“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” –Wayne Dyer

In the very first microsecond you first looked at this image, your brain registered one of two things—a candlestick or two faces.

If you still don’t see the other image, look again. See it now?

When you hear the word affirmation, you might be tempted to think of it as a silly practice where people shout positive self-talk into their bathroom mirror in the morning.

The Big Idea—But research now reveals there are very real positive effects on performance, problem-solving, your health, and even the GPA of college students.

Crying babies

As I share frequently, I am a recovering perfectionist and die-hard planner.

This means that I like things to go smoothly, the first time—all the time.

But since life doesn’t work that way, I am setting myself up for some serious frustration and disappointment.

Let me give you a quick example.

This past weekend, my wife and I decided to escape the smoke and head up to a mountain lake to go paddle boarding—a favorite activity for our family.

My youngest daughter has been teething and we needed to get out of the house. It has been several weeks of non-stop crying baby—which parents know—is a bit like holding on to an electrified fence for hours on end.

I’m certain it could be measured by my blood pressure.

We had a long car ride with lots of crying, then a few hours of paddle boarding with more crying, then a drive back with yes—you guessed it—more crying.

Things were tense and I was trying hard to drive the speed limit while my wife sat in the back seat handing my daughter an endless conveyor belt of various toys and snacks, trying to calm her down.

Then my wife screamed, which was even more alarming.

Just when we thought things were hard, my daughter got carsick and projectile vomited all over the back seat—and my wife—who was sitting next to her.

We drove the rest of the way home with the windows down, and a fragrant aroma of heavy smoke mixed with barf.

Needless to say, this was not the peaceful family nature excursion I had envisioned earlier that morning.

Now I have to preface this next part with the explanation that—by nature—I am deeply impatient, hurried, tense, anxious, and irritable. Not proud of that.

But thankfully, I have been working really hard on my mindset over the last few years and finally getting some traction.

This is the moment when two of my morning affirmations saved me…

Hard is good (a variation on Jocko) and,

Family is God’s school of character (a quote by reformer Martin Luther who said that raising a family was harder than the monastery!)

Because of looking at these two statements that same morning, I was able to view this situation as an opportunity to grow more of the character I wanted—by patiently helping my wife and gently tending to my child.

We spent the next couple hours sanitizing the car, car seats, children, and then ourselves.

I don’t claim to be mature yet—but I am improving.

Research on affirmations and performance

There is a significant body of research to demonstrate that affirmations are not fluff—they can be extremely helpful in shaping a strong mindset—which can alter how you behave or react to a situation.

David Creswell is a professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who published a fantastic study on the use of affirmations in 2013.

He found that “a brief self-affirmation activity at the beginning of the school term can boost academic grade-point averages for underperforming kids by the end of the semester.”

Participants were told to rank-order a set of personal values, and then asked to write down why their top value was important to them. Then they had to complete a challenging task under time pressure, which required creativity to generate the correct solutions.

The study showed that affirmations can have a powerful effect on performance and problem-solving under stress—a skill every leader (and parent!) needs.

Specifically, the study showed that participants with chronic stress had poor performance for several months prior, but performed as well as the group with low stress—when affirmations were used.

Affirmations could also improve your health, boost your GPA, or help you lose weight

Affirmations are based on the idea that the subconscious drives much of our daily behavior, and that actively coaching our subconscious mind is an effective strategy in reshaping the behavior or habits we want to have.

We have all kinds of semi-conscious beliefs we pick up through life about authority figures, money, body image, or how much we should trust people.

This is why consuming too much negative media or advertising is so harmful. You could say it is like your subconscious mind getting drunk on too many negative messages—which is very likely to influence your behavior.

Affirmations can help us to better recognize our unhelpful beliefs and intentionally give ourselves more helpful messages.

If you have an active spiritual life, many people find it even more powerful to turn sacred writings or Bible verses into their daily affirmations.

Research has shown that we are highly motivated to keep our behavior consistent with the beliefs or statements we have about ourselves. Therefore, when we use affirmations, we are more likely to behave in alignment with what we declare about ourselves.

Remember my car-barf incident? I felt my irritability kicking in and reminded myself of the patient husband and father I wanted to be—and it helped me change my reaction.

Sherman and colleagues (2011) found that affirmations help remind people of important aspects of the self, thereby enabling them to view events from a reasonable, considered, and more rational viewpoint.

Falk and colleagues (2015) found that MRI scans of the brain show that certain neural reward pathways become more active when we consider our personal values.

Affirmations can also improve your health by limiting health-deteriorating stress levels (Sherman et al, 2009), and by helping you change your physical behavior for weight loss (Cooke et al, 2014).

Affirmations have also been linked to academic achievement of college students and improved GPA (Layous et al, 2017).

Weisenfeld and colleagues (2001) found that affirmations can reduce stress and negative rumination.

Logel & Cohen (2014) found that affirmations can help us view otherwise threatening messages with less resistance or defensiveness. I have personally found this helpful in tense marital conversations when I remind myself that I want to become a great non-defensive listener.

If affirmations can improve your problem solving, reduce the effects of stress on your health, boost your GPA, help you lose weight, or improve your ability to navigate conflict…..aren’t they worth adding to your toolbox?

Anyone serious about their personal growth journey or leadership effectiveness should give them a try.

Turn information into action

Here are some tips for creating your affirmations:

  • Don’t overthink them
  • Make them consistent with your core values to be most powerful
  • They should represent “who you want to become” (your ideal self)
  • Make them short
  • Write them down, pick your top 3 to start
  • Put them where you can see them every day (or re-write them every day)
  • Consider saying them out loud
  • Share them with your spouse or a good friend, accountability helps
  • Try them for 30 days and see if your behavior changes

Have a great weekend!

Parker

*If you have enjoyed Parker’s Blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast where Parker Co-hosts every other episode.

Suggested Resources

  1. Carnegie Melon study on affirmations and performance https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0062593
  2. Positive effects of affirmations https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/sasi/wp-content/uploads/sites/275/2015/11/Critcher_AffPersp.pdf

 

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a board-certified Organizational Psychologist and Leadership Performance Coach. His personal mission is to improve the way people live and work by helping them apply science-based strategies for personal, family, and workplace leadership—in that order. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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