Affirmations Under Fire: A Response – The Affirmation Spot for Wednesday June 8, 2009

Ray’s Daily Affirmation:

“Focus on the goal…When I set out to achieve something I eliminate all the negatives and naysayers and focus completely on my goal.”
(Download this mp3 affirmation or 100s of others at The Affirmation Spot)

depressionRecently, a study questioning the validity of affirmations (“positive statements”) was published in Psychological Science. The paper entitled “Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others” was co-authored by Dr. Joanne Wood, Elaine Perunovic, and John W. Lee.

Today I am going to share my own thoughts on this research and would invite mental health professionals, people in the coaching and self-development fields, or ordinary readers who have used affirmations to comment on the topic.

The researchers conducted a study based on the following premise from their paper’s abstract.

Positive self-statements are widely believed to boost mood and self-esteem, yet their effectiveness has not been demonstrated. We examined the contrary prediction that positive self-statements can be ineffective or even harmful. A survey study confirmed that people often use positive self-statements and believe them to be effective.  

Two experiments showed that among participants with low self-esteem, those who repeated a positive self-statement (‘‘I’m a lovable person’’) or who focused on how that statement was true felt worse than those who did not repeat the statement or who focused on how it was both true and not true.

Among participants with high self-esteem, those who repeated the statement or focused on how it was true felt better than those who did not, but to a limited degree. Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who ‘‘need’’ them the most.

I am always shocked and dismayed by the cynicism that emerges when the subject of positive thinking comes up. This research certainly seems to have awakened a cadre of bloggers and journalists ready to pounce and denounce positive thinking as a sham. I have written often on this blog about the constant stream of disempowering messages that some in media like to produce. I have also written about the whole concept that somehow positive thinking is perceived as less “realistic” than negative thinking. Both of these factors seem to be in play as this story unfolds.

Let me begin by expressing my alarm, not at this study or its results, but at the way it has been heralded in the mainstream and psychological press as empirical evidence that positive thinking is a fraud. Those 20 year old images of Stuart Smalley have been dusted off and pushed front and center to ridicule the practice of thinking positively.

Oprah, Wayne Dyer, and other luminaries in what I would term the “empowered thinking” movement have been chided for their support of such nonsense. Their statements that we human beings are capable of amazing things when we change the way we think have been taken to task as fantasy.

Some Examples of the typical media fair:

Worst of all, people suffering from depression and other negative thinking disorders have been told that thinking positively is bad for them and it should be avoided because it will make them feel worse.

I have been in contact directly with Dr. Wood. It is my belief that she and her colleagues are trying to conduct honest research and find honest answers to honest questions. After reading and digesting the paper that resulted from their research, I am convinced that the flaw lies not in the researchers’ intentions, but in the selected methodology. Dr. Wood, based on her writing, agrees that specific statements may have more efficacy than the general “I am lovable” statement used in the experiments that led to the paper.

“Moment by moment, brick by brick, I am building a life full of things more important to me than my problems.”

This topic is very near and dear to my heart. I don’t speak as an outsider on the topics of affirmations or severe depression. 20 years ago, at the age of 25, I nearly died due a severe depression and undiagnosed Addison’s Disease. The fact is I should have been dead. My electrolytes were below levels capable of supporting life. I had eaten nothing and drank little for weeks and I was down to 96 pounds. My father had to carry me into the hospital emergency room. Every cell in my body hurt and I wanted to die to escape the pain – physical and psychological that I was feeling.

Affirmations were an absolute mainstay in my climb from that deep, dark place. They remain a key part of my success today.

optimismWhen I encounter someone who is suffering from depression, anxiety, or other difficult life situations; it’s not theoretical to me. I understand what they are going through. I know the struggles I had for years after that hospital visit. I know the hard work and determination it took to change my thinking and change my life. My passion is to help people who suffer from these conditions to get better and live the life they came here to live.

That’s why I started The Affirmation Spot. That’s why I spend a couple of hours every day tweeting affirmations for people on Twitter. That’s why messages of disempowerment and “you can’t” being delivered by the media and mental health professionals bother me so much. I know it feels like you can’t sometimes, but you can! It’s not hyperbole, magic, or a scam. It’s the truth. I did it and so can you!

I applaud Dr. Wood and her colleagues for tackling this topic and attempting to put science behind what my experience and that of so many others clearly demonstrates.

However, the study failed to grasp the process required for affirmations (“positive statements”) to impact the thinking of a depressed person. Subjects were questioned about their mood during the cognitive dissonance that is always sure to occur during an attempt to shift thinking. I know this personally, as I have encountered it many times. In fact, every time I use affirmations to pursue some new goal I encounter cognitive dissonance.

