Throughout the course of what has been a brief yet storied history, the field of psychology has introduced us to a plethora of truly iconic thinkers. Since William James taught the first college level psychology course at Harvard University in 1875 and Wilhelm Wundt founded the first psychological laboratory at Germany’s University of Leipzig in 1879, the likes of Abraham Maslow, Aaron T. Beck and Daniel Kahneman have built upon our foundational understanding of the brain and human behavior.
Despite the fact that these legendary psychologists and a seemingly countless number of others have disagreed about a wide variety of cognitive and behavioral theories, there’s been nearly unanimous agreement about the impact thinking has on the feelings of individuals. Although many of us naively assume that our external circumstances give rise to our emotional states, the truth is that the happiness, sadness, frustration and anger we experience is largely driven by the ways that we think. Albert Ellis, the celebrated psychologist who developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) in the 1950s, tells us:
Reality is not so much what happens to us; rather, it is how we think about those events that create the reality we experience. In a very real sense, this means that we each create the reality in which we live.”
As nearly every great psychologist and psychiatrist of the past, present and inevitably the future has come to realize, it is certain that each of us develops a variety of multilayered thought patterns or cognitive schemas, based upon an individualized blend of predispositions, upbringing, memories, conditioning and social influence, which affect the ways in which we experience the world. Yet still, despite the fact that every individual constructs reality from their own unique perceptual lens, there are a number of more universally impactful schemas related to our levels of subjective well-being which we can transform to get the most out of life.
Making Sense Of The World With Cognitive Schemas:
It was in the 1920s and 30s when renowned psychologists Jean Piaget and Frederic Bartlett introduced and popularized the term schema to describe the stable networks of abstract mental processes in which we store information about ourselves, others and the world. Since these two psychological greats explained that schemas help bring meaning to our experiences by altering our perceptions with input of previously learned knowledge, the idea of schematic networks, which is a foundational component of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), has evolved to include a more defined set of cognitive processes and ways of thinking. An individual who struggles with low self-esteem and social anxiety, for example, may have a self-schema that includes the following cognitions:
- Core Beliefs: ‘I’m not good enough.’
- Underlying Assumptions: ‘If I open myself up to others, they’ll see who I really am and reject me.’
- Interpersonal Strategies: ‘I’ll mask my true identity so others don’t recognize my faults.’
- Automatic Thoughts: ‘I can’t start a conversation with them.’
Due to the fact that nearly every person, thing and idea we’re familiar with comes with a package of additional information, based upon our previous understanding, we have a seemingly endless numbers of schemas that affect how we see the world. In addition to the self-schemas we hold about ourselves, we also have social schemas containing generalized social knowledge, schemas with information about others and a wide variety of other subjective worldviews which help us simplify and make sense of life. Generally speaking, it’s believed that schemas form during childhood and adolescence, and are based upon a variety of factors such as upbringing, social influence and experiential references. This truth, however, doesn’t mean that schemas can’t change over time when we’re presented with new experiences and acquire additional knowledge.
While schemas undeniably help us by guiding our attentional focus and shortcutting our decision-making processes, they unfortunately also have a tendency to limit our potential levels of happiness and are often the cause of mental health disorders. In fact, some mental health professionals think that understanding and transforming the schemas of their patients is so important that they utilized a specialized type of therapeutic strategy known as Schema Therapy. While this integrative therapeutic approach, which was developed by renowned psychologist Jeffery E. Young, is most concerned with personality disorders and early maladaptive schemas that form in childhood, it has been shown to be effect at treating a wide variety of mental illnesses such as PTSD, eating disorders, anxiety, substance abuse and depression.
The Schemas That Most Impact Subjective Well-Being:
While there is no denying the fact that psychologists and psychiatrists should be concerned with problematic cognitive schemas that commonly present themselves in mental health disorders, there has been little to no attention paid to the schemas of mentally healthy individuals who remain unfulfilled with their lives. When considering the fact that the World Happiness Index reports that only 33% of Americans consider themselves to be very happy, a number that hasn’t changed in a decade, we must wonder what can be done to increase the life-satisfaction levels of the 66% who remain at least somewhat displeased.
It was in the early 2000s when renowned American psychologist Edward Diener coined the term subjective well-being and began promoting it as a more appropriate measure, as opposed to monetary figures such as GDP, to gauge the quality of life of both individuals and societies as a whole. Generally speaking, there are said to be three primary cognitive and affective factors of subjective well-being which are affected by a variety of internal and external causes: levels of life-satisfaction, frequency of positive feelings and infrequency of negative ones. Diener tells us:
Psychological wealth includes life satisfaction, the feeling that life is full of meaning, a sense of engagement in interesting activities, the pursuit of important goals, the experience of positive emotional feelings, and a sense of spirituality that connects people to things larger than themselves.”
