Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Cognitions and happiness

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Cognitions and happiness:
The power of thought - How do your thoughts affect the way you feel?


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Welcome to possibly one of the most intriguing topics of psychology: the power of thought! To put this in perspective, where you are right now, take a look around... a vast majority of the things that exist in our world, once originated with a thought. It was once this thought that led to the creation of the technology you are using now. It was your thoughts that contributed to the relationship you now share with your brother or sister. It is the sum of your thoughts that have bought you to where you are today, to the choices you have made, and to the relationship you have with yourself, and with others.

Our cognitions are an incredibly powerful tool of creativity that contribute in many ways to what we experience, what we create, and how we feel. While many factors, such as self-esteem, self-efficacy, cognitive appraisal and explanatory style can influence our cognitions, we do have a say in what we think. This chapter seeks to define what happiness and cognition are, to identify what influences our cognition, to uncover the role of the self-fulfilling prophecy, and to provide useful tools for creating change to maladaptive thought processes. Research suggests that our cognition plays a significant role in how we feel, and how we experience the world.

Is this chapter for you?

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  • Would you like to use your thoughts to your advantage?
  • For example, would you like to change the way you feel?
  • Would you like to play an active role in how you experience the world?

If you answered 'yes' to any of these questions, read on - this chapter is for you!

What is happiness?

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Happiness is one of the most sought after states of being, and for some, a life time goal to obtain. For most people, all they want in life is to be happy, but very few know how to get it (Martin, 2005). For some, happiness is experienced in the present moment, while for others, they spend their life time chasing it.

Happiness is subjective by nature, and for the most part difficult to define. The APA Dictionary of Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2007) defines happiness as “an emotion of joy, gladness, satisfaction and well-being”. Martin (2005) described happiness as a combination of three components: satisfaction with life, the experience of pleasure, and the absence of displeasure. Each of these can be attained in different ways, to varying amounts unique to the individual, however according to Martin (2005) these three components must exist for true happiness to be experienced.

Psychologists have used the term ‘subjective well-being’ to capture what is meant by the use of the word “happiness”. Subjective well-being refers to person’s evaluation of their life, including both their cognitive judgments of satisfaction and their appraisal of their emotions and mood (Kesebir & Diener, 2008). This definition holds an individual to be the single best judge of their own happiness. What is known about happiness is that it is a state in its own right, and not merely the absence of sadness or depression[factual?].

Life circumstance and valuing happiness

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We are more than the sum of events we have experienced. While the good things and bad things that have happened to us, influence the way we feel, their hold over us is only short-lived[factual?]. Some people look to the events and circumstances in their life to make them happy. Yet once they find themselves with what it is they have desired, there is always something more. Something else they need to get, something else they aspire to do, be or have before they can be happy. Research suggests we should not rely on circumstances or events alone to give us long-term feelings of wellbeing[factual?].

Brickman and Campbell (1971, as cited in Diener & Oishi, 2005) further[say what?] developed upon the idea of the hedonic treadmill. This theory proposes that we exist on a neutral level of happiness, with good and bad circumstances only temporarily affecting our emotions. Efforts to make ourselves happier through chasing good circumstances may be in vain. Research by Mauss et al. (2011) found that valuing happiness may not be beneficial. Mauss et al. (2011) found that valuing happiness could be self-defeating, as the more people value happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed. The balance of people’s positive and negative emotions contributes to judgments of life satisfaction (Diener & Oishi, 2005).

What are cognitions?

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Is your glass half full, or half empty?

Cognition refers to mentally processing information. This includes “all forms of knowing and awareness, such as perceiving, conceiving, remembering, reasoning, judging, imagining, and problem solving” ( American Psychological Association, 2007). Each person has their own unique cognitive style. Our thoughts are like an inner voice, reflecting our perceptions of what is happening in our world. Especially in our early years, the messages we receive formulate how we see the world, and our place in it.