The research apparently took place in a single instance. Affirmations take time, repetition, belief, and commitment to impact and replace negative thinking. There is no evidence that study participants had any commitment to change their feeling of “not being lovable” by use of the affirmation. They certainly did not have time for repetition to have its effect.

The measurements in this study were akin to measuring the muscle growth of someone after one workout in the gym.

As someone who turned my life around using affirmations and other tools and now works to help others do the same, I can state that this research is preliminary, incomplete, and far from conclusive.

My view is that the research should continue and that a methodology conducive to a true study of this question should be devised to examine the validity of these findings. I suggest the following criteria as a starting point.

  1. Clinical Trial – conduct a real clinical trial using real psychological patients rather than grad students. There should be a controlled group or perhaps even a comparison against other treatment options.
  2. Decision – participants should be people with a a commitment to changing their negative beliefs, thoughts, and habits. Affirmations are just wishful thinking without a decision to change. Without this commitment, neither affirmations nor most other treatment courses will work.
  3. Time – affirmations are just like an exercise program. It takes time for the results to be seen. The affirmations have to be used, as with any other treatment, over a period of time and progress in mood and behavior monitored for positive change.
  4. Targeted Change and Affirmations – both the thoughts, beliefs, or behaviors to be changed must be identified and affirmations specific and appropriate should be used. “I am lovable” is a nice sentiment, but a a weak affirmation to produce real change. The goals to be achieved, obviously, have to be realistic.
  5. Multiple Content Types – The affirmations should be delivered audibly, verbally, and visually to account for varying learning styles. I also recommend what I call holographic affirmations – first person, second person, and named affirmations. First person affirmations are said to obtain ownership of the affirmation. Second person affirmations are used as thought replacement because the overwhelming majority of negative thoughts come into our minds as “you” statements. Name affirmations get the person’s attention by using the sweetest sound in the language – their name – as a cue.
  6. Reinforcemnt – progress must be reinforced to solidify the positive, empowered thinking we want to achieve. There are a lot of competitors to fill the voids of our thoughts and emotions media, family, religion, government, etc. If we are not encouraging and reinforcing the thoughts of our choosing, someone else will fill that void. That is how most people wound up being LSE in the first place. They listened to others about how they should feel and think about themselves

This study and the media feeding that has followed leaves millions of depressed people with the impression that thinking positive, empowering thoughts is not a viable solution for them. I am living proof that this is not so.

The idea that these people should be left to wallow in the realism of their depressive thoughts is a sad and unwarranted message. Yes, change is hard, but change is part of human potential. To tell someone obsessed with negative thoughts that thinking better thoughts is “dangerous” or “fruitless” (as many articles about this study have) is the height of irresponsibility.

I would hope that this research continues along the lines described above and that studies measuring the true efficacy of affirmations as a tool can be conducted. 20 years of my life and my interactions with many, many people tell me that such research will demonstrate that sensible positive thinking is an option and a way to the light for those suffering, as I once did.

In closing, I have one simple question. Regardless of the situation you are facing in life, are you going to have better results facing it with the burden of negative thoughts or with the empowerment of positive thoughts? The answer is clear. Positive thoughts are not the enemy. Negative thoughts are the problem. We need to keep that in perspective.

Stay inspired!


2009 Affirmation

“This year I am absolutely committed to being the person I came here to be!”

Published by

Ray Davis - The Affirmation Spot

I am the Founder of The Affirmation Spot, author of Annuanki Awakening, and co-founder of 6 Sense Media. My latest books are the Anunnaki Awakening: Revelation (Book 1 of a trilogy) and The Power to Be You: 417 Daily Thoughts and Affirmations for Empowerment. I have written prolifically on the topics of personal development and human potential for many years. By day, I write sales training for Fortune 100 company. I began studying affirmations and positive thinking after a life-threatening illness at 25. My thirst for self-improvement led him to read the writings of Joseph Campbell, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, Neale Donald Walsch, and many other luminaries in the fields of mythology and motivation. Over time, I have melded these ideas into my own philosophy on self-development. I have written, recorded, and used affirmations and other tools throughout that time to improve my own life and I have a passion for helping other reach for their goals and dreams. Ray holds a Bachelor's of Science Degree in Secondary Education in Social Studies from University of Kansas. He lives in Framingham, MA with his wife and his black lab, Mia.