When taking into account the research that’s been conducted on subjective well-being and considering the nearly 70% of Americans who don’t consider themselves very happy, plenty of questions arise about the role cognitive schemas have on subjective well-being. While each and every person assuredly has their own unique blend of temperament, predispositions, memories and life circumstances that give rise to their subjective views of the world, it is certain that there are a number of more universally influential schemas about one’s self, others and life in general which to varian degrees guide the happiness of individuals. Diener reminds us:
It appears that the way people perceive the world is much more important to happiness than objective circumstances.”
Schemas About One’s Self:
There is little doubting the fact that the way in which an individual views themselves has a powerful impact on their mental health. Just as easily as a negative self-concept can lead to the development of a mental health disorders such as anxiety or depression so to can a positive and balanced one raise their levels of joy. The psychological term self-schema is used to describe the stable network of memory-based cognitions, expressed in the form of core beliefs, underlying assumptions, interpersonal strategies, personal expectations and automatic thoughts, which illuminate how individuals see themselves.
While each person’s overarching self-schema is made up of a variety of more specific cognitions related to the various dimensions of themselves, such as personality traits, physical characteristics, interests and behaviors, there are a number of personal views that impact one’s self-esteem and subjective well-being more than the rest. In addition to thinking about one’s self as a virtuous person, it is certain that the levels of life-satisfaction individuals experience are largely dependent upon if they consider themselves to be lovable and successful, or at least capable of success. The legendary psychology Carl Rogers told us of this truth:
If I were to search for the central core of difficulty in people as I have come to know them, it is that in the great majority of cases they despise themselves, regarding themselves as worthless and unlovable.”
Schemas About Relationships & Society:
Both because each of us has an inborn desire to form intimate relationships with others and also because we live in highly populated societies where interacting with strangers is nearly impossible to avoid, the schemas we hold about our relationships and society as a whole have an impactful role on our levels of subjective well-being. Depending upon one’s upbringing, past relationships and previous experiences interacting with people, it is certain that they develops schemas about people, in the form of stereotypes, prototypes and world views, that alter the ways in which they perceive and communicate with others.
Scientific research has shown that for a person to maximize their levels of happiness, it’s imperative for them to feel as though they have meaningful and loving relationships with others who they can trust and share their most intimate feelings with. Additionally, unless a person generally views others in their society as decent, trustworthy and safe to be around, they’ll be unable to maximize their feelings of joy. This psychological truth has recently been illuminated in analysis that looks at the levels of subjective well-being in Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Norway and Sweden, where trust is high and inequality is low, in comparison with countries such as the United States where variations in wealth, social status and subjective well-being are more drastic. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the iconic molecular biologist who created Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), advises us to examine our thoughts when we’re around others:
Look at other people and ask yourself if you are really seeing them or just your thoughts about them…. Without knowing it, we are coloring everything, putting our spin on it all.”
Schemas About Life:
While the schemas we hold about ourselves, our relationships and society as a whole assuredly impact our levels of subjective well-being, there are also a variety of thought patterns about particular life circumstances that affect how satisfied we can be. It is well documented that happiness levels are at least somewhat determined by whether or not individuals handle life’s inevitable setbacks and failures with resilience which subsequently means that the ways we think about undesirable events plays a role in determining our levels of subjective well-being. Additionally, the ways in which individuals think about what is important in life and how happiness is created also affects their levels of life-satisfaction. Unfortunately, all too many people in the western world falsely assume that happiness is created by achieving goals that bring them social status, material possessions and financial wealth although these externals have limited potential to positively affect their levels of happiness.
There are also a variety of behavioral scripts and social roles, or culturally driven schemas that guide our behaviors and tell us which life paths are appropriate to take, that can limit individuals from living blissfuly. This truth is especially apparent to see when considering how many people get married, oftentimes only because of their age, before getting divorced after coming to realize their not happy and also in the percentage of people who continue to work in jobs, fields and industries they don’t like because they think it’s the right thing to do. Yet still, what’s will forever remain most important is if individuals feel as though they have purpose and meaning in their lives. The iconic psychologist Viktor Frankl famously told us after spending two in a half years in German concentration camps during World War II:
Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her own life.”
Increasing Our Happiness By Transforming Our Minds:
Due to the fact that our cognitive schemas play an influential role in determining our levels of subjective well-being, by shaping our perceptions and guiding our behaviors, it’ll be imperative to change our thinking if we want to get more out of life. Although making changes to deeply ingrained cognitions is no easy task to accomplish, we’ll be able to enjoy an array of benefits, such as better health, improved relationships, greater levels of productivity and a increased sense of belonging within our communities, if we make the commitment to do so. Fortunately, to help us make the necessary changes, we can rely on a wide variety of practices and actives that’ve been offered to us by the world’s greatest psychological minds of the past and present. Celebrated Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the man who discovered the psychological state of flow, reminds us:
Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives.”
