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Self-Affirmation Theory and the Science of Well-Being

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Abstract

Social psychological self-affirmation research shows that value affirmations often boost adaptive functioning. Yet, such effects are under-recognized within the fields of well-being studies and positive psychology. This paper reviews self-affirmation theory and the principles by which self-affirmation is understood to facilitate resilient responses to self-threats. Next, it reviews research on the impact of self-affirmation on well-being, including feeling good and functioning well. The positive-activity model is employed to conceptualize self-affirmation as a well-being intervention and to underscore potential mediators and moderators of the relationship between self-affirmation and well-being. Future lines of investigation are outlined, including the role of self-affirmation within existing well-being interventions, the use of self-affirmation to enhance other well-being interventions, and the measurement of individual differences in trait self-affirmation in the prediction of well-being.
REVIEW ARTICLE
Self-Affirmation Theory and the Science of Well-Being
Andrew J. Howell
1
Published online: 11 January 2016
Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016
Abstract Social psychological self-affirmation research shows that value affirmations
often boost adaptive functioning. Yet, such effects are under-recognized within the fields
of well-being studies and positive psychology. This paper reviews self-affirmation theory
and the principles by which self-affirmation is understood to facilitate resilient responses to
self-threats. Next, it reviews research on the impact of self-affirmation on well-being,
including feeling good and functioning well. The positive-activity model is employed to
conceptualize self-affirmation as a well-being intervention and to underscore potential
mediators and moderators of the relationship between self-affirmation and well-being.
Future lines of investigation are outlined, including the role of self-affirmation within
existing well-being interventions, the use of self-affirmation to enhance other well-being
interventions, and the measurement of individual differences in trait self-affirmation in the
prediction of well-being.
Keywords Self-affirmation Resilience Well-being Positive psychology
People want to learn, grow, be healthy, and have rewarding relationships, but psy-
chological threat can impede their ability to do so. By helping people to situate
threats into a narrative of global adequacy, affirmations turn down the inner alarm of
psychological threat. Less encumbered, people can make better use of the
resources for performance and growth in their social environment, in their rela-
tionships, and in themselves. (Cohen and Sherman 2014, p. 354)
As suggested by Cohen and Sherman (2014), affirming an overall sense of personal
adequacy is a route through which we can remain resilient in the face of adverse experi-
ences. Moreover, responding to personal-setbacks by reminding ourselves about values,
&Andrew J. Howell
howella@macewan.ca
1
Department of Psychology, MacEwan University, Edmonton, AB T5J 2P2, Canada
123
J Happiness Stud (2017) 18:293–311
DOI 10.1007/s10902-016-9713-5
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
... Moreover, in the past several years, findings have supported its potential in mental health improvement in high-risk populations [c.f. (9)(10)(11)]. Nevertheless, so far only a relatively few studies have directly focused on the effects of self-affirmation on mental health and well-being, and overall, the results are inconclusive. ...
... The present study builds on growing evidence [e.g., (9,(15)(16)(17); see also (10)] on the effects of implementation intention (II)based self-affirmation intervention on mental health outcomes, including its effectiveness evaluated in adults with psoriasis (11), a highly-stigmatized skin condition associated with elevated risk for depression, anxiety, and lower levels of well-being. Using a factorial design, this pre-registered study aimed to further investigate whether (1) body-related selfaffirming implementation intention (BS-AII), with augmented specificity of the intervention compared to general selfaffirming implementation intention (S-AII), would provide greater improvements in mental health outcomes for adults with psoriasis; and (2), whether the addition of a booster component would result in enhancing effectiveness-greater reduction in depression and anxiety and more increase of well-being at follow-up. ...
... If-Then Plans With Self-Affirming Cognitions as an Effective Means of Affirming the Self at Experiencing Psychological Threat Self-affirmation (3) is an act of reflecting upon one's cherished values, important relationships, positive traits, or recalling accomplishments to restore/sustain one's perception of adequacy. As shown in past research (5,6,10), it may be seen as a flexible process, executed through a variety of means, with a quite diffuse impact, can affect and promote more adaptive reactions in response to a variety of self-threats. Typically, researchers in this area ask participants to affirm their core values or positive personal characteristics using various written tasks [c.f. ...
