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The Science of Happiness With Dr. Catherine Sanderson

Posted by LMA International on Apr 9, 2018 3:21:29 PM


The 2018 LMA Annual Conference keynote speaker talks well-being.

The 2018 LMA Annual Conference in New Orleans is bringing an emphasis on psychological and physical well-being as Professor Catherine A. Sanderson, Ph.D., presents The Science of Happiness. Sanderson, Manwell Family Professor of Life Sciences (Psychology) at Amherst College, will describe cutting-edge research from the field of positive psychology on the factors that do (and do not) predict happiness, and provide participants with practical (and relatively easy!) ways to increase their own psychological well-being.

Q. How did you begin studying in the field of positive psychology?

Catherine Sanderson (CA): When I was a graduate student early in my career, I focused on two distinct and separate lines of research: health psychology and predictors of physical well-being and relationship satisfaction, focusing on how people find and maintain friendships, romantic relationships and other kinds of relationships. 

Over the last 20 years, I’ve found that those aren't separate lines of research. Good relationships are predictors of good health. How long you live, how fast you recover from surgery and other health indicators are based on having high-quality relationships. These two disparate lines of research that I was examining have melded into one, particularly over the past five years as this field has really taken off. It is fascinating how those lines have really linked up.

Q. What was the biggest surprise or aha! moment in your research?

CA: For me, the biggest surprise is we’re wrong about what makes us happy. We all say, “I want to be happy;” we all say, “I want my kids to be happy.” It's not mysterious, new or novel, but what did surprise me is that we're going about it the wrong way. 

For example, I want to lose weight, but I eat a whole lot of donuts. I'm going about weight loss the wrong way and it doesn't work, unfortunately. It’s the same with happiness. Finding meaning in your life is an extraordinarily strong predictor of happiness. Some may find religious and spiritual beliefs give meaning, so they belong to a temple or church. Others find meaning through volunteering and teaching. 

Doing things that you personally find meaningful is key. When people are thinking about their job or what job they should have, they look at pay, opportunities for advancement or a promotion that may be meaningful to them. For other people, they may have an objectively great job, but it’s just a job. That’s very different from “I look forward to being there; I feel like it’s meaningful work.”

Research shows people frame situations in very different ways. For many people, happiness doesn't come easily or naturally, and they must make conscious choices and decisions. For example, I know I'll feel better if I take a walk instead of checking social media. For some people, happiness means getting off social media and not wallowing in the perceived imperfection of their own lives.

Q. How can we find happiness even during challenges and stressful situations?

CA: I personally find meaning in giving this talk on happiness. Invariably, people come up to me afterward with tears in their eyes sharing that they have experienced a catastrophic personal loss and thought they would never be happy again but now realize that happiness is within.

Happiness is achievable for all of us. I give this talk about three times a week all over the country, and I always start my talk by saying I'm not someone that's naturally happy. Some people are, but I'm not one of them. I look at happiness like metabolism: Some people eat whatever they want and never gain weight, and that's wonderful. If you're not one of those people, you must take extra steps to watch your diet and be mindful. I look at happiness the same way. 

There are some people who don't need this talk because they are already happy. This talk validates them, and they say, "Now I know why I’m so happy." People who don't have that natural tendency and experience can learn strategies to make life changes. You can find happiness no matter what; it's not about our circumstances. 

Even with a job that is stressful and demanding, people can find moments of meaning. Maybe it's doing something nice for someone you work with who's going through a hard time or knowing the name of the security guard and saying good morning. Research shows that even a two-minute conversation with a stranger can make us happier and make us feel good. Maybe you say to yourself, “This is my job, and I do my job because it pays my bills, but I'm going to make sure that I do something that I find meaningful for two hours every weekend, such as volunteering or hiking.” Remind yourself that your job is your job, but it's not your life.

Q. How can conferences and being a part of a community like LMA make us happier?

CA: People like going to conferences for the chance to connect and share similar experiences with their colleagues. Building relationships is a predictor of happiness and that can include all different kinds of relationships with colleagues and professionals in our field. Those kinds of relationships are tremendously rewarding and valuable.

Learn more about Dr. Sanderson’s work here.

This content originally appeared in the LMA Daily Conference News, by Poston Communications.

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