A Scientific Perspective on Happiness: Rules in Your Head


“Happiness mainly comes from our own attitude, rather than from external factors.” -Dalai Lama

I’m now convinced that the above quote is true. Let me explain why.

When I was studying for my psychology degree, I came across an interesting module called positive psychology.

It’s a section of the field that looks at the positive side of life, including a scientific study of what makes people happy. So potentially, it would put concerns I already had about pop-psychology, self-help, and spirituality to the test. I immediately signed up.

The idea that happiness comes from our attitude is a popular one. You want it to be true. It would mean that you have more control over your happiness, validate suspicions of your own responsibility toward your emotional state, and highlight the futility of chasing money, careers, and material goods.

Or it would for me, anyway.

So it’s quite gratifying that the science backs up the Dalai Lama’s point here, for the most part.

Studies suggest that only 10 percent of our happiness comes from external factors. The rest of the happiness pie is made up of our genetics and our “intentional activities”—the thoughts and behaviors that we do deliberately, which includes our attitude.

It really fascinated me that, to give one example of a study in this area, people became gradually happier and happier over a six-month period simply by writing down three good things that happened at the end of each day, and why they happened.

This simple shift of focus toward what we are grateful for takes less than a minute to do, but over time builds up to a large effect on happiness.

But it was a different finding that really made me believe that happiness comes mainly through our own choices of thoughts and behavior.

I always noticed I was happiest when I had just got something done. You know, finished a project, completed a blog post, got back from the gym. These are external factors, I thought; I’m achieving things in the outside world. And I read studies showing that people who moved toward their goals became happier.

But then I realized: whose goals are they? They’re mine. I imagine that if I took some random person off the street and forced them to write a blog post for me they wouldn’t become happier (ignoring the fact that they’d just been kidnapped and forced to blog, of course).

The happiness I get from achievement is simply the fulfillment of a rule I made in my head. I’m attaching my own meaning and values to an external situation: if I complete the blog post, I’m happier; if I don’t, I’m not.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. For example if you’re living in abject poverty, more money is going to make you happy whether you’re striving for it or not; it will bring you more safety, shelter, better nutrition, etc. But for the most part, it’s our intentional thoughts and activities that are making the difference.

Personally, I think it’s a million times better to choose your own rules, rather than have them handed to you by your boss, your favorite TV show, or your idols.

But even if you live the most self-directed life, these are still rules in your own head.

Once you know this, life gets a little bit easier to understand.

Photo by camdiluv

About Warren Davies

Warren Davies has studied psychology and positive psychology at the University of East London, focusing on the factors that affect well-being. He presently works at Mindlab, who provide mindfulness training to organisations, and his personal blog is at

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  • Ike

    Ayn Rand said as much when she stated “Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values”.

    Oh how true it is, and when you begin rapidly achieving goals – there is no feeling like it.

  • Beautifully put. Be sure ou note on your list of 3 good things today:
    “Made Tina smile in agreement and chuckle at the kidnapping”

    Tina Louise

  • nandop

    Is happinness something you define for yourself or it is already there? Is anyone its own measure of happinness or is happinness something real?

  • Great article! YOU are the one in control of your thoughts. You can choose at any time in your life how you want to feel about a certain situation. You control your own happiness. For example someone said not so nice things about you. There are two choices: You can either feel hurt and bad or you simply choose to ignore it or analyze if maybe there is some truth to it. We even don't see our own faults. But the message is: You control how you want to feel. I know it's not that easy, but that's really how it is. In reality a billionaire can feel unhappy and the person living on the street is happy.

  • “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” ~Buddha

    Tweeted by @tinybuddha just this morning. What an appropriate quote.

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  • warrendavies

    Wow many thanks for the comments and retweets!


    Exactly. As you say, although happiness or your thoughts are under your control does not mean it's easy to control. It takes time and practice, but if happiness is what you want, then persistently trying to alter your thinking and responses to the world over a period of weeks or months will be beneficial.


    Yep, ol' Buddha and I are on a pretty similar train of thought there.


    Definitely… it's funny you mention that because I was thinking about Atlas Shrugged in relation to this. Production, work ethic, competence etc are values of the characters in Rand's books (and Rand herself, presumably), so they became happier when following their values, while the other characters did not root themselves in their own values, they adopt them from other people or peer pressure, and they're unhappy. Like you, I think there's a lot of truth to this.


    Haha, will do. Glad to put a smile on your face. 🙂


    Excellent question. There are studies in neuroscience that have narrowed down the brain areas believed to process positive emotions and states, and there are also physical changes in the body when we move between emotions. So there is some degree of objective, 'real' happiness.

    But there's more to it than this. We also define it ourselves – happiness is partially wrapped in our own subjective definition. Here's why. Imagine two people, each with the exact same life, including the exact same level of positive and negative emotions. Now, imagine that one of them has great ambitions – she wants more joy, more excitement, more fulfilment; while the other one is perfectly happy with her life the way it is.

    Objective measurements would say they are both equally happy; the instruments would measure the same physiological state in both women. But if one girl is less happy *with* that state than the other one, is it really correct to say that they are equally happy? I say no.

    Really good question, thanks for asking!

  • kenjicrosland

    Great article Warren. Although it's a challenge to create your own original rules for happiness, I suppose the first step is recognizing that one has the power to do so. Thanks for the insight.

  • Casey

    Thanks for sharing and Missy thanks for forwarding 🙂 Positive thinking makes for a positive and happy person, not to mention someone much more pleasant to be around.


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  • I enjoyed your piece on happiness very much. It reminded me so much of the bio I posted on My entire life is guided by knowledge, happiness and a positive attitude! thank you so much

    Rod Danz

  • Happiness

    Great article!

    In relation to goals and achievement happiness can be seen as a dance between the internal and external worlds. And the more in harmony they are the happier we are.


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  • Katt

    “Lovely” is a word reserved in my vocabulary for only the best, most wholesomely soul-fulfilling positive and/or beautiful things and those that relate to them.
    Your post is truly lovely, Warren. AND right on! 🙂

  • Katt

    “Lovely” is a word reserved in my vocabulary for only the best, most wholesomely soul-fulfilling positive and/or beautiful things and those that relate to them.
    Your post is truly lovely, Warren. AND right on! 🙂

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