The Why, Which, Where, When & How of Affirmations for Peace of Mind, Health & Happiness

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“Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words.
 Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions.
 Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits.
 Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character.
 Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.”
 ~Author unknown

To “affirm” something, by dictionary definition, means that you are declaring it to be true.

By design and tradition, World Laughter Tour’s laughter therapy sessions close with three affirmations. We shout them cheerfully and enthusiastically, as a call-and-response activity, with participants encouraged throw their arms up in a victory gesture with a chorus of the affirmative response, “YES!”

“We can be happier tomorrow than we are today!” (YES!)
“We can be healthier tomorrow than we are today!” (YES!)
“We love to laugh!” (YES!)

Participants leave the sessions uplifted. They have learned three affirmations that will stand them in good stead if they choose to use them properly.

Positive Psychology
In Delivering Happiness: Translating Positive Psychology Intervention Research for Treating Major and Minor Depressive Disorders, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, V. 17, Number 8, 2011, Layous et al summarize recent studies of the promising initial findings that Positive Activity Interventions (PAIs), saying that PAIs, “contribute to low-cost effective interventions that can serve either as initial therapy for mild symptoms or as adjunctive therapy for partial responders to medication. PAIs teach individuals ways to increase their positive thinking, positive affect, and positive behaviors. Our method draws on positive psychology, social psychology, affective neuroscience, game theory, and ancient spiritual practices to create a model of how laughter and other PAIs might relieve mood disorders and other conditions, as well as strengthen what works well for individuals.” (Italics added.)

In addition to the positive psychology basis for understanding the how & why of affirmations, Eve Hogan asks, “So when we affirm that we are fit when we may not be, wealthy when we are financially struggling, or loved when we are lonely, how exactly does that work if we are striving  to live authentically? Are we just  kidding ourselves?” Not at all.

“An affirmation is usually a sentence or phrase that you repeat regularly to make a formal declaration to yourself and the universe of your intention for it to be the truth. While some may say it is akin to ‘fake it until you make it,’ I see it a bit more like holding the vision of what I know can be true. Here is how they work.”

WHAT? Consonance, Dissonance, and Affective Neurosciences
We all have in our brains a thing called a reticular activating system (RAS), composed of several neuronal circuits connecting the brainstem to the cortex. The RAS helps mediate transitions from sleep to wakefulness, and from relaxed wakefulness to periods of high attention. When we use affirmations we want to increase our attention to the positive thoughts of the affirmation, the positive emotions that accompany the vision of achieving our goals and fulfilling our needs, as well as opportunities to act accordingly.

The RAS is like a filter that lets in information that we need, and filters out information that we don’t. If we didn’t have this system, we would be bombarded with so much information that our senses would overload and we would go into massive overwhelm. Instead, through heightened attention when we are awake, our brain registers what matters to us based on our goals, needs, interests, and desires.

During a lecture I attended many years ago in Columbus, Ohio, when teaching about meditation, mindfulness and awareness, Ram Dass, an American contemporary spiritual teacher, gave this example. If you are driving into a strange town and your car engine is making a strange noise, you will tend to notice garages, mechanics, and auto repair places, but probably you will not notice the restaurants. On the other hand, if you are hungry as you drive into the town, you will tend to notice all the restaurants and none of auto repair shops. We tend to notice (be more aware of) that which is important to us. The RAS does that for us; it is helping us focus on what’s important.

Most of us have had the experience of a friend showing us their new car and it’s a make and model we have never seen before. Then, now that it is important to us, we suddenly begin to see that particular make and model everywhere we look.

Your RAS recognizes what is important to you and allows the information in. When what is important to us is congruent with where we focus and how we act, we experience consonance.

Repeating an affirmation–holding the thought– may also serve us by setting up a kind of cognitive dissonance. Eve Hogan uses the term dynamic tension to refer to our awareness of the difference between the state described in our positive affirmations and the reality of where we are. Hogan says, “If ideal weight is your emphasis, you will suddenly begin to see every gym and weight loss product. If money is your goal, investment and earning opportunities will move to the forefront of your awareness. In essence, the affirmation can kick your creativity into high gear.” She suggests that we then will take actions to bring our actual state closer to the affirmed state, thus relieve the tension. “See if you can make the dynamic tension go away by making your words and reality match.” I can see where this would work for some people.

Positive psychologist, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, says that you tap into happiness “whenever positive emotions resonate within you.” When you say an affirmation over and over again, a couple of things happen. One is that it sends a very clear message to your RAS that this is important to you. That starts positive emotions resonating within you. Your brains gets busy noticing ways to help you achieve your goals.

You can find many books of affirmations, and lists appear in magazines weekly and monthly. How do you know which ones to work with?

There is no sure way to know which ones will work for you. It’s partly intuition, partly trial-and-error, and partly common sense. You may come across an affirmation that “speaks” to you, it just feels right. Write them down and keep them in a safe place for use immediately or at some later time. And, you can design your own affirmations.

Every bit as important as which affirmation you choose to work with is how you work with it.

Hogan, again: “So what makes an effective affirmation? First, determine what kind of transformation you want to bring about in yourself—a goal or intention. Or determine what quality, attitude, value, or characteristic you want to remind yourself of or develop in yourself.