15 thoughts on “Affirmations Under Fire: A Response – The Affirmation Spot for Wednesday June 8, 2009”

  1. Have you read The biology of belief by Bruce Lipton Ph.D.?

    The nocebo effect and placebo effect are both very real. A positive belief offers positive results and a negative belief such as those propagated by the pharmaceutical companies (example: ads that promote certain drugs under the guise of fear that without this medication you can get sick or die)
    The real problem is people are driven by fear to purchase.
    The media is aware of this and they use it on a daily basis.
    I say media as if their was someone to blame but really this
    falls back on responsibility. Who is in charge? And who watches the watchers when we all live our lives based on a profit margin?

  2. Unbelievable. There are numerous studies that have been conducted that provide data to support the theory that our thoughts DO affect our health and our self-perception. I for one am also living proof of changing my thinking and thus changing my life. Positive thinking doesn’t mean you put on rose colored glasses and stop being self-aware. It just means that you quit being so overly critical and judgmental of yourself that you can learn to love yourself. By doing so, you can also change your perception of life. Being one who was consistently seeing the negative in all things, changing my thinking helped dig me out of a crippling depression. Many of us have tapes in our head that play nothing but negative,self-defeating thoughts. When we can change that to something more positive (i.e. using positive affirmations) we feel better about ourselves and thus feel better about those around us. It takes weeks and sometimes months to change. A short study using one affirmation isn’t going to produce long lasting results that are statistically significant.

  3. Angela and Paul –

    Thank you both for the comments. I agree totally. Angela, your story and mine sound very similar. That’s why I’m so disturbed that this study is being presented the way it is.

    Please tell others about this. I feel like we need to get the word out. People hear or read this stuff in passing and all they take away is positive thinking can’t help you.

    Stay inspired!

  4. Ray, in some ways, I have to agree with the study. I mean no offense, and seriously hope you don’t take this personally. I have tried for many years to use affirmation, and while I get a short burst of positive feelings from them, in the long run, seeing people joyous and happy and positive about their lives only tends to make me feel more inadequate. I keep trying, but to be honest, I’ve taken down what I call my “feel good” wall, because I was going through days, and weeks when I could not write or do anything because of deep depression, and all those affirmations just chided me and made me feel like I couldn’t do anything right. For “normal” people, I can see where affirmations would work, but for those of us so deep down that we have to look up to see bottom, it’s just not enough, and sometimes, it’s just plain annoying. My mother always said “You can’t trust someone who smiles all the time.” I tend to agree.

    1. Deborah,

      Hello, my friend. No offense taken. There is not a right or wrong answer here. In fact, I have invited Dr. Wood to share more about her research and her thoughts on it here on the blog. She has some other things coming up, but has agreed to do so. My only wish for you is that don’t give up. As I tried to share in this article, I was there…literally on death’s door, depressed as depressed gets. I really do understand.

      Even though I’m sure I give off this online persona that I’m this super upbeat person every moment of every day, I’m not always. I still have to battle those inner demons every day and suppose I may have to for life. I also have a significant phobia that has to do with a daily activity that we all must do. Affirmations have not helped me shake it completely, but they helped learn to cope with it in a way to wear it does not rule my life the way it once did. See….warts. :o)

      My determination is, and has been for some years now, that I am not going to let those things hold me back or stop me from making my contribution to the world. In fact, I believe they make more contribution more unique and meaningful.

      You’ve probably seen the affirmation I’ve posted a number of times around: “Moment by moment, brick by brick, I am building a life full of things more important than my problems.” I wrote that affirmation…or some derivation of it…about 19 years ago when I got out of the hospital. I’ve been using it ever since. Among all the affirmations I write for others and use for myself, it is still one of the two with the most meaning for me. I get this sense that I am physically, tangibly, building a better life full of things bigger than these struggles I have.

      As I look back over these past 19 years and at my life now, I see how the progress is not noticeable day to day, but is amazing over time. My other key affirmation is “Whatever I need always comes my way.” I have posted on Twitter encouraging people to use this one 100 times a day. I still use it every day and used to do it a 100 times a day. Get that thought embedded in your mind and amazing things start to happen.

      I understand where you are coming from and feel for your situation. I don’t do what I do because I’m this perfect sage walking the Earth, but because I am a somewhat broken sage who wants to contribute what I can to help others see what is possible. If I could sum up my philosophy, it’s a determined effort to see the perfection even in the imperfection and put one foot in front of the other anyway.

      Remember. Affirmations do work – they just come in shades of positive and negative. One or the other becomes our self-talk. It’s partly a matter of choosing which one and once we choose the positive to stick with it.

      Be well, my friend. Hope your move goes well. When are you doing it?


  5. Not knowing the potential answer, I am wondering if you’re a Christian? I got here from the Peacebringer Musings blog, and he is a Christian as am I.