At its most basic, thinking is an internal representation (mental expression) of a problem or situation (Heimberg, Bruch, Hope & Dombeck, 1990). For the most part, without being consciously aware, we constantly think. Most empirical evidence has focussed on negative forms of cognition. In comparison, investigations that target the positive are few and far between. The content of our thoughts appear to play a significant role in our wellbeing. Previous literature has found that functional people, in comparison to dysfunctional people have a greater positive to negative thought ratio (Heimberg, Bruch, Hope & Dombeck, 1990).

What influences our cognitions?

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Four key factors that influence cognition are: self-esteem, explanatory style, cognitive appraisal, and self-efficacy.


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Self-esteem is a key factor influencing our thoughts. Self-esteem refers to how a person sees, thinks and feels about themselves. The more positive an individual’s perception is of their qualities and characteristics, the higher their self-esteem. Self-esteem reflects a person’s overall evaluation and appraisal of their self-worth. Research reports that people who think favourable views of themselves tend to report better emotional well-being and have more favourable views of their lives in general (Lucas, Diener & Suh, 1996). Likewise, a study by Feingold (1992) found that individuals who perceived themselves as physically attractive reported being more extroverted, socially comfortable and mentally healthy than those who reported being less comfortable with their appearance. In addition, higher levels of self-esteem have been considered a protective factor against depression (Peden et al, 2001).

Cognitive appraisal

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It is inevitable that during a lifetime, each person will experience their ups and downs. However, what matters more, is not what a person experienced, but how they interpreted (appraised) those experiences. Cognitive appraisal theory proposes that an individual’s interpretation of an event, will determine their emotional reaction to that event (Smith & Ellsworth, 1985). An event that affects a person’s well-being in the present can lead to joy or distress, whereas an event that influences a person’s potential well-being in the future can generate hope or fear (Ortony, Clore, & Collins, 1988). The way in which an individual attends to, interprets, and remembers negative life events contribute to the likelihood that they will experience depression (Lakdawalla, Hankin, & Mermelstein, 2007).

Explanatory style

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Explanatory style refers to “an individuals unique style of explaining and describing, some phenomenon, event or personal history” (American Psychological Association, 2007). Explanatory style is considered to be a cognitively based personality variable that is relatively stable over time (Peterson & Barrett, 1987). Two types of explanatory style have been identified: optimistic explanatory style, and negative explanatory style. People with an optimistic explanatory style see themselves as in control of the situations they face, whereas people with a pessimistic explanatory style see themselves as having little control (Peterson & Barrett, 1987).

  • An optimistic explanatory style can be described as a tendency to explain bad events with attributions that are unstable and controllable e.g. I lost the race because I didn’t train as much as I could have.
  • A pessimistic explanatory style can be described as a tendency to explain bad events with attributions that are stable and uncontrollable e.g. I lost the race because I’m to short.


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A person’s perceived self-efficacy determines how they feel, think and behave in given situations (Bandura, 1997). Self-efficacy is the belief that one can perform adequately in a particular situation (Bandura, 1997). There is a strong correlation between what people believe they can accomplish and what they actually do (Caprara et al, 2002). A person with a weak sense of self-efficacy is more likely to avoid challenges, lose confidence in personal abilities, as well as focus on personal failings and negative outcomes (Bandura, 1997). A person with a strong sense of self-efficacy is more likely to recover quickly from setbacks and disappointments, and to see challenges as tasks to be master (Bandura, 1997).

Self-fulfilling prophecy

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Our beliefs influence our actions and how we interact with the world. The influence of implicit and explicit expectations provide the basis for self-fulfilling prophecies, in which false impressions of a situation evoke behaviour that, in turn, makes these impressions become true (Merton, 1957). People tend to live up or down to our expectations for them (Madon, Jussim & Eccles, 1997). The phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecies has been widely investigated by social psychologists, in particular in class room settings. Rosenthal and Jacobson (1966) discovered that teacher’s expectations of students – their beliefs about their abilities – can have a profound impact on their student’s performance. Teachers who are led to believe that a particular student is smarter than he appears will tend to behave in a way that leads the student to perform better. Similarly, teachers who hold negative implicit attitudes towards particular minority groups are likely to respond to student members of those groups in ways which impede their chances to succeed (Weinstein, Gregory & Strambler, 2004).

