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The Pursuit of Happiness Through Positive Cognition

Updated on November 18, 2014

Why Pursue Happiness?

At some point, everyone has probably pondered why the forefathers of the United States added the words “and the pursuit of happiness” after life and liberty in the US constitution. It is because they felt that every citizen deserves the opportunity to experience joy and contentment. In today’s society, individuals encounter more stress and obstacles in their daily lives than ever before. As a result, prescription and illegal drug abuse, along with alcoholism and depression, have become more prevalent and problematic than ever before. Many individuals choose these alternatives in effort to reach a point of satisfaction, but these methods are ineffective and simply create a fascade. True happiness is still lacking. What if everyone has the ability to attain self-help in increasing happiness and releiving stress, as opposed to resorting to negative, detrimental alternatives to coping? Perhaps through engagement in positive cognition and behaviors, individuals have the ability to take charge of their own happiness.

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Dynamics of Happiness

Happiness is a dynamic or ever-changing state of being. It is often defined as a sustainable state of being, meaning the level does not change from week to week (Carr, 2004). Individuals often confuse happiness with contentment. Contentment is a state of mind not necessarily affected by any particular circumstance, event or combination thereof (Carr, 2004). Mood changes, but does not alter the state of happiness. It is also psychologically accepted that factors such as culture employment, age, social class and age are only weakly to moderately associated with happiness levels. In fact such factors as socio-economic status, religion, income, education level and marital status only affect happiness by up to a 3% variance (Carr, 2004). There are two situations in particular that have been found to boost happiness and they are better overall life conditions and a sense of contentment. Acute stress and unpleasant life episodes are thought to hinder happiness (Carr, 2004).

Individual perceived happiness is comprised of a number of determining factors. It is estimated that approximately 50% of perceived happiness is hereditary (Carr, 2004). Fetuses detect the thought patterns, moods, emotional patterns and actions of the mother as early as six weeks after conception. It is estimated that 10-15% of happiness is influenced by measurable factors such as marital status, socioeconomic status, income and health among others (Carr, 2004). The remaining 40% is left in the hands of the individual. Individuals can engage in behaviors and activities to help increase their individual perceived happiness (Seligman, 2004).

Historical Role of Happiness

Throughout history, humans have consistently sought happiness through various means. Unfortunately, ineffective methods often lead to the adverse effect of decreased happiness. Cultural biases teach individuals from the beginning how happiness is achieved. Individuals also observe their environment and learn through immersion in society. For example, Americans often see celebrities and commercials that feature material possessions and, as a result, turn to shopping as a temporary or artificial method of achieving happiness. In actuality, shopping incidents create for the individual an isolated feeling of euphoria, as opposed to lasting happiness. Individuals often turn to alcohol, illegal drugs and prescription medications as a means of complacency or satisfaction with the current state of things (Hecht, 2008). Complacency often occurs in the form of a “good day” which may make an individual feel satisfied for the present time, but not necessarily happy (Hecht, 2008). Complacency and isolated euphoria are not the type of experiences that will support sustainable change towards lasting happiness (Hecht, 2008).

Smiles of Joy


Established Need for Happiness

Happiness and well-being are important to achieving overall health. Humans are naturally social beings. It is through socialization that individuals define themselves and their lives (Sternberg, 2008). Individuals look at others and tend to evaluate their state of well-being and satisfaction. When well-being is in place and satisfaction is present, an individual is viewed by others as being happy. It is safe to say that the modern definition of being happy is a balance of well-being and satisfaction. This indicates that physical and emotional needs are being met at least to a satisfactory degree. Ultimately, satisfaction is just what it implies: It can be defined as fulfillment or gratification of a desire or need or as contentment or pleasure that comes from such fulfillment (Hecht, 2008). It indicates a temporary state not necessary of a sustainable nature. What happens when another desire comes along? Satisfaction requires maintenance and well-being is also a state that is potentially temporary (Carr, 2008). Just because well-being is stable at one point in life does not guarantee continuity. It also requires maintenance. Well-being does also have the potential to be of a permanent nature if it is based on happiness as opposed to instant gratification or temporary satisfaction. Happiness is based on perception and is not found to change based on circumstance. It is a permanent state of being (Hecht, 2008).