Understanding The Limiting Ways Of The Brain:
Although much of it happens outside of our conscious awareness, there are a wide variety of ways our brains limit our levels of happiness. Because our most basic biological drives for safety, sexual reproduction and enhanced preservation largely govern our cognitive processes, there are a number of issues that arise in our thinking. The default mode network (DMN), cognitive distortions and negativity bias, for example, make focusing on the good things in life really hard to do. Additionally, the comparative references we use to judge our own worth and the biases that naturally arise in our mind hamper our abilities to live happily. Of course these features and processes of the brain come with important evolutionary advantages but they also come with limiting downsides and by becoming aware of them, we can take the first steps to moving ourselves beyond. As the award-winning science author and journalist Robert Wright puts it:
We are built to be effective animals, not happy ones.”
Undertaking A Meditation Practice:
For thousands of centuries, mystical Hindu sages and modest Buddhist monks have preached the far reaching benefits that come from meditative practices. More recently, western psychologists and neuroscientists have been able to verify their eastern counterparts claims with evidence-based research that suggest meditation and mindfulness ignite beneficial changes at the psychical, emotion and cognitive levels. In regard to our cognitive schemas, it is certain that by undertaking a meditation practice we’ll gain the self-awareness and self-acceptance that are perquisites to creating positive personal change. Additionally, because happiness can only truly be found in the present moment, stilling our minds in meditation practice allows us to break free from conditionally living inside of our heads. Celebrated American psychologist and Buddhist proponent Tara Brach tells us:
Each time you meet an old emotional pattern with presence, your awakening to truth can deepen. There’s less identification with the self in the story and more ability to rest in the awareness that is witnessing what’s happening. You become more able to abide in compassion, to remember and trust your true home. Rather than cycling repetitively through old conditioning, you are actually spiraling toward freedom.”
Restructuring Your Schemas With Cognitive & Behavioral Exercises:
While gaining insights into our brain’s limiting evolutionary features and becoming aware of our undesirable ways of thinking in meditation practice will certainly move us towards reshaping our cognitive schemas, we can accelerate this process with the help of a variety of cognitive and behavioral exercises. Generally speaking, what is needed to change limiting thought patterns is real-life evidence that contradicts whatever it is that we’ve learned to think, and we can obtain this evidence by proactively using the hallmark activities found in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
For example, by taking the time to understand and utilize any number of the wide variety of CBT’s cognitive activities, such as the ABCD method, the dysfunctional thoughts record and the core belief worksheet, to gain insights into our minds before utilizing behavioral exercises, such as behavioral experiments and behavioral activation, to give us the real-life references that are needed to change the ways we think. Additionally, there are a variety of useful schema specific tools, such the schema formulation worksheet, schema metaphors worksheet and schema bias worksheet, that we can use to our advantage. While taking conscious action that goes against are ingrained ways of thinking can be challenging, it undeniably has the power to change our lives. The late great German psychoanalyst Karen Horney tells us:
To experience conflicts knowingly, though it may be distressing, can be an invaluable asset. The more we face our own conflicts and seek out our own solutions, the more inner freedom and strength we will gain. Only when we are willing to bear the brunt can we approximate the ideal of being the captain of our ship.”
Committing Yourself To The Habits Of Happiness:
Over the past decade, psychological researchers have dedicated a vast amount of energy and resources to studying the habits of happiness and we can use their recommendations to increase our levels of subjective well-being. For example, by committing ourselves to spending less time at work and more time with loved ones, while also spending money on life experiences rather than material possessions, we’ll begin to see our world in a new life-affirming way. Additionally, research has shown that undertaking a spiritual path and regularly partaking in activities such as spending time in nature and volunteering are great ways to boost our levels of happiness. The accomplished American psychologist and author Richard Davidson reminds us:
Happiness and well-being are actually best regarded as skills.”
Based upon what has been discussed throughout this article, it should now be clear to see how the happiness that we seek at the core of our beings largely remains elusive because of the ways that we think. Fortunately, however, by learning about our brain’s limiting functions, undertaking a meditation practice, utilizing CBT’s cognitive and behavioral exercises and committing ourselves to the habits of happiness, we’ll be more than on our way to transforming the cognitive schemas that keep unhappy. It is certain that each of us has the power to create meaningful personal change and we’d do ourselves a huge favor by heeding the advice of psychological great Erich Fromm. He tells us:
Let your mind start a journey through a strange new world. the world you knew before. Leave all thoughts of the world you knew before. Let your soul take you where you long to be. Close your eyes, let your spirit start to soar, and you’ll live as you’ve never lived before.”