In the spring of this year, my acquaintances started sharing bizarre affirmations like “I am ready for Baguette Lifestyle” and “My skin radiates a Youthful Glow” and “I have never been bored” on their Instagram stories. The statements, perched precariously between serious and sarcastic, started to show up everywhere.
These visuals have a dizzying and distinct style: Written in a glowing font, affirmations are superimposed on nutty stock images of colorful earth scenes, Y2K era paparazzi shots, nostalgic cartoon characters and other bizarre photos. It’s like a polychromatic dreamscape, an aesthetic so bad it’s good, like comic sans and Crocs Jibbitz. The style seems to nod to memes from a decade ago (impact font, “deep-fried” filters), and there’s something about the unlikely pairings of images and phrases that make the posts feel like an alien’s recreation of internet culture. They don’t make any sense — and that’s the point.
What is this trying to say? you might wonder while viewing glowing underwater fungi overlaid with “I will get over my ice cube addiction.” Is there a punchline, or a message, or anything to truly “get”?
The affirmations fit into the category of absurdist “text memes” — a format described by the New York Times, characterized by, “confessional, overly personal messages paired with seemingly unrelated images allow for an extra layer of humor and irony.”
And in 2021, internet users have an appetite for chaos. In the past 11 months, the @afffirmations account has exploded from zero to over 800,000 followers in 10 months. In the U.S., these memes exploded as governments relaxed COVID-19 regulations. As I re-entered society with stunted social skills, the images’ delusional tones and awkward wordings seemed to mirror the moment. Throughout our second pandemic year, and as we wrestle with continuing unknowns of a world ransacked by disease, affirmation accounts make statements from an aspirational perspective — an honest, impactful version of ourselves that is “anxiety-free” and “ready to dive into a new week.”
But we know we’re not always “ready to dive into a new week.” Beneath a veneer of crazed joyfulness lies an undercurrent of dissatisfaction, the disillusionment that comes with spending your once wild and precious life working overtime so you can afford health insurance. The account references societal pressures of productivity, the futility of work and struggles to find pleasure in daily life. It acknowledges the feeling of meaninglessness, but instead of falling into nihilism, it blasts viewers with somewhat genuine hope that everything is okay. Amid moments of self-doubt, proclamations like “I AM COASTAL DJ” make me feel, if only for a moment, like a coastal DJ. I’m fine! Everything is fine!
At times, the ridiculous design softens the blow of hard-hitting truths. “Seeking help is really cool,” reads one post, which is paired with a psychedelic image of a bright pink limo. The posts dress up positive mental health messages into weird meme formats, making the messages lighthearted and palatable, not preachy or serious. Without breaking character, the account may encourage appropriate care-seeking from people who have been hit by the psychological toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I WILL spread positivity online
The phenomena all started on the first day of 2021 when a Norwegian 20-year-old, Mats Anderson, started the Instagram account @afffirmations. Formerly a black metal musician and university student studying Arabic, he’s an enigmatic figure, and online videos showing him emphatically reading the affirmations only add to his mystique. Over video chat, he explained his work, which he insists is not a joke.
Anderson articulated that for a while, his posts were so deliriously happy that commenters suggested he was part of a PSYOP, a psychological operations from the U.S. government to make people happier. He chuckled when offering this information, adding, “I don’t know what that’s all about.”
He spoke softly and with self-assuredness, like a tenured humanities professor or Bob Ross. As we talked, he walked through the streets of Oslo where he lives.
“Many people consider Norway to be some sort of utopia, but that’s up for discussion,” Anderson said.
He wore a tracksuit and his signature sunglasses, and he came across as pleasant, scholarly and faintly aloof — just like he does online.
Anderson’s handsome and well-dressed, and his good looks don’t go unnoticed: He told me that 70-80% of his followers are female and that women frequently ask to meet up with him. He’s not interested at all.
“First of all, I’m married,” Anderson said, yet he prefers to keep details about his relationship private and doesn’t wear a wedding ring. Like I said, he’s a man of mystery.
“I am a very simple guy. I do the same thing every day. I go to the same cafe and I sit there for a very long time and drink a double latte,” he said. Anderson brainstorms affirmations, plans the day’s post and then returns home to construct the images, which takes about two hours.