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This study builds on growing evidence on implementation-intention-based self-affirmation intervention effects on mental health. Using a factorial design, this pre-registered study aimed to further investigate whether (1) strengthening the element of specificity within body-related self-affirming implementation intention (BS-AII) intervention compared to general self-affirming implementation intention (S-AII) would provide greater improvements in mental health outcomes for adults with psoriasis, and (2) whether the addition of a booster component would result in enhancing effectiveness at follow-up. A total of 306 adults with psoriasis were assessed for eligibility and 222 (aged 18–71 years) were randomized and received S-AII, BS-AII, or MGI (mere goal intention—control condition). Within each group, participants were again randomized to booster (B) or no-booster condition in a 3 × 2 factorial design, resulting in six groups: S-AII; S-AII + B; BS-AII; BS-AII + B; MGI; and MGI + B. Data were collected over three-time points, at baseline, 2 weeks post-intervention, and at 1-month later. Three primary outcomes were defined as a reduction of anxiety and depressive symptoms and enhancement of well-being. In terms of secondary outcomes, positive other- and self-directed feelings and also an emotional attitude toward the body were evaluated. To fully estimate intervention effects through intention-to-treat analysis, linear mixed models were used. A significant effect of time was observed, but no evidence of time-by-group interactions and no three-way interactions were detected. Exploratory analyses revealed two significant moderating effects of age and self-esteem, pointing to boundary conditions of the interventions. These findings offer to gain deeper insights on null (or negative) effects also reported in past works and highlight that self-affirmation interventions should be more thoroughly investigated and optimized before they can be broadly implemented in real-life contexts, especially to prevent backfiring and negative-enhancing effects.
... To date, positive effects of self-affirmations have been shown for a variety of contexts that are relevant for mental health and well-being (for a review, see Howell, 2017). Several studies have found that affirming core values upon threat broadens the perceived bases of self-worth (Critcher & Dunning, 2015), reduces anxiety, helps people to deal with stressful situations (Cohen & Sherman, 2014;Morgan & Atkin, 2016;Morgan & Harris, 2015;Sherman, 2013), and also increases self-directed (Lindsay & Creswell, 2014) and other-directed positive feelings, suggesting the mediating mechanisms of self-affirmation effects on mental well-being by positive affect (Crocker et al., 2008;Thomaes et al., 2012). ...
... From a theoretical standpoint, the research aimed to demonstrate that prompting people to self-affirm may help them attain significant improvement in mental health outcomes-both the decrease of negative outcomes in terms of depressive symptoms and the enhancement of positive outcomes in terms of well-being. Given that self-affirmation prompts people to reflect on their values, strengths, and/or social relations and experiences most important to them, it has been suggested that it may also encourage them to engage in activities that are congruent with those values-activities that are happiness-enhancing (boosting hedonic well-being) and/or reinforce vital aspects of eudaimonic well-being as positive relations with others, the fulfillment of psychological needs, and the experience of meaning and purpose in life (for a review, see Howell, 2017). Aligned with this reasoning, we adopted the conceptualization of well-being as involving both hedonic and eudaimonic aspects (cf. ...
... Nonetheless, it is also important to note that based on MCID indexes, the S-AII intervention resulted in a deterioration in approximately 10-14 percent of participants. These findings suggest a low level of person-activity fit for some individuals (Layous & Lyubomirsky, 2014; see also Howell, 2017) and/or that some important factors (e.g. personal, contextual, and/or processual) might not be well captured within the S-AII intervention, which results in limited effectiveness for some groups of people. ...
