THE DETAILS: Researchers began their study by instructing seventh grade students to write out affirmations of their values, or statements about what was important to them. Topics they wrote about included creativity, music, art, and relationships with family and friends. Students completed one to three of the writing assignments at the beginning of the school year. Lead researcher Geoffrey Cohen, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says this intervention reduced school-related stress and helped minority students increase their GPA by an average of nearly 0.25 points during the 2 years of the study. Researchers noted that the group of lowest-performing minority students showed the biggest improvement; its GPA jumped more than 0.4 points.
“We all know when we’re in situations where we’re under a lot of stress, we choke and underperform,” Cohen explains. “Values affirmation assures the students of their integrity and reduces stress, and that allows them to perform up to their potential.”
WHAT IT MEANS: The subject of self-affirmations may remind you of Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley’s famous line, “I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” But this study and others show that making affirmations about one’s core values—rather than patting oneself on the back—can translate into better performance. Cohen says that as a general rule, research shows that writing down affirmations rather than speaking them aloud works best. He notes, “There’s a lot of research out there showing that values affirmations can be really effective buffers against stress, regardless of its source.” Though Cohen admits that they may not work well for everyone, he adds, “Expressive writing, reflecting on thoughts or feelings about stress, has been shown to be beneficial to the mental and physical well-being of cancer and HIV-positive patients in previous studies.”
Here’s how you and your kids can use affirmations to ease stress and boost success.
• Look at the big picture. When stress is making you anxious and consuming your mind, reflect on something else that’s really important to put the stressful event in perspective. Thinking about your family, your going for a run in your favorite park, your dog, or other positive things you enjoy can help you realize that even if things go badly for you right now, the consequences of your failing aren’t dire.
• Write it down. Like the kids in this study did, take some time to write out all the things that are really important to you and why. Keep in mind that writing values affirmations doesn’t mean you must write about only keen and peachy subjects. For instance, in the study, one child wrote about sadness, but then focused on a positive in life that counters it—music.