“If someone were planning to kill me, it would be very easy for them because I am always either at home or at the cafe. These are my only activities: drinking coffee, walking around and making the pictures. These are actually the only things I do. I read books, sure, and I read the newspaper, but I don’t have any real hobbies.”
He paused to show me the graveyard he was walking past in Oslo. As he sat on a bench and pulled out a cigarette, I asked about one of his more cryptic posts.
“How did you come up with ‘I am Gucci Grandpa?’”
“In Norway, the Gucci stores use this old model with white hair, but he looks very good,” Anderson said. “I see the advertisement all over and it just came to me: Gucci grandpa. Ads are probably the biggest inspiration for me.”
His posts often include nods to late capitalism. Internet culture also seems to seep into them.
“Do you like memes?” I asked.
“No, I’ve never liked memes. I thought they were kind of silly. I realize now that I am making memes. But memes on Instagram that are quickly made, I do not enjoy.”
Skeptical, I showed him various memes and asked him if he thought they were funny. Anderson wasn’t impressed.
“I don’t understand it. What does it mean?”
I tried another. He wasn’t impressed and seemed floored when I told him that it had over 80,000 likes. “Oh, so people must actually like that,” he declared, subtly surprised.
Finally I found one Anderson could appreciate. It was a picture of Microsoft’s Clippy saying “Perhaps it is the file which exists and you that does not.”
“I understand that one — the derealization, the idea that people spend time inside and do drugs and spend too much time online; the perfect recipe for believing that you are not real. But it’s not for me. I just don’t understand memes, I guess.”
He prefers to call his work “high art,” but he knows that people don’t seem to buy that.
After a few months of posting, his following exploded, landing articles in publications like Vice, Elle and Rolling Stone. Spinoff accounts cropped up using his personal style — a style that transcends language, culture, and geography. Anderson knows people copy his signature graphics:
“It’s an inevitable part of social media,” he told me. “I don’t think too much about it. And I know this won’t last forever.”
Mats Anderson still baffles me a bit, but he comes across as genuinely content, and the copycats prove that his work is compelling. Maybe he wasn’t kidding when he posted “I am extremely happy. You should be worried.”
I am niche campus microcelebrity
The affirmations trend spread to campuses, starting with New York University. In the spring, a roommate trio thought that @afffirmations was, “the funniest thing in the world,” so in a group chat, they began sharing hyper-specific affirmations-style images created with the photo-editing tool Picsart.
By mid-April, they expanded their reach and created a public account with NYU-specific references like “Not Having AC In Rubin Builds Character.” The account, known as @nyuaffirmations, now boasts over 7,000 followers. The trend spread at a notable pace, with over 30 universities turning to Instagram pages to take part in ironic positivity
The affirmations are so specific to their campus that they don’t make sense to non-students. “The rats in Ldub are my friends,” reads a post from a @yale_affirmations; “TU crane is the father figure I never had,” from Tulane; “I will NOT fling myself into the banks of Old Raritan” from Rutgers; “I am big Blacksburg boss” from Virginia Tech. And even with a lack of context, I find the plight of these random campuses to be hysterically charming.
When I do understand the context, it’s even better. The University of Michigan’s affirmations page, @umichaffirmations, started in June of this year when an anonymous person decided to tailor the trend to Ann Arbor. It now has over 7,000 followers.
“I Am IMMUNE To The Go Blue Flu,” reads a post from October. Other posts include “I Will NOT Eat An ABSURD Amount Of Pizza This Week,” “I Will NOT Spend This Weekend Binge Watching Lectures!” and “My Scantron Bubbles Are PERFECT!”
The affirmations aren’t about events — they’re about how you feel about events (and in the eyes of affirmations, you always feel bizarrely happy). It’s not “the trees will have beautiful colors,” it’s, “I am ready to enjoy the colorful foliage.” And with the connection inherently forged from the texts’ interactive nature, students latch onto the posts’ relatability.
“The affirmations help me feel connected to the university community,” said LSA Junior Lauren Ors. “I especially like when my friends repost affirmations. The statement about perfect Scantron bubbles made me laugh because filling in the complete circle is definitely something I worry about, but never something I verbalize.”
