How New-Agey, Trite Affirmations Can Lead Us to Happiness.

Via Dearbhla Kelly
on Oct 14, 2013
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Brigitte Bardot, sexy, vintage, wild, crazy, beautiful

“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.” ~ Buddha

So you think affirmations are new-agey and trite? I mean really, as if ‘I am the very source of abundance and love itself’ taped on your mirror is going to pay that credit card bill?

Well, I’m going to suggest that you have a rethink and try on the possibility that affirmations may be at the cutting-edge of neuroscience and its sexy sister PNI (psychoneuroimmunology). And while an affirmation in itself may not be enough to help you pay your bills, it can reshape your brain and thus cause you to effect behavioral changes which will help you manage your finances.

Plasticity is the brain’s ability to reconfigure itself, to establish and dissolve connections between its different parts. No doubt you’ve heard the phrase ‘neurons that wire together fire together,’ but what exactly does it mean? When one neuron (nerve cell) wants to ‘talk’ to another, it communicates by way of an electrochemical signal. An electrical signal is released from the soma (cell body) and travels down the axon (a threadlike protrusion of varying length that carries nerve signals ) until it can go no further because it’s reached the synaptic cleft (the space between two neurons). 

Since an electrical signal can’t cross the gap, the charge is converted into a chemical packet (a neurotransmitter), which diffuses across the synapse, where it latches on to a receptor cell on the other side. When the molecule binds to the receptor, an electrical charge is released which travels up the dendrite (similar to an axon, but receives nerve signals) to the second nerve cell.

So the link between cells is an electrochemical pathway. Many of the chemicals have specific emotional signatures; for example, oxytocin, which creates feelings of trust and attachment; or ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), which signals the adrenal glands to release the stress hormone cortisol, and creates feelings of arousal; serotonin, the happy chemical.

To quote neuroscientist Candace Pert, neurotransmitters are “molecules of emotion.”

These chemicals are essentially drugs which affect how we feel because of how they interact with the limbic system (emotional brain), as well as the autonomic nervous system (fight or flight and rest and restore) and digestive, immune and respiratory systems. To somewhat over-simplify, this means that when you think a certain thought, recall something, repeat something mentally, you affect a neuro-chemical reaction and an associated feeling that ripples through different parts of your body. For example, when you feel stressed out in response to particular thoughts it is (at least partly) because your sympathetic nervous system is activated and you feel aroused. Depending on how stressed-out you feel, your mouth may become dry, your palms clammy, your stomach feeling as though it’s doing double flips.

Each of us has habitual thought patterns that we know are not good for us because of how they make us feel and the impact they have on our actions and our ability to pursue our goals and interests and to feel happy and actualized. Researchers in the area of PNI (psychoneuroimmunology) are now reporting that negative, stress-inducing thoughts affect our immunity and raise our white T cell count.

But just as negative thought patterns have adverse effects, positive thoughts create positive effects leading to increased feelings of happiness, wellbeing and confidence. And, it turns out that happier people enjoy better health and deal with stress better.

As anyone whose ever sat an exam knows, your state of mind is not just important, but determinative of exam success. If you go into an exam feeling confident and upbeat, you are much more likely to perform well. By a similar token, when I was writing my application letter to get into a Ph.D program in philosophy in Chicago, my academic advisor cautioned me to write the letter when I was feeling good about myself, otherwise the letter would not convey an attitude of confidence.

Specific thoughts elicit related feelings, which in turn influence our overall disposition and our propensity towards behaviors. So our thoughts create our stance within and towards our world and consequently our experience of the world—change your thoughts and you change your world. Now this doesn’t seem so new-agey… I take it that we all want more happiness, satisfaction and abundance in our lives, and if changing the way we think helps to bring that about, that’s something attainable over time.

We all have the experience of getting stuck in habitual ways of thinking and acting. Frequently we would like to change such patterns, but find that we are stuck in the same old groove, even (particularly) when it doesn’t feel good. Since neurons that wire together fire together, and every time said neurons wire the connections between those parts of the brain (which may have different functions, for example, vision, language) strengthen, it shouldn’t surprise us that certain behavioral patterns become ingrained. Add in the fact that we can become addicted to the chemicals released by neurons firing (think about gamblers and the dopamine response, or chronic self-mutilators), and we have a tricky situation.

brain-as-computerEvery time we react habitually to a given stimulus, neural pathways are activated, as well as the brain-parts housing those neurons. As the same regions are activated over time, they become thicker and denser—possibly because the neurons in that area branch out to make connections to other neurons—or increase the number of cells in those areas, or the blood flow into them. The more these areas are activated in our day-to-day experience, the more we react in habitual ways. This is akin to the yogic theory of samskaras (latent mental impressions) and vasanas the behavioral patterns arising from their activation.

