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Kristen Cyr
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Amherst College psychology professor
to speak about science behind happiness

April 22, 2014

Catherine Sanderson will speak about the science of happiness in a presentation sponsored by the Flanagan Campus Psychology Club on April 28. Catherine Sanderson will speak on April 28 at the CCRI Flanagan Campus. 

Happiness can be elusive, but that doesn't mean it has to be impossible to attain. Catherine Sanderson, author and health psychologist, hopes to illuminate the secrets of happiness in her talk, "The Science of Happiness," at the CCRI Flanagan Campus in Lincoln this month.

Sanderson is a professor of psychology at Amherst College, and the Princeton Review named her one of the country's top 300 professors in 2012. She has been giving this talk regularly for the past four years, speaking to audiences of students, senior citizens, professors and professionals nationwide. Her presentation, sponsored by the Flanagan Campus Psychology Club, will take place at 2 p.m. on Monday, April 28, in Room 1336.

Like any good scientist, Sanderson demurred when asked to offer a definitive explanation as to why there's been such an uptick in popular curiosity regarding this particular issue.

"People are definitely interested in it," she confirmed, noting the frequency with which she is interviewed on the topic as well as the preponderance of literature on happiness. "There are different hypotheses as to why now. Historically, psychology as a discipline has been focused on problems. But about 15 years ago, there was a recognition of the subfield of positive psychology," she said.

On the layperson's side of the table, Sanderson said that research has showed that narcissism, particularly in the younger generation, is trending upward. Though she said that any causations for this phenomena are "completely unclear," she has noticed one very clear effect: "It seems that when people think better of themselves than they used to, it's as though they are saying, 'I deserve to be happy," she said, adding that society itself seemed to be more accepting of the necessity of happiness for the good of the group. "Workers who are happier work harder, they're more loyal to the company. And there's a growing awareness in terms of issues in health—happy people live longer. They don't get hospitalized as much," she said.

The irony, of course, is that in a time when happiness is on everyone's mind, there are some uniquely modern problems working against us as we attempt to achieve it. Sanderson said that the proliferation of social media has made it harder for people to feel happy, because it sets up a "constant comparison." One isn't going to find bad or even necessarily realistic events relayed on a friend's Instagram feed, for example—rather, it's the exceptional events that we curate and announce, meaning that if someone we know has just completed a marathon and posts about it, we're more likely to feel unhappy if we're sitting at home watching television.

The attention paid on both social media and the mainstream news to "horrific events" is another factor in our obstacle to happiness in modern times, said Sanderson, but that doesn't mean we should give in to all the doom and gloom: "Focusing on happiness is a little bit of the antidote to some of this intense negativity," she said. "As a society, we can say that we're going to focus on what really matters. And what really matters is how people feel about their lives."

So what are some of the ways that people can feel better about their lives, then? Some answers might surprise you—specifically what is not proven to make people happy, said Sanderson. She points to two popular notions in particular: that people with children are happier, and that there's a correlation between money and happiness. This isn't necessarily the case, she said; while those who have children are subject to some of life's "higher highs," that's coupled with equally intense periods of sadness. "People who don't have children don't experience the same kind of joy, but they also don't experience the same levels of stress and heartache," she said.

As for the money issue, it's not as clear cut as society's shopaholics would have you believe. For those below the poverty line, money is a predictor of happiness (one is happier if their basic needs such as shelter and food are properly met), but the two don't have a correlation for the majority who are fortunate enough to live above the poverty line.

"You acclimate to raises, to greater wealth, to winning the lottery, whatever it is," she said. "But you can spend money in different ways to bring yourself happiness. Spending on experiences—a trip to Europe, a Broadway show—rather than possessions seems to be a better bang for your dollar in terms of happiness. You're creating happiness as you anticipate the experience, have the experience and reflect back on having had the experience."

At the end of each presentation, Sanderson makes it a point to veer into the practical, offering concrete strategies that she's gathered that others may use to increase their own happiness. Ten strategies are offered to the audience covering different realms of happiness and habits, in the hopes that there will be a takeaway for everyone. "There are things we can do to actually improve our lot in life that are actually pretty simple," she said.

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Last Updated: 8/25/16