Optimism and the neuroscience behind positive affirmations

An image of a brain against a lilac and blue background.

Over the past few years, there’s been a significant rise in interest in the areas of mindfulness, meditation and wellness. Among these practices, affirmations, or mantras, have been suggested as simple and effective methods to utilise the power of your subconscious for personal development, specifically in the areas of optimism, resilience, mental health and stress management.

But is there any science that backs any of this up and should we really introduce it into our daily routines?

Well, here’s the neuroscience behind why positive affirmations actually work and it all starts in the back of our brains, in our reticular activating system (RAS).

What’s the function of the reticular activating system?

The RAS consists of a bundle of neuronal networks originating at our brainstem. The RAS is responsible for maintaining conscious activity. It acts as a filter: Approximately, 11 million pieces of information enter your brain at any given moment. However, we can only process about 26 pieces of that information. The job of the RAS is to sort through all that data so only the important points filter through.

It takes what you want to focus on and filters all information through that lens, all without you noticing.

For example, your RAS is the reason why when you plan on buying a blue car, you start seeing blue cars everywhere you go. It’s the reason why in a crowd of chatting people, hearing your name immediately catches your attention.

Equally, it also scans for information to confirm your beliefs – effectively influencing you to see what you want to see, whether positive or negative.

Training your RAS through positive affirmations

Your RAS starts working the second you wake up in the morning. It’s asking what is it that you want to focus on, and what you’re looking for on that particular day.

For example, if you wake up and your first thoughts are “god, I’m so tired, this day is going to be awful”, then your RAS will accept that belief and filter all the information that comes into your brain for times and events that are actually awful and promote the idea that you are in fact tired.

However, if you tell your RAS “I’m great, I’m energised, I’m going to have a wonderful day”, it will start to look for that in your brain because that’s the intention you have set.

It’s important to note that you should position statements in the positive, and avoid phrases such as “I don’t want to be X” because the brain doesn’t understand the negative, it only understands the positive.

So, once you set the intention of being optimistic and positive your brain will start to seek out the positive and optimistic, and in turn, you’ll become more aware of positive circumstances in your life.

If you do this day after day with a consistent positive affirmation, eventually you will not need to do it quite as much because your brain will already know that when you become conscious that’s what you want to think about, that’s what you want to look for.

So why not try it out? Add a positive affirmation to your morning routine, and when you become more optimistic and more positive events take place in your life you’ll realise it’s not luck, or magic, its neuroscience. It’s your RAS influencing how you perceive the world around you.

10 Positive affirmations to boot your optimism

Want to start using affirmations in your daily routine but not sure where to start, why not check out our list of affirmations below:

  1. I’ve got this.
  2. I believe in myself.
  3. I am smart and driven.
  4. Today will be a great day.
  5. I am happy and confident.
  6. I am smart and courageous.
  7. I have all I need to succeed.
  8. I will succeed and reach my goals.
  9. I believe in myself and trust the decisions I make.
  10. Each day I am one step closer to achieving my goals.

Interested in learning about enhancing wellbeing in your team?

Check out our ‘Happiness at work’ workshop and explore the benefits of happiness within the workplace, and identify areas within the work environment where you can foster happiness.

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