What could you be eliciting from a situation or a person with a false beliefs you may hold? We are continually creating our own experiences with the beliefs we hold.

The power for change

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You have the power!

Our cognitions determine how we feel about any given situation[factual?]. Attitudes and thoughts do not change overnight[factual?]; the first step in making change is to become consciously aware of your thoughts, and what your inner voice is telling you. Does it put you down? Are you your own best-friend? While your thoughts can seem out of control, you do have a say in what you think and how what you think makes you feel.

Most models of cognitive functioning (e.g., Wyer & Carlston, 1979, Anderson & Bower, 1973) propose that the recent use of information increases it’s accessibility in memory, and increases the likelihood of its influence upon thoughts and judgements. The following techniques are examples of how being more consciously aware of your cognitions can allow self-serving thoughts more readily accessible, while taking away the power of negative thoughts. For some people therapy is a useful tool, while for others, you may find some useful tips below that you can use in your own life! Give yourself kindness and compassion while on your journey, and know that you have the power to create change!

Rational emotive behaviour therapy

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Try It Yourself:

Identifying irrational beliefs...:

  • Write down what you think or feel about various major unpleasant experiences that have happened to you in the past year or so.
  • Ask yourself, which of your thoughts are excessive, over-the-top reactions to the events that caused them.

(Eysenck, 1990)

Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) is a form of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). All forms of CBT focus on two areas: modifying cognitions and changing behaviours (Edelman, 2002). Modifying cognitions means to learn to recognise and identify thoughts that make us feel bad, while changing behaviours refers to learning to respond to situations more appropriately, in ways that make us feel better. All forms of CBT are based on the theory that cognitions – our thoughts and beliefs – largely determine the way we feel. The REBT model seeks to conquer self-defeating thoughts that occur in response to unpleasant life events, by replacing them with them with more rational thoughts (Eysenck, 1990). The focus of REBT is on developing realistic cognitions in order to minimise our experience of upsetting emotions. REBT was first pioneered by Albert Ellis in the 1960s, who proposed that each individual has the key to understanding and resolving his or her own psychological problems by focusing on their conscious thoughts and feelings (Eysenck, 1990).

The ABC Model

  • A Antecedent The situation that triggers our response
  • B Belief Our cognitions about the situation
  • C Consequence The way we feel and behave

Most of us presume it’s the things that happen to us that make us feel the way we do. However, according to Albert Ellis (Edelman, 2002) we tend to blame ‘A’ (the antecedent) for ‘C’ (the consequence), when it is really ‘B’ (our beliefs) that make us feel the way we do. For example, if you are running late for an appointment, you may feel anxious or distressed that you are running late. However it’s not running late that is making you feel anxious, it’s your beliefs about running late that are e.g. “People won’t like me if I turn up late.”

  • D Dispute The process of challenging the way we think

Albert Ellis proposed a fourth letter to his model, which was ‘D’ (the dispute). For example we could dispute the belief about running late by telling ourselves, “If I’m running late, it’s not the end of the world. I’m sure they will understand.”

Acceptance and commitment therapy

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Try It Yourself:

Take away the power of your negative thoughts...

  • Step 1 – Take an unpleasant thought you are having, e.g. “I am worthless”. Hold that thought in your mind, believe it, and notice how it affects you.
  • Step 2 – Take the thought you are having, and add the phrase in front of it “I am having the thought that...” Run the thought through your mind again, this time with the phrase in front. Notice what happens.
  • During Step 2, most people notice a distancing from the thought, and that it has much less impact. Notice that there was no effort to change the thought, rather just to accept it as it comes, and goes, without giving it meaning.

(Harris, 2006)

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a mindfulness-based behavioural therapy that seeks to teach people the skills to deal with painful thoughts and feelings, in such a way to lessen the impact and influence they have.

