It has long been assumed that positive affirmations are the key to happiness. In fact, there are countless books, websites, and resources dedicated to encouraging people to engage in positive thinking by repeating favorable statements about the self. Oprah Winfrey, one of the most iconic social figures in the United States, often encourages her viewers to engage in self-affirmation. However, recent work has found that these practices may actually undermine self-esteem for certain people.
Joanne Wood and colleagues found that when compared to high self-esteem individuals, people with low self-esteem who repeated positive affirmations (e.g., “I am a lovable person”) actually experienced a worse mood and expressed feeling less lovable. Moreover, when low self-esteem individuals were asked to focus on the ways in which positive affirmations were true of them (positive focus), they actually experienced worse mood, lower state self-esteem, and lower happiness than individuals who were instructed to think about how the affirmation may or may not be true of them (neutral focus).
These findings indicate that while positive thinking may be somewhat effective for people high in self-esteem, it is likely to be detrimental for low self-esteem individuals, the group these affirmations are supposed to help. One can hope that with further research, the next wave of self-help products will be beneficial for the ones who need it most.