“Some people might say campus humor is trivial, but I think it encourages school spirit and helps people feel connected,” Music, Theatre & Dance senior Drake George told me. “I can’t say that it transformed my life or anything — I mean, it’s a meme page I look at for like one minute a day — but it’s a small source of uncomplicated joy.”
Uncomplicated joy indeed! In the days leading up to the football game between the University of Michigan and Michigan State, @umichaffirmations and @michiganstateaffirmations brought the rivalry to Instagram. The MSU page posted text memes with the caption “hey @umichaffirmations, will you be able to come to the game this weekend or do you have too much homework?” In the comments, @osuaffirmations joined in on the jeering.
When @umichaffirmations responded with a series of affirmation-style roasts (such as “My School Excels in MORE Than Supply Chain Management”) @michiganstateaffirmations attempted to defend its university’s academic rigor in a comment: “bestie do you have a facility for rare isotope beams and a number one ranked nuclear physics program.”
The post-ironic affirmations join a slew of other online, historically-known corners of campus humor. Like many schools, the University of Michigan has Barstool-affiliated accounts that post campus humor with a sports and nightlife focus: @barstooluofm has over 70,000 followers and @michiganchicks has over 14,000. At the University, accounts exist that are solely devoted to campus toilets, dining hall chicken tenders, and Nicki Minaj. At other universities, Instagram pages were created to determine the length of the line at the campus Trader Joe’s, to advertise facetious “virginity clubs” and to speculate about anonymous passersby.
God save the teens
Before there was @umichaffirmations, there was “UMich Memes for Wolverteens,” a Facebook group, created in March of 2017 for students and alumni to share memes. Facebook returned like a boomerang to its original purpose as an extension of campus social life, but this time, within hyper niche humor pages. After lifelong troll Chris Tril created UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens in 2016, students across the nation have adopted the “(adjective) memes for (adjective) teens” model to fit their schools (UW-Madison Memes for Milk-Chugging Teens, etc.). The meme pages offer secluded places to poke fun at administration, gripe about Duo Push and share campus-wide inside jokes like Big Flappo the bird and the Kia summer sales event. (June 2019 was a weird time!) But as Facebook rapidly loses traction with younger generations (the company projects a 45% decline in teenage users in the next two years), the popularity of Facebook meme groups wanes.
Student humor publications like The Gargoyle and the Every Three Weekly (which describes itself as “better than sex, twice as often”) have provided laughs for decades, but they fill a different niche— they’re in print.
It’s Global Self-Hypnosis time
People love affirmations, but some struggle to articulate their appeal.
“You can’t really tell if the account takes itself seriously or not, and I think the ambiguity is just ridiculous,” Ors told me. It’s not quite clear what the chaotic posts satirize: old memes, the self-congratulatory nature of social media or hollow New Age-y practices of secular spirituality.
The rise of affirmations was brought on by Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 book “The Secret,” which argues that positive things will happen if you think positive thoughts. Though unscientific and superstitious, happy talk drivel and positive mantras descended upon America.
But positivity only goes so far. You can’t cure genuine mental illness with “positive thinking” alone, and repeating mantras won’t dismantle the struggles of poverty. @afffirmations makes exuberant proclamations like, “I never doubt my ability to post daily on Instagram” and “I’M ON THAT GLOBAL VIBE” to reference the movement with a wink.
In our interview, Anderson told me that his account’s biggest demographic is 18-24-year-olds, a generation that inherits a world ravaged by COVID-19, climate change and inequality — issues so massive and complex that they can leave an individual to feel powerless. Perhaps post-ironic musings like “My contribution to society is cool pictures on Instagram” are a way to shield ourselves from existential dread.
Another part of the affirmations’ appeal may have to do with the explosion of “therapy-speak” on social media, a phenomenon Katy Waldman discussed in her article in The New Yorker. The progressive destigmatization of mental health has led to us to unpack our trauma and to “setting boundaries” and “practic(ing) self-care,” sometimes by pushing away people who are “toxic.” Younger generations drench language in phrases related to self care, and half-serious affirmations are a play on the mental health movement.
Internet trends come and go quickly, and the hypnotic faux positivity of affirmations accounts will inevitably grow stale. (Perhaps it already is.) But while it lasts, we can all be coastal DJs and crazy burgers even if we feel dead inside.
Statement Correspondent Annie Rauwerda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.