There are six key processes in ACT (Harris, 2006):

  1. Defusion – To distance yourself and let go of unhelpful thoughts and beliefs.
  2. Acceptance – To allow painful thoughts, feelings and sensations to come and go.
  3. Contact with the Present Moment – To focus on being present in the here and now.
  4. The Observing Self – The ‘you’ that observes the thoughts of your mind (the thinking self).
  5. Values – What you want your life to be about.
  6. Committed Action – Taking action guided by your values.

The first four processes are central in taking away the power of unpleasant thoughts. Using defusion techniques, a person may be asked to observe a thought with detachment, to repeat the thought in a silly voice, or to keep repeating it out loud until it becomes a meaningless sound. A person may even sing the thought to the tune of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’, or may say “Thanks mind!” in appreciation of such a thought. Through defusion, a person is able to observe cognitions for what they are –language, words and pictures – as opposed to what they appear to be – threatening truths and facts. Defusing a thought takes away its meaning and power. Acceptance allows thoughts to come and go, without struggling with them, attempting to change them, or giving them undue attention. Contact with the present moment refers to giving your attention to what is happening in the here-and-now, to being open, interested and engaged in what you are doing.

Not only can ACT be a useful tool in taking away the power of maladaptive cognitions, its principles can be applied in your own life, in how you think about thinking!


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Louise L. Hay

Louise L. Hay (1984), a pioneering self-help author, has sold over 30 million copies worldwide of her book 'You Can Heal Your Life. Hay (1984) has reached millions of people through utilising the use of affirmations to change negative thought patterns. Hay (1984) proposes we change our negative beliefs by replacing them with affirmations. An affirmation is a positive statement said to counteract a negative belief. It is said in the present tense, and said to re-affirm something a person would like to come true. Affirmations seek to challenge self-defeating and limiting beliefs people may possess about themselves and the world. Through stopping a negative thought and replacing it with an affirmation, a person may be guided towards more positive thinking, and self-belief. Many people use affirmations to adopt new ways of thinking.

Affirmations can include statements such as:

  • "I love and approve of myself."
  • "I am prosperous and I am a winner."
  • "I am eternally worthy."

A study by Peden et al. (2001) tested the long term effectiveness of thought stopping and affirmations, in the development of enhanced self-esteem, and the reduction of negative thinking and depressive symptoms. Data was collected from female participants aged 18-24 years at one, six and eighteen months following a 6-week intervention. The women in the intervention group experienced a greater increase in self-esteem, and a decrease in depressive symptoms and negative thinking, compared to a control group. The benefits continued over the 18-month follow up period.

Do affirmations really work? Affirmations only work to the extent which someone believes them (Edelman, 2002). They can be useful in reinforcing credible concepts


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Happiness is one of the most sought after states of being. It has been considered “an emotion of joy, gladness, satisfaction and well-being” (American Psychological Association, 2007). While life circumstance can bring happiness, it is generally only short-lived, and cannot be relied upon for long-term well-being.

According to Brickman and Campbell (1971, as cited in Diener & Oishi, 2005), we exist on a hedonic treadmill, and will eventually return to our neutral level of happiness. One thing that we do have say in when it comes to our happiness, is how we choose to think. We each have our own unique cognitive style that plays a role in how we perceive and experience the world.

Four key areas identified in this chapter that influence our cognitions are self-esteem, explanatory style, cognitive appraisal, and self-efficacy. These four factors propose that how we feel about ourselves (self-esteem), our beliefs in our ability to perform tasks (self-efficacy), how we interpret events (cognitive appraisal) and explain them (explanatory style) each influence our cognitions. Through being able to identify the influences on our thoughts, we are better able to understand the role they may be playing in our life.

Research has found that people tend to live up or down to people’s expectations of them (Madon, Jussim & Eccles, 1997). This phenomenon is known as the self-fulfilling prophecy, which proposes that false impressions of a situation can evoke behaviour that, in turn, makes these impressions become true (Merton, 1957). In creating wellbeing for ourselves, it is important to consider what a false belief you may be holding could be eliciting in a person or a situation.