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Effective antiretroviral treatment has increased the life expectancy of people living with HIV, and currently, the challenges of prominent importance appear to be mental health issues. This preregistered study among adults living with HIV/AIDS investigated the effectiveness of a brief self‐affirmation intervention framed in terms of if–then plans (i.e. self‐affirming implementation intentions [S‐AII]) against both active and non‐active control conditions, forming non‐affirming implementation intentions and mere goal intentions, respectively. The primary outcomes were defined as a reduction of depressive symptoms and enhancement of well‐being, along with secondary outcomes as positive other‐ and self‐directed feelings. A total of 162 individuals were assessed for eligibility, and 130 (aged 18–74 years) were randomized to the study conditions. Intervention effects were estimated through intention‐to‐treat analysis, using linear mixed models. The S‐AII intervention yielded improvements in overall well‐being over 2 weeks (d = .23), primarily driven by positive changes in emotional (d = .24) and social (d = .30) dimensions of well‐being. There were no significant differences in depression or secondary outcomes. Based on a minimal clinically important difference index, the S‐AII intervention resulted in improvement in well‐being in approximately 40 percent of participants. Nevertheless, further systematic research is needed to optimize self‐affirmation‐interventions, before their application in real‐life contexts.
... Building from growing literature on beneficial effects of self-affirmation interventions (Cohen & Sherman, 2014;Dutcher et al., 2020;Howell, 2017;Sherman, 2013), this study tested whether encouraging to cultivate a sense of self as worthy, adequate, and efficacious can provide improvements on mental health indicators. The current research sought to address gaps in the literature on the applicability of self-affirmation theory and mental health implications of self-affirming among truly at-risk populations, with the burden of chronic disease, employing a robust RCT design with an active-control group and longer-term follow-up assessment. ...
... Based on prior evidence drawn from other populations (Cohen & Sherman, 2014;Howell, 2017), it was expected that S-AII would generate effects both in terms of reduction in negative mental health outcomes (i.e. depression and anxiety) and net benefits for overall well-being. ...
... From a theoretical standpoint, because self-affirmation prompts people to reflect on their values, strengths, and/or most important relationships, it may also encourage them to engage in activities that are congruent with those values †1activities that are happiness-enhancing (hedonic well-being) and/or reinforce vital aspects of eudaimonic wellbeing as embracing positive relations with others, fulfillment of psychological needs, and experience of meaning and purpose in life (Keyes, 1998(Keyes, , 2005Ryan & Deci, 2001;Ryff, 1989). To date, the small number of studies that directly investigated the effects on well-being has resulted in promising but mixed findings (Howell, 2017). Moreover, with notable exceptions, most affirmation interventions have been tested in student or non-clinical samples, with experimental manipulations of threat, rather than truly at-risk populations experiencing chronic and acute stressors. ...
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Background: There are relatively few studies to address mental health implications of self-affirming, especially across groups experiencing a chronic health condition. In this study, short- and longer-term effects of a brief self-affirmation intervention framed in terms of implementation intentions (if-then plans with self-affirming cognitions; S-AII) were evaluated against an active control group (non-affirming implementation intentions; N-AII), matched to the target condition, and mere goal intention condition (a non-active control) in adults with psoriasis. The three pre-registered primary outcomes captured depression, anxiety, and well-being. Methods: Adults with psoriasis (N = 175; Mage = 36.53, S.D. = 11.52) were randomized into S-AII, N-AII, or control. Participants' mental health outcomes were assessed prior to randomization (at baseline), at week 2 (post-intervention), and at a 1-month follow-up. Results: Linear mixed models were used and results were reported on the intention-to-treat principle. Analyses revealed that S-AII exerted significantly more improvement in the course of well-being (ds > 0.25), depressive symptoms (ds > −0.40), and anxiety (ds > −0.45) than the N-AII and control group at 2-week post-intervention. Though the differences between groups faded at 1-month follow-up, the within-group changes over time for S-AII in all mental health outcomes remained significant. Conclusions: Brief and low-intensity S-AII intervention exerted in the short-term a considerable impact on mental health outcomes. The S-AII shows promising results as a relevant public mental health strategy for enhancing well-being and reducing psychological distress. Future studies could consider whether these effects can be further enhanced with booster interventions.
