists recommend that you start by modifying negative self-talk so it’s neutral [19].

Like neutral feedback, neutral self-talk is informative and instructional (“I need to do this task today”; “do it like this”) rather than evaluative (“I will/won’t do it well”) or personally judgmental (“I am/am not capable of doing it”). Generally speaking, neutral thinking can be easier to sustain and has greater endurance than outright positivity [20].

That is because neutral self-talk aims to explain both the negative and positive sides of a situation (“Sometimes doing my best won’t be good enough, but I’m not going to give up”).

 

Learning To See (& Hear) Yourself In Positive Self-Talk

Another tactic to make your positive self-talk feel truthful is to play with wording to find what resonates with you.

Pronouns, for example, can make a difference. There is both empirical and anecdotal evidence that changing “I” affirmations and first-person positive self-talk to self-directed “you” statements makes them more palatable, especially to people who see more truth in negative self-assessment [21].

Likewise, using your name (rather than either “I” or “you”) can create a cognitive distance that allows people to see reality more objectively. That’s why, when giving praise by name, we all tend to be more positive and supportive [18].

 



 

Sources:

  1. https://www.fastcompany.com/3025080/why-positive-encouragement-works-better-than-criticism
  2. https://www.allure.com/story/women-self-esteem-study
  3. https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/06/19/compliments-are-good-for-your-health-but-not-if-theyre-fake_a_22488747/
  4. https://positivepsychology.com/daily-affirmations/
  5. https://www.inc.com/scott-mautz/new-deloitte-study-of-10455-millennials-says-employers-are-failing-to-help-young-people-develop-4-crucial-skills.html
  6. https://www.positive.news/opinion/there-is-no-me-generation-the-confidence-of-todays-young-people-could-help-shape-positive-future/
  7. https://search.proquest.com/openview/21418c968ab78f4dadddab30399058d2/1?cbl=18750&diss=y&pq-origsite=gscholar
  8. https://www.verywellmind.com/negative-self-talk-and-how-it-affects-us-4161304
  9. https://www.inc.com/scott-mautz/new-deloitte-study-of-10455-millennials-says-employers-are-failing-to-help-young-people-develop-4-crucial-skills.html
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6628429/
  11. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1t39b6g3
  12. https://srcd.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cdev.13347
  13. https://search.proquest.com/openview/21418c968ab78f4dadddab30399058d2/1?cbl=18750&diss=y&pq-origsite=gscholar
  14. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1999-05027-021
  15. https://health.usnews.com/wellness/articles/2016-03-17/self-criticism-can-be-psychologically-devastating-how-to-overcome-it
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3652533/
  17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4814782/
  18. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/10/07/353292408/why-saying-is-believing-the-science-of-self-talk
  19. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10413200.2020.1795951?casa_token=KhBHNMng78oAAAAA%3ALV9eWQvId3D1wKApJCbTT-4uXLWbx45vi8TZ_MsqdLgWCee51va7rfWwZaRX6sY8xqxyGiu9CZpB
  20. https://thriveglobal.com/stories/the-power-of-neutral-thinking-nfl-guru-trevor-moawads-5-secrets-of-high-performance-and-they-arent-what-you-think/
  21. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-04047-3#Abs1
 

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