    If you are not, would you be offended to hear a Christian viewpoint on this matter, or would that just deem like empty “religion” to you?

    1. Meg,

      Thank you for your question. My answer is that I grew up a VERY Bible-believing Christian. My life experience has led me to a more inclusive approach to spirituality on this planet.

      Much of my family continues to believe that there is only one way to approach matters of spirit. My experience of God simply will not fit into boxes.

      I take a great deal of my approach from Jesus’ teaching as oppposed to what organized groups have determined them to be. I also find a great deal of value in the teachings of Buddha.

      My policy on this blog is respectful dialogue from any perspective is welcome. I am not offended at all, if you would like to share your point of view.


      1. Some thoughts, the church frequently teaches a dry legalism that is such a turnoff, sounds like what happened to you. Your words indicate that in your mind, Jesus Christ is either dead or a myth, which I think is tragic. I hope someday you find it in your heart to ask Jesus Christ about Himself and see how He chooses to answer. But I guess if you don’t like other of His teaching, you might not find why He taught what He did.

        I wouldn’t say Jesus is the only way to “approach matters of the spirit”, but He is the only source of spiritual Light…

        Prayer as a Christian is deeply profound, undertaught and largely misunderstood, which is tragic. The affirmation thing never worked for me, but a working relationship with the Lord, Who is very much alive did. Thats all I can say.

      2. HI, Meg

        Thanks for your comments. Wondered if you’d decided not to write. I’m glad you did.

        I do not think Jesus is either a myth or dead. I approach his teachings in a different way than you do. That does not mean I dismiss them…quite to the contrary. Without going too deep here, I look at what Jesus actually taught as recorded in both the gospels verified by the Council of Niacea and those that council of men rejected. I work to live my life in a way aligned to Jesus’ own words, as opposed the Christian orthodoxy as it has developed in our modern day.

        I don’t see prayer/affirmations as an either/or choice. In my experience, affirmations and prayer are both highly effective for achieving greater peace or happiness in life. Affirmations are a recognition of the way the human mind works. If we (or others) fill our minds with negative, disempowering messages, the mind starts seeing the world in that light. That can have negative effects on Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists.

        Affirmations are a tool that anyone can use to help reverse and counter that process.

        I am very glad that you have found a life that fulfills you. So have I. My beliefs have come hard-earned and with much thought and prayer, as I’m sure yours have. What I do here is advocate for the importance of maintaining a positive, empowered mindset. If people choose to do that in concert with their Christian beliefs, I applaud that.

        Stay inspired!

  6. Ray, I commend you for taking the time to respond to the published paper mentioned in your article. I am not one for too much analysis, because much of what I do in auto-writing my soul affirmations, evolves from a deep form of personal self expression – much like the use of affirmations themselves – but in the simplicity of my own personal understanding, I offer the following response.

    In my humble opinion, it is best to base the true effectiveness of Affirmations on the indelible evidence of personal testimony. The personal testimony of millions of individuals, who have used Affirmations to successfully change their lives, stands out to me as being far more representative of the truth of their effectiveness, than the results of any scientific studies, and I will explain why.

    In truth, I do believe we all need to be inspired throughout our lives, and the means and manner that each of us will choose to do so, will be very personal and vary amongst us all.

    The use of Affirmations is also a very personal experience and their application, for each and every individual, will differ greatly. For we are all very different individuals, operating throughout our lives, under very different circumstances – none of which may never be truly duplicated; observed; or genuinely represented by – or during any scientific study.

    As such, these findings can only be acknowledged, but can never be given any true credence in the arena of life; as they can never be heralded as a true representation or reflection of the actual effectiveness of Affirmations within the lives of millions – who have not just genuinely found solace in their use – but also given personal testimony to their unique benefits.

    ~ Eleesha ~

  7. Fantastic post. I’ve been shocked at how so many people have used the study in question to make broad, unsupported statements challenging the effectiveness of affirmations.

    There’s nothing in the research that leads me to believe that there’s any potential downside to positive self-talk when affirmations are properly constructed and utilized.

    If one is following “best practices” for affirmations, they CAN and DO get real benefits from it.

    1. Lisa,

      Thanks for your comment. We are in complete agreement. That’s why I wanted to address this so head-on. Unfortunately, people who hear/read these headlines or blurbs aren’t getting the full story. Affirmations already have the Stuart Smalley stigma attached to them. Those of us who have used affirmations to great effect in our lives will just have to keep making our case in the marketplace of ideas.

      I think these researchers are willing to look at the question further. They were even surprised at the way the study has been covered.

      Have a beautiful Saturday.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s