... Since that time, the field of Positive Psychology has thrived, with thousands of studies on virtues, strengths, positive emotions, and positive communities and workplaces. We see this explosion of studies in reviews and meta-analyses on signature strengths and virtues (Schutte and Malouff, 2019), helping behavior (Lefevor et al., 2017), creativity (Acar et al., 2020), resilience (Liu et al., 2020), positive affect and broaden and build theory (Fredrickson, 2013), forgiveness (Wade et al., 2014), flow (Harris et al., 2021), gratitude (Boggiss et al., 2020), self-compassion (Wilson et al., 2019), passion (Pollack et al., 2020), mindfulness (Fjorback et al., 2011), hope (Griggs, 2017), optimism (Rozanski et al., 2019), meaning in life (Manco and Hamby, 2021), volunteering (Milbourn et al., 2018), positive forms of motivation (Ntoumanis et al., 2021), value affirmation (Howell, 2017), school-based positive interventions (Tejada-Gallardo et al., 2020), workplace positive interventions (Donaldson et al., 2019), and other forms of positive intervention (Carr et al., 2020). This research has led to a broadening of the definition of positive psychology itself, with theorists arguing that positive psychology needs to include both positive and negative constructs and needs to consider a wider number of methodologies and levels (e.g., group, culture, etc.; Lomas et al., 2021). ...
... Positive affect/broaden-and-build. Inducing positive affect to enhance exploration, socializing, skill development (Howell, 2017) ...
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Since 2000, research within positive psychology has exploded, as reflected in dozens of meta-analyses of different interventions and targeted processes, including strength spotting, positive affect, meaning in life, mindfulness, gratitude, hope, and passion. Frequently, researchers treat positive psychology processes of change as distinct from each other and unrelated to processes in clinical psychology. This paper presents a comprehensive framework for positive psychology processes that crosses theoretical orientation, links coherently to clinical psychology and its more dominantly “negative” processes, and supports practitioners in their efforts to personalize positive psychological interventions. We argue that a multi-dimensional and multi-level extended evolutionary approach can organize effective processes of change in psychosocial interventions, by focusing interventions on context-appropriate variation, selection, and retention of processes, arranged in terms of key biopsychosocial dimensions across psychological, biophysiological, and sociocultural levels of analysis. We review widely studied positive psychology constructs and programs and show how this evolutionary approach can readily accommodate them and provide a common language and framework for improving human and community flourishing. We conclude that Interventions should start with the person, not the protocol.
... These phrases are designed to help identify and reinforce one's core values (Steele, 1988;Sherman and Cohen, 2006). Regular self-affirmations have been shown to reduce negative emotions , moderate physiological responses to stressful situations (Creswell et al., 2005;Sherman et al., 2009), and increase self-efficacy expectations, positive affect (Howell, 2017), and academic achievement (Cohen et al., , 2009. ...
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This study investigated the effects of the 6 Minutes Journal (6MT), a commercial diary combining several positive psychology interventions, including gratitude, goal-setting, and self-affirmation exercises, on several mental health outcome measures. In a randomized controlled trial, university students (N = 157) were randomly assigned to one of two groups: 6MT (n = 77) and a wait list control group (n = 80). Participants in the intervention group were instructed to follow the instructions of the 6MT for 4 weeks. Participants in both groups completed measures of perceived stress, positive and negative affect, self-efficacy and resilience at baseline, after 2 (t1), and 4 (t2) weeks. We used path-analyses with autoregressive and cross-lagged effects to test our hypotheses of the effects of the 6MT. Participants in the intervention group reported decreased levels of perceived stress and negative affect, as well as increased levels of resilience and self-efficacy compared to the control group. Positive affect was not statistically significantly influenced. The data showed a statistically significant increased levels of self-efficacy and resilience only after 4 weeks, suggesting that changing these constructs needs more time. The 6-minute diary does not appear to make individuals fundamentally more positive. However, the intervention may have a protective function against negative influences on well-being.
... According to the self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988;Aronson et al., 1999) "people are motivated to maintain their individual`s sense of self-integrity, which could be described as a sense of global efficacy". In addition it is also related with the wellbeing (Howell, 2017). The self-affirmation theory also indicates that employees always motivated to retain their integrity. ...
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