Cognition and Perception

Cognition and perception are two psychological processes essential to happiness that work together to determine how individuals feel and react (Sternberg, 2008). They can pertain to something in particular or a certain situation, among other things. Cognition describes the thought processes of individuals which include the processing of information, application of knowledge, and the changing of preferences (Sternberg, 2008). Perception is the process of attaining awareness or understanding of sensory information (Goldstein, 2007). In addition to the potential to increase happiness level, positive cognition is thought to have a wide variety of other benefits. It can help alleviate stress, make one more attractive to others, create a higher sense of well-being, and may even lead to health benefits such as a lower risk of heart attack or stroke (Sternberg, 2008). The potential benefits of positive cognition far outweigh the risks involved since there are virtually no risks. Positive psychology is the study of human happiness that integrates positive emotions and activities into lifestyle in effort to increase perceived happiness (Seligman, 2004). If an individual were to attempt to integrate positive psychology into their lifestyle and decide it was not for them, they would be in no worse position than before (Lyubomirsky, 2007). It cannot harm them in any way.

Happy in Love


Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is the study of human happiness (Carr, 2004). The book “Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Human Strengths” suggests that perception can be altered using positive psychology through positive cognition and behaviors (Carr, 2004). Positive cognition and behavior surround the individual with positive energy. The positive energy is a stimulus the individual views as pleasant. This reinforces the behavior and increase the frequency of repetition. Repetition forms a habit and the habit nurtures sustainable change, resulting in increased self-control and stability (Carr, 2004). Self-control and stability help create a sense of contentment. Depending on both the individual and the frequency of positive cognition and behaviors, contentment may ultimately elevate to a higher level of happiness (Carr, 2004).

Positive Emotions

Martin Seligman is recognized as one of the founders of positive psychology. He has written several books on the topics of optimism and self-improvement. In his book, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Seligman maintains that happiness consists of two elements, “positive emotions” and “positive activities” (Seligman, 2004). He recognizes emotions as being related to the past, present and future and includes satisfaction, contentment, serenity and pride among these emotions. Hope, trust and optimism are positive emotions associated with the future. Pleasure and gratification are the two types of positive emotions relating to the present. Seligman recognizes “pleasures of the moment” as pleasures brought on by an external stimulus that are of a temporary nature. This is not a true form of happiness or of true self-fulfillment. A state of true happiness is sustainable. According to Seligman, gratification involves blocking one’s felt emotions, eliminating one’s sense of self-consciousness and being fully engaged. Positive emotions are experienced once the gratification ends. Improved quality of life or “the good life”, as Seligman terms it, results from abundant gratification (Seligman, 2004). This is due to an increase in positive emotions experienced. Seligman calls these positive emotions “character strengths”, “virtues” and “flow” maintains the individual can experience an increase in gratification by through further development of these types of positive emotions (Seligman, 2004).

Positive Activities

Seligman defines positive activities as the practicing of one’s “character strengths”, “virtues” and “flow”. Character strengths include being non-judgmental, patient, accepting of others, trusting others, open to change, letting go of the past, gentle, generosity, kindness, being empathetic to others and gratefulness, among other things (Seligman, 2004). The benefits of practicing character strengths may include reduced anxiety, depression, stress and chronic pain, among many others. The term virtue refers to traits such as knowledge, wisdom, humanity, justice, courage, temperance and transcendence. Practicing these traits are positive activities that may result in increased serenity and meaning in one’s life. The practice of “flow” can be a rewarding experience because it may result in goal attainment or improved skills. Flow refers to a feeling of self-control, self-awareness and intense concentration on tasks at hand, among other things (Seligman, 2004). The rewards of all of these activities have the ability to increase contentment and when incorporated into one’s lifestyle, have the potential to increase and sustain perception of happiness. Seligman further maintains that exercises in which individuals express gratitude are the most effective form of intervention (Seligman, 2004).

Gretchen Rubin: The Strategy of Monitoring

Psychology and Self-Help

Psychology is a social science based largely upon research and theory. It is not a concrete science; therefore, new research is based upon experience and known research. Existing research and actual experience interact with one another to identify more efficient methods of self-help (Goldstein, 2007). Further research regarding operant conditioning and positive reinforcement has been utilized in multiple industries over the years. For example, the business world has created incentive pay for employees based upon their performance or voluntary behavior. The pay is a form of positive reinforcement and is used to elicit the desired performances or behaviors (Goldstein, 2007).

