What Are Positive Affirmations?


There’s no one universally accepted definition of what positive affirmations are, but they can be described as

carefully formatted statements that affirm something to be true,

and Wikipedia explains them in the context of “the practice of positive thinking and self-empowerment”.

Positive affirmations are simple sentences that people use to describe how they want to be, or how they want their circumstances to be, in a way that affirms that it’s already true, or on its way to becoming true. People repeat positive affirmations in order to change the way they feel about themselves, or their perception of their circumstances, so that eventually they arrive to the change that the affirmation is supposed to lead them.

For example, someone who has trouble with confidence can say these positive affirmations:

  • I am confident at all times and in all areas of my life.
  • Confidence comes naturally to me.

Repeating them day after day, in a ritual that suits them the most, is supposed to eventually bring these statements to life: by sinking them in, that person can change the way he or she feels about their confidence and become more outgoing and comfortable with who they are.

History of Positive Affirmations

Although they may seem like a new concept (due to the fact that they’ve been popularized by the modern media and self-help gurus), positive affirmations are actually closely related to the mantras  that were used in ancient eastern religions, specifically Buddhists. Mantras are religious or mystical syllables or poems, chanted and repeated either aloud or silently.

Now, mantras belong to a religious language, but both mantras and positive affirmations should be repeated, over and over, so that your inner self would start believing it. Repetition of a mantra (usually 108 times) is done for the purpose of attaining “one-pointedness, or extreme focus, on the chosen deity or principal idea of the mantra”. Similarly, repetition of a positive affirmation has for a goal to re-wire the negative patterns in our subconscious, to re-write them and to create paths for new, positive thoughts and self-beliefs (we talk more about this process later in this article, and in the article about how positive affirmations work).

Other religions are also known for using some form of mantra, although under different names: Hasidic Jews sing phrases from the Hebrew Bible over and over, in a form of rhythmic chant, in order to achieve “deveikut” (“holding on to God”); the Islamic Sufi chant the 99 names of Allah; and in Christianity, many people pray using rosaries and chanting repetitively Our Father and Hail Mary.

In modern times, as the concepts of positive thinking and, of course, law of attraction, are gaining in popularity, many life and career coaches, as well as some psychotherapists, are using positive affirmations to help their clients and patients achieve success in some aspect of their life they’re struggling with. Positive affirmations are also used in combination with hypnosis and subliminal messaging when a person needs help in changing negative subconscious self-beliefs.

Positive Affirmations and Science

As you probably can imagine, the subject of positive thinking generally raises many eyebrows in scientific circles, and there are studies and articles that prove the power of positive affirmations non-existent or even counterproductive (like this one), as well as those that prove it existent and useful (like this one). In the case of the “negative reviews” given to the positive affirmations, some authors question the methodology that the researchers selected – and we tend to agree with that.

Whatever study you decide to believe, neurology has discovered a long time ago that neural pathways in our brain develop as neurons learn to fire in a particular pattern (this is often referred to as “cells that fire together, wire together”): when we learn new things,  groups of cells that are activated together grow a stronger connection, and this grouping of brain cells is what gives us our learned behavior, from the automatic bodily processes (like pumping blood), to the processes that we are now doing without thinking about them (like walking, talking or thinking) – it’s all been learned at some point.

We have also learnt our bad habits, and to think high or low about ourselves. Belief that everyone else is better than us is also learnt – and stored in our subconscious.

So, how positive affirmations fit in all that? Well, as we explained before, one important segment of a positive affirmation is the meaning of a sentence that you’re using. The other part is its repetition, and it’s the repetition that makes us “learn” that what we’re saying out loud is true – that’s why we constantly talk about “re-wiring” or “re-writing” negative beliefs, because that’s exactly what it is.

If you’re interested in reading more about it, here’s an interesting article with a lot to think about 🙂

Why and When to Use Positive Affirmations?

To mention now a few studies that prove that positive affirmations work in treatment of people with low self-esteem, depression, and other mental health conditions: researchers at Northwestern State University, Natchitoches found that people who used positive affirmations for two weeks experienced higher self esteem than at the beginning of the study; in two other studies, one published in the Journal of American College Health and the other done by the researchers at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, women treated with cognitive behavioral techniques, which included use of positive affirmations, experienced a decrease in depressive symptoms and negative thinking.

There are many others, of course. But you can probably see by now that you can use affirmations in any situation where you’d like to see a positive change take place, including times when you want to:

  • raise your confidence before an important meeting
  • control or eliminate bad habits
  • improve your productivity
  • improve your self-esteem
  • control negative feelings such as frustration, anger, or impatience

Affirmations are most effective when applied with other self-improvement techniques, like visualization for example: instead of just visualizing yourself being happy, you can also say the change you want to see out loud, for example: “I am full of joy. I am happy with who I am.” And we have another article dedicated exclusively to the use of positive affirmations for manifestation (it would be too much to put it in one article 🙂 ).

In short, look at positive affirmations this way: people do repetitive exercises to train their body and to “teach” it to run faster, to be stronger; positive affirmations are like exercises for your mind – to “teach” it to think better thoughts about yourself and the world around you.

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