Do you believe saying affirmations has the power to make you more successful, up your earnings, improve your health, or otherwise give you what you want? Well I don't. As a professional journalist, tech writer, agnostic, and all-around skeptic, I simply don't believe that "putting it out there to the universe" can in itself change anything in our lives. There's only one problem with this point of view: I've had affirmations work for me.
A few years ago, when I was suffering through a dry spell, I happened to mention it to some friends at the Woodstock farmer's market. One of them told me to read the work of Florence Scovel-Shinn, an artist, actress, and metaphysical writer who published her most famous work on success and affirmations in 1925.
Now, if you're a skeptic to begin with, reading this lady will not make you any less so. However, my friend went on to say that, when she'd been short of work herself, she started saying this affirmation: "I have wonderful work in a wonderful way. I work very few hours for lots of pay." And it immediately brought her lots of work. "I probably got myself some more work saying it just now," she added. "And I really don't need any more at the moment."
So I felt very silly, but the next morning, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and said out loud, "I have wonderful work in a wonderful way. I do work I love for lots of pay." (I modified it a little because I would rather work more hours at something I love than fewer hours at something that just brings in money.) That afternoon, I got a $1,000 assignment from a website.
Intrigued, I posted about the experience on the members forum of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Could saying this affirmation really have brought me a job less than eight hours later? I expected surprise and skepticism from my writer colleagues but instead, they told me about similar things that had happened to them. Which made me even more intrigued.
Is it brain function?
How can this be explained, if you don't believe there are metaphysical forces at work? On the most obvious level, if you want something badly enough to make a daily affirmation about it, chances are you're also taking other positive steps to make it happen. In my case, I had sent a pitch to the website, so I suppose it could be that the fact that they said yes to that particular pitch on that particular day was simply a coincidence made more likely by my efforts.
But there are even better explanations that have to do with brain function. Research shows that self-affirming affirmations can lower the levels of stress hormones in our brains. And it could be that saying affirmations affects the Reticular Activating System, the part of our brain that tells us what to pay attention to and what not to.
We've all had the experience of noticing for the first time that something is all around us only after we've started caring about it. For me it was RVs when my husband and I started shopping for one in preparation for our cross-country move. So--sure--an affirmation about having more work might cause your brain to start paying better attention to business opportunities you might otherwise let slip by. It's also possible that affirming something that isn't yet true causes cognitive dissonance that you unconsciously seek to remove by bringing reality closer to your affirmation.
All of this reasoning is anathema to my husband, who is of a more spiritual bent than I am, and believes in the Law of Attraction. To him, it's very important that I accept that the universe's power and willingness to deliver what we ask for is real, and not all these more pedestrian scientific explanations. We've wasted many hours debating this.
Is it like taking antibiotics?
The truth is, I'm not sure I want to know how affirmations work. It reminds me of when I had a very bad flu a few years ago and needed to get over it quickly because of an upcoming speaking engagement. The doctor gave me an antibiotic, which is a very effective treatment for bacteria. But it's useless against a virus, which is what the flu is. At least, from a purely medical point of view.
When I asked him why he was giving me an antibiotic to treat a virus, he came up with a somewhat odd explanation about fighting secondary infections that might accompany the flu. Journalist that I am, I was about to ask for more detail when I stopped myself. If indeed he was giving me the antibiotic as a placebo, as doctors often do, then I might ruin the whole effect by asking too much about it. And I really needed to get well.
I feel the same way about affirmations. I'm not sure whether understanding too much about how they actually work is in my best interests. The point is that they do work, at least for me. And I want them to keep on working.