Research has recognized the phenomena of reinforcement and elicited behaviors (Skinner, 1965), and experience has demonstrated to the world that it works effectively As a positive psychologist, Martin Seligman utilizes these concepts within his theories and practices (Seligman, 2004). As a therapist, Sonja Lyubomirsky relies on the same concepts demonstrated through exercises in positive psychology that alter cognition and perception (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005). The exercises involve repetition and habituation and help create sustainable change that ultimately increases happiness level. Repetition and habituation help integrate the changes into daily lifestyle (Lyubomirsky et al, 2005). This can be observed when an individual’s positive cognition is increased due to their activities or behaviors and they continue to engage in the behaviors or activities that have produced the favorable emotions and outcome. What is already known through past research and demonstrated through experience comes together to identify new opportunities and possibilities. Through research and implemmentation, new opportunities and possibilities allow potential for higher effectiveness and efficiency, which benefit society in general.

Mood and Self-Control

According to the article “Be Better or Be Merry”, mood affects self-control. Creating a balance between positive mood and self-control helps maintain that balance and increase stability (Fishbach & Labroo, 2007). This article asserts that the state of unbalanced or negative mood directly impacts self-control and those who lack self-control have a decreased likelihood to experience happiness. The article asserts, “We propose that the exercise of self-control by happy people versus unhappy people depends on which goal--self-improvement or mood-management—is accessible. Positive mood promotes a general tendency to adopt goal states, whereas negative mood promotes a general tendency to reject goal states. Consequently, happy (vs. neutral or unhappy) are expected to invest more self-control efforts when a self-improvement goal is accessible, but they are also expected to abstain from exercising self-control when a goal to maintain a positive mood is accessible” (Fishbach & Labroo, 2007, p. 158). In a series of six studies, Fishbach and Labroo (2007) studied the relationship between mood and performance on self-control tasks. The tasks focused on self-improvement and mood management. The study found that happy people, in comparison with neutral or unhappy people, are motivated to engage in tasks that serve as an accessible self-improvement goal. When people experience a mild positive mood, adoption of accessible goals will increase. In terms of mood-management, a happy mood discourages individuals from engaging in actions and behaviors that undermine or negate the mood (Fishbach & Labroo, 2007).

Happiness, as discussed earlier, involves contentment and the state of contentment is difficult to attain when one is unable to take self-control (Goldstein, 2007). Individuals who lack self-control are never content and are always looking for something they are unable to find. This is because the individual does not actually know what they are looking for. Contentment is dependant on individual perception (Sternberg, 2008). Two individuals can experience the same thing and take away different accounts of it. An individual who is content tends to have increased positive perception. The goal is to find a balance in mood so that self-control can be reached. This can be achieved through increased stability in lifestyle. To increase stability, one must take control of their own life and this can be attained through seeking self-help.

Self-Validation Analysis

Thought patterns affect us in our everyday interactions and activities. According to “Happiness Versus Sadness as a Determinant of Thought Confidence in Persuasion: A Self-Validation Analysis”, individuals with higher levels of happiness are generally more socially accepted and experience increased self-confidence (Briñol, Petty, & Barden, 2007). In this study, the researchers predicted that emotions effect validation, based on self-validation theory. Self-validation theory means that an individual gives credibility to their own thoughts and conclusions. Self-validation is demonstrated through confidence because confidence describes one’s being certain that a conclusion or prediction is correct, to the best of their knowledge. Participants read a message that was communicated either strongly persuasive or weakly persuasive. Participants were then asked to record their thoughts about the message they heard. Afterwards, participants were induced to feel either happy or sad. The result was increased confidence in thought for participants who were induced to feel happy in relation to the thought confidence of sadness-induced participants (Briñol, Petty, & Barden, 2007). This recognizes the potential for both increased confidence and increased social acceptance for individuals who have greater perceived happiness.

Social network theory maintains that individuals influence one another (Goldstein, 2007). Generally, the majority of psychologically healthy people like to be surrounded by positive influences. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs establishes self-actualization, or reaching one’s full potential, as the highest level (Maslow, 1943). Self-actualization is unattainable without happiness and people naturally strive to become self-actualized individuals. This supports the principle that happiness is a need. Surrounding oneself with people who are detrimental to reaching that goal is undesirable. Low self-confidence tends to result in lower self-control and self-esteem. Low self-esteem manifests itself in the form of negative thought patterns and behaviors. Negative thought patterns and behaviors do not allow for positive reinforcement and tend to create an unstable mood.

Learned Helplessness Verses Self-Help

Seligman is a major advocate of self-help. He has written many books that address self-help as a means of coping and of self-improvement. Learned helplessness refers to the conditioning of an individual to behave helplessly even when it has the ability to change a negative or undesirable situation (Seligman, 2004). Some individuals may fail to experience happiness because a previous attempt did not yield the desired outcome. They are afraid to try again due to possible failure. Individuals possess an explanatory style that explains how they interpret failure. If the explanatory style is pessimistic, the individual may feel that “Things will never change” (Seligman. 2004). These thought patterns are a matter of perceived lack of control over a situation. In order to defeat learned helplessness, perception must be conditioned to be positive. Learned helplessness focuses on what could potentially go wrong and self-help focuses on what can potentially go right.

