Compass

Having a sense of who you are and what matters to you can make a lot of things easier. One way to solidify this sense of self is to reflect on your personal values or to do things that reinforce these values – in other words, to engage in what psychologists call self-affirmation.

There are a few ways researchers study the effects of self-affirmation. Sometimes they ask people to write about their values or to create lists of their values. Other times they just ask people how often they reflect on their values in their day-to-day lives.

No matter which approach they take, though, psychologists are finding that contemplating your values can make a real difference. Some of the benefits of self-affirmation they’ve discovered are:

1. Better performance under stress

A few years ago, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University showed that self-affirmation can offset some of the negative effects of chronic stress. Specifically, it seems to improve problem-solving, something that gets harder under stressful conditions. Because of its ability to improve cognitive functioning, self-affirmation has been proposed as a way to help students do better in school.

2. Greater psychological well-being

A survey published earlier this month found that people who spontaneously reflect on their values and strengths in the course of everyday life tend to have greater psychological well-being.

What does that mean exactly? Well, that they tend to feel happier, more optimistic, more hopeful, healthier, less sad and less angry. Other than that, no big deal.

3. Eating healthier

Self-affirmation may not just be good for the mind – it might promote habits that help the body too. Research published a few months ago found that people who complete a self-affirmation exercise are more receptive to subsequent information about healthy eating habits and end up eating more fruits and vegetables.

Even better, the effect was strongest in people who didn’t eat many fruits and vegetables to begin with. So unhealthy eaters may stand to gain the most!

4. Activating reward circuitry

Researchers are still working out what exactly is going on in the brain that makes self-affirmation so helpful. Earlier this year, however, they made a significant step forward on this front with an fMRI study led by psychologists from University of California, Los Angeles.

The study found that making judgments on personal values as part of a self-affirmation exercise activates parts of the brain involved in processing rewards. Making value judgments in other contexts did not have the same effect.

The involvement of reward circuitry could be one reason reflecting on personal values and taking action based on these values feels good and has an array of other brain-related benefits.

Whatever the reason, there’s one thing we do know for sure from this research: you won’t ever regret taking the time to think about what matters to you and acting on it.

Do you engage in self-affirmation? Share in the comments! If sharing is one of your personal values, of course.

Image: FreeImages.com/Micah Burke