October 1st, 2015

Psychologist’s career has happiness focus

Everyone wants to be happy. At least, they say they do. But, although we all purport to seek happiness, how many people make it a true priority? In some cases, we chase things that we only think will make us happy and in others, we don’t make time for those that we know will.

For Catherine Sanderson, Ph.D., James E. Ostendarp Professor of Psychology at Amherst College, the subject of happiness has become a major focus of her professional career.

Although her own re-search focuses on social-personality psychology, close relationships and health-related behavior, she has become somewhat of an expert on the field of happiness after being asked to give a talk on the subject by One Day University, an adult education program that offers lectures from top professors.

It has become one of the organization’s most popular talks, which speaks to the general hunger for and the relative confusion about what happiness truly is.

She has also begun giving this talk to other groups, from high-level corporate clients to young professionals.

Sanderson spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about the personal and global message that she hopes to relay through her talk and the misconceptions people have about happiness.

Q:  With this talk, you are not giving people a plan for the one path to happiness. Instead, you are consolidating the research. Are you telling people that they need to pay attention to that path they choose and realize that it may not lead to happiness?
A: Well, I start the talk with the things we think make us happy but we are wrong about. These are things like money, climate, getting married, having kids. All wrong.

Then I talk about the research about what makes us happy and why those things make us happy and I end the talk with 10 strategies. So, it is educational in terms of breaking down myths but also very practical; it is not about needing to change your whole world or quit your job, but steps people can take with them and use in their everyday lives.

Q:  Things like exercise and getting more sleep?
A: Yes. In a lot of cases it may be something as simple as exercise. People will say they don’t have time to exercise, but ultimately, if we know that exercise makes us happier, it is important to take the time to do it.

Q:  Maybe you have to make happiness a priority?

A:  Right, otherwise, what are you doing it all for?

Many people go through life saying say I will be happy when…I get married, finish college, get a raise. But, some people are consistently unhappy even in different life stages, even when these things change. So part of it is we don’t want to talk about “I will be happy when…” How can you be happy now?

The reality is that there are lots of people who have the trappings of the right prestigious careers and money and marriages and they are still not happy. Ultimately, people want to be happy. People want their kids to be happy. But we are often not going about it the right way.

Q:  You have given this talk to a variety of audiences over the past three years. To what do people most respond?

A:  It is very personal what is blocking people from happiness. For some people, it is a mindset thing; they spend life thinking the glass is half empty or they do lots of comparisons with other people who seem to have better lives. For some, it is a need for more exercise or to eat better, but for other people they are just not living joyfully, not making choices that will bring happiness.

In our society, there is so much emphasis on money, prestige, wealth, status. For instance, the pressure of college admittance. I have a kid who is a rising senior. There is so much pressure about getting into an Ivy League school and ‘they need to because they are not going to be happy.’ Yet, if you look at the research, there is no evidence that money makes you happy or that people who go to Harvard are happier than people who don’t.

So part of it is bringing the information to people that there is no evidence that what you are striving for and what you think is so important is actually going to make you happy.

Q:  What questions do you get the most often?

A:  Pets, everyone is interested in pets. There is a little bit of evidence that a pet or specifically, dog ownership is associated with a longer life expectancy. There is one theory that it is because dog ownership provides love. Or maybe it forces people to walk regularly or maybe it is because walking your dog is also very social, giving people human contact that another pet may not give.

Q:  How about religion?

A: People who are religious are definitely happier, that is 100 percent true. What is interesting about that, intellectually, is that it is not really clear why. One possible reason is that religion gives people a sense of meaning and comfort. Another theory is that religion gets people into a social network.

Meditation is another one. When you meditate or when you look at nature, physically or even just in pictures, the brain is very calm. That is why meditating feels good and is good for the body. Prayer and looking at nature have physiological benefits in the same way.

Q:  Do you change the talk according to the audience? Or has it evolved?

A:  The talk is constantly evolving. Research in happiness is really hot and so there is new information all the time. Also, I will do the talk differently based on the audience.

Q: Do you apply this to your own life?

A:  I do apply all of it. Some of it comes to me naturally; I love to read and I exercise regularly. Making comparisons is one that historically has been really bad for me. Giving the talk is a very helpful mantra in terms of reminding me what matters.

Q:  What kind of message do you have for psychologists working directly with the public?

A:  It is really important that this research is put into use. A lot of research is conducted by a small subset of people in some niche field and it is not getting out to the public. One thing I like about doing this talk is that people can use it in some way.

There are lots of implications for therapy when you realize that many of the ways for increasing happiness are basically cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. Change your behavior and your thoughts and that will change your attitude. Lots of these things have real implications for psychotherapy in terms of helping people.

Q:  Searching for happiness could be considered somewhat of a selfish pursuit. But this is about more than the individual, isn’t it? Is this changing the world one smile at a time?

A:  I start the talk about why happiness matters and why we should care. Yes, I should care because I am my own person and I would like to be happier, but research suggests that it also matters far beyond the person.

People are healthier when they are happy so it is better for Medicare dollars. People are more productive at work: lots of Silicon Valley companies realize that increasing happiness at work increases productivity.

But, happier people are also nicer. They are kinder, gentler, more forgiving. A happy world is a world where people are not doing road rage and more people are donating to charity and helping those in need.

I think that making people happier is really a ripple effect. 

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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