Once an individual makes the decision to seek self-help, it becomes more desirable and easier to integrate into everyday lifestyle. In theory, individuals’ positive cognition is increased due to their activities or behaviors and they will continue to engage in the behaviors or activities that have produced the favorable outcome. Repetition increases the liklihood of sustainability, resulting in permanence (M. Goetz, P. Goetz, & Robinson, 2007). Sustainability and permenance foster stability.

The How of Happiness

In the book “The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want”, therapist Lyubomirsky maintains that exercises in positive psychology can alter cognition and perception (Lyubomirsky, 2007). The exercises involve repetition and habituation and help create sustainable change that ultimately increases happiness level. Repetition and habituation help integrate the changes into daily lifestyle. The information is based on both known research and her experiences as a therapist

Happiness Poll

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Accepting Responsibility

Accepting responsibility for our own happiness and striving to engage in activities that support positive cognition can only help individuals. Medication is not the answer. It does not resolve the underlying issues experienced by individuals. Further research should be conducted on varius methods of self-help. Society relies too extensively and frequently on artificial means of “problem-solving” which often creates a larger problem within itself. Research on this topic helps persuade individuals to educate themselves regarding what measures can be taken for self-improvement. This could result in improved personal and professional motivation and the potential to change the lives of people and/or society for the better. There are many other circumstances in which individuals may benefit from self-help. Anything that creates significant potential opportunity is at least worth further research. Self-help may often yield better results than other means of goal attainment because it feeds off of motivation and the results are a direct reflection of the individual who engages.

Ultimately, happiness is a state of being that can only be attained by the individual. It cannot be given or taken away by anyone or anything else. If a positive relationship can be demonstrated between positive activities and behaviors and increased perceived happiness level, repetition fostered by operant conditioning and the increase sustained through that repetition, it may be confidently concluded that individuals are responsible for their own happiness. This is definitely a positive conclusion, because it means we can indeed change things for the better.

The Path to Happiness



Argyle, M. & Hills, P. (2002). The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire: A Compact Scale for the Measurement of Psychological Well-being. Personality and Individual Differences,. 33 & 1073–1082.

Briñol, Pablo; Petty, Richard E.; Barden, Jamie. (2007) Happiness versus sadness as a determinant of thought confidence in persuasion: A self-validation analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(5), 711-727.

Carr, Alan. (2004). Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Human Strengths. 1st Ed. Routledge Publishing.

Covey, Stephen R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Free Press.

Fishbach, Ayelet; Labroo, Aparna A. (2007). Be better or be merry: How mood affects self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(2), 158-173.

Fowler, James H; Christakis, Nicholas A. Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. BMJ, 337 (42): a2338. (2008).

Goetz, Mark C.; Goetz, Paul W.; Robinson, Michael D. (2007). What's the use of being happy? Mood states, useful objects, and repetition priming effects. Emotion, 7(3), 675-679.

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Graubart, Hadara. (2007). You are the champion: If you want better health care, become a better patient. Psychology Today. September 1, 2007.

Hecht, Jennifer. (2008). The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote to What Isn't Working Today. Harper One.

Joseph, Stephen; Linley, P. Alex. (2006). Positive Psychology Versus the Medical Model? American Psychologist, 61(4), 332-333.

Lyubomirsky, Sonja, Ph.D. (2007). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. Penguin.

Lyubomirsky, Sonja; Sheldon, Kennon M.; Schkade, David. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111-131.

Maslow, Abraham. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. April 2008. Wright, Dr. Steve. The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire. M. Argyle and P. Hills. 2002. Retrieved April 2, 2009 at

Peterson C, Seligman ME, Vaillant GE. Pessimistic explanatory style is a risk factor for physical illness: a thirty-five-year longitudinal study. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1988 Jul;55(1):23-7.

Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics. Retrieved October 27, 2008 at

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    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      Very well written and researched examination on the subject of human happiness. What is significant about our declaration of independence is that I think it was the first time happiness was defined as an inalienable right of man. You are absolutely right in stating that happiness is a state of being, not a temporary, fleeting emotion. Great hub!

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 

      3 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Wow! This is a lot of information! Just knowing that we all have the ability to affect our own level of happiness by what we do on a daily basis is powerful!


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