Dopamine release consolidates neuronal connections responsible for the behaviors that lead us to accomplish our goal—we get a hit of feeling good from dopamine, the reward chemical. This is obviously helpful when we are trying to replace negative mental tapes with positive ones.

For example, if I catch myself making a negative judgment about someone I feel has wronged me, I can replace that thought with a positive statement. Every time I manage to do this I get a shot of dopamine; I have made-good on my decision to stop allowing this belief about how that person treated me to have a negative impact by making me feel bad about myself. In this case, the reward comes as a result of my following through on my meta-intention about ending my mental tapes. And, it is this ability to form meta-inentions, or big-picture decisions that impact our behavior, that is distinctive about human psychology and rationality. Such executive mental functions take place in the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for long-term planning and goal setting.

Neurons fire in response to particular experiences (thoughts, stimuli etc) and the neuronal connections between neurons in different parts of the brain get stronger and thicker each time the neural pathway is activated.Long-term potentiation’ (LTP) is the term given to the strengthening of connections between neurons. The stronger the connection between neurons, the more difficult it becomes to break thought (and hence behavioral) patterns. Unsurprisingly, our behavioral propensities contribute to our experience of the world, but also our experience and conception of ourselves; we become identified with ways of thinking and behaving and mistakenly think that this is who we are.

The good news is that we can shortcut neuronal connections and thus rewire our brain (and thereby our self-conception). By changing our mental tapes and choosing new thoughts and beliefs, we can use the brain’s inherent architecture and formal capacities to recreate ourselves.

Long-term depression (LDP) is the process wherein the brain unlearns associations and disconnects neurons. Given this, using affirmations to create positive feelings in the body-mind continuum doesn’t seem vacuous. To the contrary it seems smart, self-interested and forward-thinking.

Just like asana, or meditation, using affirmations is a practice. We must keep doing it in a sustained manner in order to see positive effects manifest in our lives over time. Since it involves rewiring the brain and the mental tapes running in the brain, an affirmation isn’t a quick fix, rather it’s a tool to help you become more empowered, better able to attain your goals and ultimately a happier, more fulfilled person. Who can argue with that?


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Ed: Sara Crolick



About Dearbhla Kelly

Born and raised in Ireland, Dearbhla Kelly M.A. is a Los Angeles-based yoga teacher, writer and neurophilosopher. She began her academic training in Amsterdam and received degrees in philosophy in Dublin and Chicago. She is particularly skillful at marrying the more esoteric teachings of yoga with modern scientific insights and the practicalities of everyday life. Her writing has been published in the Huffington Post, Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal and Origin Magazine. A dedicated ashtanga practitioner, she teaches yoga and neuroscience workshops worldwide. Her lilting Irish accent and Dublin wit make her classes uniquely enjoyable.


14 Responses to “How New-Agey, Trite Affirmations Can Lead Us to Happiness.”

  1. scoochdaily says:

    Great article, Dearblha! Really enjoyed it and looking forward to getting some shots of dopamine! – Licia Morelli

  2. Dearbhla says:

    Thanks Licia!

  3. Jake Eagle says:

    I appreciate how you have grounded what is often a New-Age tactic—affirmations—in a physiological explanation. As a psychotherapist, I am cautious about encouraging clients to use affirmations, even though I agree with everything you have written. My caution stems from my concern that affirmations lead to denial. I wonder what the neurophysiology of denial is? What happens when we fool ourselves? We are overweight, but we keep saying, "I'm slim and healthy."

    I believe the answer is to be thoughtful about when we choose to use affirmations. If we use overuse them, I suspect we may do more damage than the benefit we gain from "feeling better." I'd be very curious to hear your thoughts about how affirmations can lead to denial and what does this do to our brains?

  4. Dearbhla says:

    Hey Jake,
    what a wonderful comment. Let me think deeply about this…I really don't know what denial does to the brain…I'll have to get back to you….


  5. Selected for Best of Yoga Philosophy.

    I've always been fascinated by the intellectual dilemma that occurs when seemingly irrational beliefs like positive thinking and even believing in God are proven scientifically to have beneficial effects on human psychological well-being.

    Bob W.

  6. Just remembered I once wrote a blog about this: Is Al Franken a Yogi? Click here to see Al Franken as Stuart Smiley, the ultimate spoof on positive thinking from Saturday Night Live. The text is short enough to copy below.

    Bob W.


    Some modern self-help methods have given happiness seeking a bad name. I’m reminded of Al Franken’s hilarious spoofs on positive thinking on Saturday Night Live (looking at himself in the mirror saying, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me”.)

    “Positive thinking” is a somewhat tricky issue for Yoga philosophy. Yoga is based on determinedly seeing things as they really are–”pure awareness” and all that. But the simple truth of the universe, according to Yoga, is so wondrous that Yoga philosophy can look like a massive dose of “positive thinking” to the casual observer.

