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Creating Happy Thoughts: A Cognitive-Behavior Approach

There is an old saying, “happiness is a state of mind”. Based on the current research, there is truth to this statement. Our thoughts effect our mood. We all have thoughts that create happiness, sadness, anger, irritation etc…. Furthermore, our thoughts or patterns of thinking effect our mood and behavior and our behavior effects our mood and thoughts. It is a cycle.

If we can identify and change our thoughts that create unhappiness, we can shift our mood in a positive direction, increase productive behavior, and improve our wellbeing. This theory originated by Arron T Beck, a psychiatrist from University of Pennsylvania and the founder of Beck Institute. He created a therapy called, cognitive behavior therapy, where the purpose is to identify thoughts that cause us pain and replace them with more a balanced and realistic thinking. He identified distorted thoughts that create depression and anxiety. We all have these extreme thoughts. They might have been manufactured by our upbringing , trauma, or/and life experience. This article will identify some common distorted thoughts, how to challenge these thoughts, and create more balanced thoughts.

All or Nothing Thinking ( Black or White Thinking)

All or nothing thinking/black or white thinking is when you think things are either on one side of the extreme or the other side of the extreme, with no gray area. For example, someone is either your worst enemy or your best friend. Your day is either really great or really bad. If you don’t get a promotion you have been working towards, you are a total failure. If one bad thing happens, that means nothing good happens. This error in thinking can cause a lot of distress and anxiety. To challenge this type of thinking, we need to find a middle of the road alternative thought. For example, you have had a bad day, think about all the good days that you have had or all the good things that happened that day. If you are fighting with your bestfriend, that does not mean that your friend just became your worst enemy; it just means you and your friend are not seeing eye to eye. If you were passed up for a promotion, that does not mean that you are a total failure, and your time for that position will come in time. The reality is, that most things are in the gray area, and not everything is all or nothing. Keeping this in mind will help you find a more balanced perspective.


Catastrophizing is when you believe that there will be a catastrophe based on one or two events or facts. For example, if you didn’t get your dream job, you start thinking that you will never find your dream job you, will work in a job you hate for the rest of your life, and you might end up homeless on the street. The reality is if you didn’t get one particular job, there will be other jobs that might be as interesting or even more interesting than the one you did not get. Another example is if you went on a bad date and you come home upset because there are no good people out there and you will end up alone, with 10 cats, who will eat your face after you die. The reality is that just because you had one bad date, does not mean you will not be able to meet the right person in the future.


Personalization is when you think that you have caused a problem that you did not cause or when someone did or said something to target you, which is not the case. For example, you may think that your friend is not texting you back because of something you said or did, when in fact, your friend has a very busy day or forgot her phone at home. Another example might be you blaming yourself for friends or family fighting among each other, over an issue that has nothing to do with you. To challenge these thoughts, consider facts or lack of facts related to your role in the situation.

Negative Filtering

Negative filtering is seeing the negative in situations instead of seeing both, negative and positive. You ignore any information that does not align with your negative view. For example, if you are wearing a beautiful dress and 99 people compliment you on it and 1 person criticizes the dress, you will focus on that one person. During a yearly work evaluation, you get an mostly positive feedback and 1 or 2 negative feedback, you will focus on the negative feedback, instead of seeing the whole picture. To challenge this thought, identify positive aspects of a situation or feedback, to help you have a more balanced prospective.


Overgeneralization is when you make a general conclusion based on one incident to all situations. For example, if you had a bad day at work; therefore it will be a bad week, bad year, etc… If your spouse had a bad day and is not in the best mood, your marriage is ruined. Look for keywords such as “never” and “always”. To challenge this thought, look at the details of the present situation and analyze it individually. We don’t know what the future might bring, so overgeneralizing negative situations might cause unnecessary distress.

Mind Reading

Mind reading is when you are 100% certain that you know what someone is thinking, but no facts or inconclusive bits of information to support this thought. For example, your boss is short with you because they have a bad day and you assume that they do not like you. Your boss might be having a rough day or have some personal issues that they are dealing with, which has nothing to do with you. When a coworker doesn’t say good morning, you assume that they are mad at you. Unless you have done something wrong to merit these behaviors. Looking at facts in an objective way will help you challenge this thought.

Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is when you have strong emotions that are unwarranted by the situation, that make you believe your thoughts are true. For example, if you feel lonely on a weekend and no one reached out to you; you assume that your friends do not like you anymore. The reality might be that your friends love you, they were just busy. Another example is that you feel irritated because you didn’t get enough sleep, and therefore, your day will be awful. However, you can still have a good day despite your current irritated feelings.

How to Battle These Thoughts

The best way to battle these thoughts is to think like a scientist. What real evidence to you have for and against these thoughts. Keeping a journal and making a list really helps. For example:

Thought: I spilled my coffee, and therefore, I will have a bad day.
Evidence for this thought:

  1. I spilled my coffee.

Evidence against this thought:

  1. I am not a psychic and I can’t tell the future.

  2. There is no evidence to indicate the spilling my coffee results in a bad day.

  3. I have spilled my coffee in the past and ended up having a good day.

New thought: I spilled my coffee but my day can turn around.

By identifying these errors in thinking and actively seeking evidence for an against our thoughts, will help us to have a more balanced outlook on life, the future, and improve our overall happiness.


Ackerman, C.E. (n.d). Cognitive Distortions: When Your Brain Lies to You. Retrieved on 3/26/2021 from

Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York, NY: New American Library.