Second, if it fits, add an emotion to the mix or a word that qualities the statement. For instance, I am joyfully at my ideal weight of 125. Or, I’m happily living in my own home. I personally like affirmations that strum my heartstrings: I offer gratitude for every step and every breath.”

Third, make it positive vs. negative: “I am healthy and fit” rather than “I am no longer fat.”

“We become, have and attract what we think about and act upon correctly the most.”
~John Assaraf

You don’t have to say every affirmation every day. Punctuate your day with the affirmation as little as five times in eight hours. Create a “proper” action so that you are doing something associated with moving toward your desired state.

Hogan suggests, “Some say it takes 21 days of repetition for an affirmation make its mark on your psyche, so you can get great benefits by keeping just one of you affirmations going for at least a month. In the beginning you will have to consciously choose to repeat your affirmations. If you repeat them at every opportunity they will begin to replace the negative mind banter that takes over when we are not monitoring our thoughts.”

HOW? A Rubric for Using Affirmations to Sustain a Positive Lifestyle
The sequence of development of sustainable positive thoughts, positive emotions, and positive behaviors (actions), follows a logical path beginning with mindfulness.

When acted upon properly, positive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors eventually become the natural way people live their lives; if not actually inborn, this way of life can be so internalized that it feels effortless and “natural.” With proper repetition, thoughts and actions that at first had to be consciously brought to mind will become learned as habits.

Typically, the “proper” actions will result in sufficiently and frequently pleasant results (positive reinforcement) that they will be repeated. With enough repletion and reinforcement, they will become internalized (mapped in the brain). At that point, positive thoughts, emotions and behaviors have become so automatic that they “feel natural.”

I will map the progression using Good-Hearted Living™ as an example. It is a program of six practices that reduces stress, improves interpersonal relationships, and helps individuals enjoy life more, that specifically builds on this sequence.

Simply put, the six practices that comprise the low-demand Good-Hearted Living™ program have each practice linked to a different day of the week. This is merely to assist with remembering what they are. Any practice can be done on any day of the week. The six practices are: paying compliments (Monday), being flexible (Tuesday), gratitude (Wednesday), kindness (Thursday), forgiveness (Friday), and guilt-free leisure pleasures, i.e., informally called the chocolate or the “sweet things” in life (the weekend).

The sequence of development of a sustainable positive way of life, is:
Intention (Agreement to Focus) – you agree to give the program a try.

Mindfulness – you are reminded by reading a list (see Appendix for Good-Hearted Living™), or by memorizing or remembering which practice is the focus of a particular day of the week, e.g., “Fridays are for forgiveness.” Coupled with intention, this thought activates your RAS, a filter that will help bring opportunities for action on this thought into sharper focus throughout your day.

Action<->Result – the outcome of the proper action will almost always be pleasant or otherwise beneficial. This pleasant outcome will increase the likelihood that the behavior/action will be repeated. Example: In the supermarket, a fellow shopper aggressively jockeys ahead of you in the checkout line. Rather than stewing in your resentment and spending time plotting revenge, with your blood pressure boiling, you remember “forgiveness” and decide to let go of your anger. Immediately you feel (a) more calm, (b) your muscular tension turns t muscular relaxation, and, (c) you are pleased with yourself for remembering to do this positive practice. Later, you write about it in your journal.

Repetition – Sufficient repetition begins your brain mapping process (refer to the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damassio).

Habit – Brain mapping increases the tendency to have your affirmative positive thought linked to the tendency to follow through with an associated behavior, thus you form a habit.

Further Repetition – Sufficient repetition deepens the brain mapping process and extends the map to additional neural centers, thus strengthening the likelihood that you will be more alert to opportunities for positive thought, emotions, and actions.

“Natural” Way-of-Life – At some point, you will have a heightened perception of opportunities (triggers) for positive thinking, feeling, and acting that requires little or no conscious effort. That is when “positivity” has become a way of life and feels natural to you.

I (happily) fill my mind with thoughts of peace, courage, health and hope.

I (calmly) never try to get even with my enemies.

I expect imperfection; I adjust my expectations so that I more often predict reality more accurately.

I count my blessings not my troubles, and I fill my mind with thoughts of gratitude.

Rather than imitate others, I (respectfully) emulate qualities I admire in others, and create my own best self.

I profit from my losses; I celebrate rainbows.

I consider my impact on others so as to (uplift) contribute happiness for others.

I (joyfully) balance my perspective with laughter and humor.

Try these affirmations one at a time or in pairs that make sense to you, for a few weeks. I believe you will like the results.

(Some Material adapted from Affirmations: Why They Work & How to Use Them | by Eve Hogan | Spirituality & Health Voices Blog; 1/4/2012)

About the Author

Steve Wilson

Award-winning psychologist, Steve Wilson, also known as The Joyologist and The Cheerman of the Bored, has spent 30 years specializing in applied and therapeutic humor with a humanitarian mission. As Director of National Humor Month, he intertwines science and ancient wisdom with substance and humor to create practical methods to lead the world to health, happiness and peace through laughter. More than six thousand people have completed his unique training in how to create therapeutic laughter, and tens of thousands more around the world have been uplifted by his talks, classes, books, and articles. He established the World Laughter Tour, Inc., in 1998, to be a rich resource and inspiration for improving productivity, health, and well being in business, healthcare and education. For more information and