The most important note to take from this chapter is that you have the power to create change in your thinking, and create what you want to experience in your world. Happiness can be experienced, by changing how you view happiness, choosing to experience it in the now, and being kind to yourself through your thoughts. Whether you choose to utilise therapy or use the techniques shown in this chapter, these three approaches have shown to be effective in combating negative thoughts and improving happiness: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy and Affirmations. Negative thoughts can be approached by disputing them, taking away their meaning, or replacing them with a positive statement. Cognitions are an incredibly powerful tool of creativity that contribute in many ways to what we experience, what we create, and how we feel.

Guard your thoughts, they are very powerful!

See also

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Due to the broad nature of this topic, not all information could be covered. Other topics relevant to this chapter include:

These links will guide you to other relevant book chapters from the Motivation & Emotion unit, 2011:


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American Psychological Association (2007). APA dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: Author.

Anderson, J. R. & Bower, G. H. (1973). Human associative memory. New York: Winston.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Caprara, G. V., Regalia, C. & Bandura, A. (2002). Longitudinal impact of perceived self-regulatory efficacy on violent conduct. European Psychologist, 7, 63-69.

Diener, E. & Oishi, S. (2005). The nonobvious social psychology of happiness. Psychology Enquiry, 16, 162-167

Edelman, S. (2002). Change your thinking: Positive and practical way to overcome stress, negative emotions and self-defeating behaviour using cbt. Sydney, NSW: ABC Books.

Eysenck, M. W. (1990). Happiness: Facts and myths. East Sussex, UK: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Ltd.

Feingold, A. (1992). Good-looking people are not what we think. Psychological Bulletin, 111, 304-341.

Harris, R. (2006). Embracing you demons: An overview of acceptance and commitment therapy. Psychotherapy in Australia, 12, 1-8.

Hay, L. L. (1984). You Can Heal Your Life. Australia: Hay House.

Heimberg, R. G., Bruch, M. A., Hope, D., & Dombeck, M. (1990). Evaluating the states of mind model: Comparison to an alternative model and effects of method of cognitive assessment. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14, 543-557.

Kesebir, P. & Diener, E. (2008). In pursuit of happiness: Empirical answers to philosophical questions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 117-125.

Lakdawalla, D., Hankin, B. L., & Mermelstein, R. (2007). Cognitive theories of depression in children and adolescents: A conceptual and quantitative review. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 10, 1-24. doi: 10.1007/s10567-006-0013-1

Lucas, R. E., Diener, E., & Suh, E. M. (1996). Discriminant validity of well-being measures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 616–628.

Madon, S., Jussim, L., & Eccles, J. (1997). In search of the powerful self-fulfilling prophecy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 791-809.

Martin, P. (2005). Making people happy: The nature of happiness and its origins in childhood. London: HarperCollinsPublishers.

Mauss, I. B., Savion, N. S., Anderson, C. L., Weisbuch, M., Tamir, M., & Laudenslager, M. L. (2011). The pursuit of happiness can be lonely. Emotion, 11, 1-6. doi: 10.1037/a0025299

Merton, R. K. (1957). Social theory and social structure. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Ortony, A., Clore, G. L., & Collins, A. (1988). The cognitive structure of emotions. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Peden, A. R., Rayens, M. K. Hall, L. A., & Beebe, L. H. (2001). Preventing depression in high-risk college women: A report of an 18-month follow up. Journal of American College Health, 49, 299-306.

Perterson, C. & Barrett, L. C. (1987). Explanatory style and academic performace among university freshman. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 603-607.

Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L. (1966). Teacher’s expectancies: Determinants of pupils’ IQ gains. Psychological Reports, 19, 115-118.

Smith, C. A. & Ellsworth, P. C (1985). Patterns of cognitive appraisal in emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, 813-838.

Weinstein, R. S., Gregory, A., & Strambler, M. J. (2004). Intractable self-fulfilling prophesies. American Psychologist, 59, 511-620.

Wyer, R. S., & Carlston, D. E. (1979). Social cognition, inference and attribution. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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