Lucky Girl Syndrome: How positive affirmations turn toxic
Is positive affirming really a way to make your dreams come true?
A craze has run wild on TikTok under the hashtag #LuckyGirlSyndrome, which at the time of writing has over 600 million views. You can take your pick of popular female Tiktokers that purport to explain the concept.
Their shared claim is that once they started repeating mantras or ‘affirmations’ on a regular basis, such as "I genuinely believe that the best things just happen to me" or "Things are always working out for me no matter how it looks at any given point in time", they created their own luck and amazingly good things started happening.
For instance, one typical advocate of the method, who credits the technique with her launch of a successful business, a new friendship circle and much more, explains that "if you revert back to the mantra of 'I'm so lucky, everything is always happening for me', and that really gets a feeling of luck and excitement going within you, that changes your frequency right there ... and it will totally magnetise different things into your life."
The craze is imbued with a kind of pseudoscience that goes by different names, such as the ‘law of assumption’, ‘law of attraction’ and ‘manifesting’ – essentially, that by acting as if good things always happen to you, they will. There are echoes of ‘cosmic ordering’ (once championed by TV star Noel Edmonds – remember him?), which is the New Age belief that if you write down a wish list of things you want to happen, they will.
From a scientific perspective of course such dramatic notions are, on the face of it, nonsense. Critics have also rightly pointed out the potential for harm in spreading the idea that many people facing difficulties in life are to blame for not being positive enough, thus taking the focus off the systemic and societal injustices – or old-fashioned bad luck – that are truly responsible for their plight.
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And yet so many Tiktokers swear by the positive affirmation method. This is no doubt because of confirmation bias – after adopting the Lucky Girl philosophy, they attribute to it any good thing that consequently happens. And they explain away bad outcomes as temporary blips before something even better happens.
What other aspects of psychology are at play? Simply wishing things to happen might be ineffectual, but many of the advocates for #LuckyGirlSyndrome talk in terms of the power of positive mindsets. Is there any truth to the idea that uttering self-affirming mantras can cultivate a positive mentality that really does have knock-on benefits in life?
Here, the psychological science becomes a little more nuanced. On the one hand, the research literature suggests that telling yourself you are lucky and visualising your goals – but without doing anything active to achieve those goals – is, if anything, likely to backfire.
There is an evidence-based technique known as mental contrasting that shows we are actually much more likely to achieve our goals if we spend time considering what might go wrong, and what hurdles lie ahead. The reason this is beneficial is that it helps us anticipate future difficulties and find solutions.
Yet on the other hand, there is a wealth of research showing the benefits of being generally optimistic in life. On average, optimists tend to be happier, live longer and they are healthier. This is thought to be because having positive expectations naturally lowers worry and stress.
Optimists are also encouraged by their positive outlook to invest time and effort into their aims and interests. There is even a legitimate, evidence-based exercise, known as the "best possible self" intervention, that involves spending time imagining yourself in the future with all your dreams and desires fulfilled, which has been shown to increase people's optimism.
Note that this line of research does not back up the simplistic #LuckyGirlSyndrome notion that saying you're lucky makes you lucky, but it does imply there could be benefits to being hopeful and motivated (especially if you follow through with hard work).
There is also a serious line of research into the beneficial effects of positive self-affirmations. However, in the psychological literature, these are not hollow mantras about being lucky in life.
Rather they are all about a person vocalising and renewing their commitment to what they value – for instance, being independent, being a member of a particular social group or organisation (such as a school or university), or being humble or being an athlete. Studies show that affirming one's values in this way can help protect against unjust stigma and stereotyping.
So there is a kernel of truth to the idea that affirmations can be beneficial, but the reality is quite different from how they're presented in the #LuckyGirlSyndrome craze. Overall, this latest Tiktok phenomenon taps loosely into some legitimate techniques from positive psychology, but in a superficial, mystical fashion.
Cultivating an optimistic mindset and reminding yourself of your values could have some benefits, but unfortunately telling yourself over and again that you are lucky won't make it so.
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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.
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