Get Happier: 7 Ways to Use Mantra and Self-Talk (Without Being Like Stuart Smiley)
Let’s get weird.
This topic is dear to my heart in large part because for a long time, I thought it was for crazies. I have said before that while I believe in the power of pointing out the things that make you happy (see “Say Five Nice Things” for a refresher), even though I am pretty upbeat, I’m not some Pollyanna who believes you can wish away your worries by thinking happy thoughts all the time. In fact, studies show that repeating positive affirmations you don’t believe actually makes you feel worse, not better. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a whole book about it, and while I don’t totally agree with her, I do think that telling yourself you’re joyful or lovable when you don’t feel it is a set up for feeling like total garbage.
Instead, what I’m talking about is repeating things that you believe in, or want to believe in: Setting an intention for your day-to-day life where, through the repetition of phrases that resonate with you, you begin to see some interesting changes.
Maybe you call it mantra. Sometimes it’s referred to by the psychological term “self-talk.” (The latter strikes me as a bit weird, frankly, even if I can allow that mantra sounds esoteric and religious—which I know turns some people off.) In any case, for the purposes of this article, let’s imagine the two are interchangeable!
Simply, we’re talking about the practice of saying meaningful things out loud to yourself (well, or out loud in your head) over and over again so you start to feel them in a whole new way, or at the very least have forgotten about that other thing you were thinking about that was getting you nowhere. Mantra is like wine, is what I’m saying—minus the hangover.
This has worked for me and my friends, but it’s important to say that it hasn’t always worked, actually. There were times when even simple things like saying ohm at the beginning of a yoga class—never mind the namah shivaya or the gum ganapatayei namaha that followed—would send me and my pals into fits of unexamined giggles. And the idea if saying “I love you” to myself before bed? Which Dr. Christiane Northrup recommends, as does my acupuncturist? That sounded completely absurd. Until it didn’t anymore. Now I say all three with some frequency.
1. Mantra and self-talk set an intention. This is pretty straightforward. Let’s say your mantra is “I am peaceful” or “I want to feel free” or something. Whatever is most important to your wellbeing gets some airtime, and whatever we put our attention on tends to grow (see neurotic baby-out-with-bathwater stewing for evidence). If you put you attention on an intention that’s positive or at least aspirational, then that’s a good way to spend five minutes. If it pays psychological dividends, even better.
2. Words in some languages—Sanskrit is one—are said to carry a certain vibration when spoken aloud. Whether or not you understand or believe in those words, the theory goes, they still impart benefits through repetition. You might think this is hooey, in which case, skip to number 3, but if you’ve ever been in a room full of people saying ohm or singing mantra and had no clue what they were saying, and maybe you were even like, “Hey, New Yorkers, you all sound like a bunch of poseurs,” but you still got goosebumps and maybe even felt like you were going to cry, then you know what I’m talking about.
3. Ritual is nice. This is where the “I love you” bedtime ritual comes in. We’re big fans of good sleep hygiene, and for me, routine makes all the difference. For about seven months last year, I said “I love you” out loud (out loud!) before bed, over and over again until I got bored. My friend Katie is doing this now, and she says she loves it because it makes her laugh out loud. Normal people performing this ritual will, I think, tend to laugh out loud. It’s pretty weird! But two things about that. First, laughing is really great, and really great for you. And second, it’s a good reminder not to take everything so seriously. Bueno!
4. Ideally, it gets you out of your own head. Think of it like prayer without the capital-letter names at the beginning. Focusing your attention repeatedly on an idea that means something to you—something you want, something you don’t want, something you believe in, something you’d like to feel more of—stops the hamster on the wheel that is your brain. Again, this takes practice. There’s a line in the text The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali that goes like this: Yogas chitta vriti nirodhah. One translation is, loosely, “with yoga comes the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind” (read: mental chatter). Yoga, to Patanjali, wasn’t about putting your legs behind your head, though—it was about the daily discipline on the mat and off to live life a certain way, with a certain focus. When this works, it’s ridiculous.
5. It can help you pump the breaks, so to speak. Let’s say you’re in shame spiral, or an anger spiral, or a woe-is-me spiral. Awful feeling, am I right? Seemingly unstoppable, too, right? This is where mantra comes in extra handy. If you can take a breath long enough to realize you’re being a jerk to yourself (or someone else), then you can also remind yourself that now is a great time to try out a little self talk. Ones that have worked for me: “I’d like to feel peaceful”; “We’re all the same”; “No one deserves to hurt”—that kind of thing.
This doesn’t always work. Feelings have their own velocity. But when it works, God bless.
6. It can help you power through mundane tasks—and exercise. Seriously, and this has been studied and documented well: Encouraging yourself through self-talk can work wonders when you’re 4 miles into your run and you feel like you might puke in your own mouth. It can similarly work with other unpleasant tasks, like doing your taxes, filing your expenses at work, or trying to get to inbox zero. Maybe for you it’s simply saying “Let’s do this!” or maybe it’s more upbeat like “You’re strong enough to finish!” Pick what works for you.
7. It can help you find love. Oh come on, I said we were going to get weird. This is something Northrup swears by. She says that repeating “I love you” to yourself daily can change your vibration in about a month; my acupuncturist says it might take longer, about 90 days. But the point is, saying something as simple as “I love you” to yourself—which, whether or not you totally feel it all the time, ought to be at least in part true—can change the way to see the world, and change the way the world responds to you. Who knows why they say this is true, but I know it to be true for me and some of my friends. Was it magic? Dumb luck? Probably the latter, but I like to think that maybe, too, this kind of thing can change up your vibe, get you focused on what you want and are capable of giving, and then you put that out into the world and hope for the best. I have to say, I’m pretty happy with the result.
OK I’m done rambling.
Now we want to hear: Have you ever used mantra or self-talk? If so, if you’re feeling like sharing: What phrase did you use? And even if you don’t want to share yours, did you see any positive result?