    Most positive thinking is actually seeing truth that’s hidden, or it is just creative imagining. Those kinds of positive thinking are completely in sync with Yoga. On the other hand, any “positive thinking” that is a distortion of reality is counter to Yoga and unhealthy.

    As an example, I might improve my tennis game by imagining I’m Roger Federer. (Imagination is not untruth!) But I’m in deep trouble if I start thinking I really am Roger Federer.

    Simply put, the truth is pure Yoga. Any kind of self-deception is the antithesis of Yoga.

    I would define “self-deception” as simply anything you believe that is, in reality, untrue, particularly things you believe about yourself. A simple example―”I’m not good enough to write this essay”, or, more seriously, “I’m not worthy of being loved”. In self-deception like this, positively thinking yourself out of these falsehoods is simply recognizing the truth, and good for you.

    On the other hand, positively thinking you can jump off a tall building and fly is definitely not good for you. Most examples are not so easy, of course. But figuring out which are which goes to the heart of mental and Yogic health.

    Getting back to Al Franken, the truth is that he probably is good enough. He probably really is smart enough. And doggone it, people probably really do like him. So I think his positive thinking, while hilarious, is both healthy and Yogic!

    (Postscript–It may be too fine a point for a tongue-in-cheek piece, but a truly Yogic Al Franken would not be looking into a mirror and trying to convince himself that he’s good enough, etc. He would be meditating and simply RECOGNIZE these things about himself through heightened awareness. And, of course, ironically he wouldn’t care anymore because he would have achieved a state of egoless bliss!)

  7. Found the video! And it's Stuart Smalley, not Smiley.


  8. Michael says:

    while positive affirmation is very helpful for increasing personal happiness, it is nevertheless not sufficient to handle the challenges of living in a world where debt=money. no matter your ability to handle your personal finances, our current economic model is inherently violent and requires the existence of poverty to function. it might be nice that you find your way out of that poverty, but someone else has to take your place. if you're not already aware, learn about the inherent contradiction at the core of global monetary policy. striving for personal happiness is profound, but striving for conditions which enable all beings to have access to their needs is more profound.

    abundance thinking sees the fundamental truth that the things that we really need as humans (food, housing, clothing) are abundant, but it often ignores that the medium that we use to exchange those human needs is not only NOT abundant, but that it is systemically and intentionally kept scarce so as to profit those that hold the interest on the public's debt.

    in other words, I enjoyed the article, and I agree. we must nevertheless not let our personal improvement overshadow the very real and important improvements needed to our fundamental social systems.

  9. In my experience of yoga, often getting into the painful uncomfortable spots in the body are the most rewarding. I believe this is true with thought as well. There are many traditions that actually focus on the negative aspects of life, such as death, as a path to deep spiritual understanding:

    “Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the path. Until you have developed this awareness, all other practices are obstructed.” ~The Dali Lama

    There is so much positive psychology out there these days that basically tells people that by focusing on happiness they can get and achieve anything – including unending bliss. I think this is in direct proportion to the declining economy, wages and mechanization/corporatization of our society. Positive affirmations can have a dark side. They can be used to manipulate and coerce people who think differently than the status quo, “Oh, they are just being negative” (meanwhile we have turned a blind eye to major injustice). It is true we can bliss out our minds on chant or affirmation, but in the end this can be very self serving. It can justify anything and lead us into – as Jake points out – denial.

    The real grist of yoga or the spiritual life, in my opinion, is to engage it all. Heart and compassion really feel; not just “bliss” either.

  10. Dearbhla says:

    Yes, great piece Bob.
    Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  11. Jessie says:

    Wow! That gives me a new way of thinking about the mind-body connection…..our emotions the chemicals that connect the neurons to a physical response. I personally find affirmations to be an important part of transforming a negative samskara into a positive samskara. Then maybe releasing all samskara when well along the path……….

  12. Dearbhla says:

    Hi Goldenheart,
    thanks for your comment. I think you actually miss the deeper point I'm making. Nowhere to say that people should live in denial and not face negative aspects of their life, or indeed the world around them. What I do advocate is harnessing the brain's inherent ability to create positive change in our lives (and the lives of those we touch). Don't you think the world would be a happier (better) place if we all experienced more positivity in our lives and felt like we were flourishing and succeeding in our goals?

  13. Dearbhla says:

    I agree with you. Of course it's important that we stay present to what is happening on the macro level, as well as just the micro level of our own lives and experience. This piece is written about a a very specific practice (harnessing the brain's inbuilt ability to create positive thoughts, which in turn benefits our mood and our lives overall) and says nothing about the bigger issues you raise. That doesn't mean they are not important. Not all articles need to have a global focus.

  14. Dearbhla says:

    Yes Jessie. That's exactly it – neural pathways are samskaras and we we can dissolve them and create new ones!!