Daily Affirmations

Conviction is its own reward

The internet is a bad but popular therapist. Despite the fact that reading more than five tweets a day will certainly cause long-term psychosis, the roiling ecosystem of motivational memes, inspo boards, support groups, meditation apps, and endless boredom-mitigating content has quelled many minds, to the point where the Atlantic declared in 2017 that “Podcasts are the new Xanax.

Even the dead-simplest of posi content attracts an audience: YouTube affirmation videos, reciting mantras of abundance, self-esteem, and “well-being” over looming images of space or beaches, accompanied by lutes and windchimes. In particular, the YouTube channel Rockstar Affirmations, established in 2014, features over 500 videos, the most popular of which (“I Have Won the Lottery!”) has over half a million views. Each follows a basic template: a rapid-fire slideshow and brooding synth swells, overlaid by one or several voices flatly intoning variations on the title, e.g.

I have now won the lottery. I am so happy that I have now won the lottery. I am so grateful to have won the lottery. It is so amazing to win the lottery. All my friends and family are so pumped for me that I have won the lottery. I am so happy and grateful that I have now won the lottery…

…and so on, with videos ranging from two minutes to four hours. Most are naked appeals to primal desires like money (“I Welcome an Unexpected One Trillion Dollars”), success (“I Am a Chess Grandmaster”), vanity (“I Weigh 100 Pounds,” with variants up through 220 pounds), love (“Multiple Rich Boyfriends”), and self-esteem (“I Am a Sexyasaurus Rex”). A few are more high-minded (“God is on My Side,” “Self-Love for Lesbian Women”), while others are quite reasonable (“Play Guitar while Singing”); there are the amusingly unattainable (“I Am a Jedi”), and the touchingly meta (“I Manifest my Desires”).

Devoid of intention or narrative, Rockstar Affirmations exists solely to rewire you

Why do these videos unsettle me? First, the choice to replace the standard future-tense phrasing of goal-oriented affirmations — “I will be a chess grandmaster” — with a proleptic present tense provides a baseline of absurdity. By replacing aspiration with willful delusion, it represents a full literalization of “the Secret,” the Oprah-sanctioned belief that merely visualizing something hard enough suffices to make it so. The channel description asserts that the key to manifesting is to “feel the feelings of already having your desire.” Of course, if you actually felt like you already had what you wanted, you’d no longer want it (research suggests that announcing your “identity goals” makes you less likely to achieve them). Maybe the appeal here is that of focused daydreaming, or maybe conviction is its own reward, one of the basic virtues of a virtual world.

Creepier still is the channel’s shadowy provenance. It’s not funny enough to be an obvious humor project like Pronunciation Guide; I’d assumed it was an effort to cash in on cheap content, but it appears to be largely unmonetized, with no ads, no brand-building or product placement, and no identifiable person receiving credit. Tracks can be downloaded for a dollar each from their Bandcamp page, but they’re identical to the free ones; like the disturbing auto-generated children’s YouTube videos that have recently cropped up, the profit motive seems to be subordinate to some other agenda. Devoid of intention or narrative, Rockstar Affirmations exist solely to rewire you.

Motivational and self-help works typically have at their center a paragon, some Tony Robbins or Eckhart Tolle who has overcome adversity, embodies success, and imparts the wisdom to obtain it — if I can do it, so can you! But one thing that these videos make especially clear is that no human really needs to be involved in creating them. How easy it would be to cull new topics from Google (type “I want” and let autocomplete do the rest), then use those parameters to generate montages from stock photo archives, and compose basic sentences recited by text-to-speech modules; to compile them into videos and upload them to YouTube. There’s no telling even how many of the 39K subscribers are fake — on the internet, nobody knows you’re a bot. It is not hard to imagine bots themselves becoming the biggest consumers of bot-generated media, streaming inspirational mantras nonstop, collectively affirming human fantasies: I can, I have, I am.

The main thing these guided affirmations show us about the future is that we’re already in it

The Rockstar Affirmations channel is, in more than one way, about visualizing the future to collapse it into the present; fittingly, the main thing it shows us about the future is that we’re already in it. The future is a place where labor will be displaced and dominated by automation, and economic scarcity will force us to fulfill our desires delusionally. In such a future, a computer makes the ideal role model. Contrary to the “Pinocchio Syndrome” trope, where computers dream of being human, the bot that recites affirmations is daring humans to be more like it. There’s a reason why so many clichés about high performance are mechanical: put your butt in gear, get wired, get turbocharged, tune up, put the pedal to the metal, crank it up. To entrance yourself into a condition of serene, impeccable efficacy — uncompromised by conflicting emotions, modesty, or a sense of reality — is not unlike willing yourself to become a machine, which in the era of automation can only be a competitive asset.

One video is even called “I Am a F**KING Machine!”:

I am a fucking machine. I am a fucking monster. I am King Kong. I am a nasty motherfucker. I am a competitor. No one can outwork me. I am made of iron. My soul is made of steel.

These don’t sound like affirmations so much as the matter-of-fact swagger of a triumphant computer — the boast in the machine. Only a machine can state this with perfect conviction and truth. The rest of us must strive to get with the program.

Tony Tulathimutte wrote the novel Private Citizens and runs CRIT, a writing class in Brooklyn. He has received a Whiting Award and an O. Henry Award, and is a graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.