The secret to happiness? She teaches it
Psychologist Catherine Sanderson practices what she preaches
Happiness can be elusive, more so than fame or fortune for many. Successful people are not necessarily happy. But happy people are more likely to be successful. And healthier. And they tend to live longer.
Interest in the subject has soared — even the United Nations issues World Happiness Reports. It is a matter of intense study by social scientists. Among them, Catherine A. Sanderson carries a megaphone so large that she is often introduced as the “Professor of Happiness.’’
On many given Sundays, the Amherst College psychologist roams stages in far-flung cities, enlightening and delighting crowds of baby boomers with her rapid-fire delivery, self-deprecating asides, empirical data laced with humor, and PowerPoint lists of what makes us happy. Like close friends. Shopping — for others, not ourselves. Both eating and exercising. Nature.
Conversely, Sanderson points to what can make us unhappy. Money, for sure. Children and marriage, for instance. Even weather: In many polls, North Dakotans are happier than Californians. Really.
Oh, both religion and sex do make us happy, though Sanderson admonishes: “Not at the same time.”
Sanderson wants to help put happiness within reach of her audiences and her students too — and in so doing, make herself happier. It is her consuming passion, and its tenets help define how she lives her own life. She’s studied relationships and happiness for two decades. And her work is driven by lessons she learned from her mother’s premature death 11 years ago.
She is nothing if not in a hurry. Sanderson speaks at a rate that approaches 200 words a minute, perhaps because she has so much to say and do. If happiness is defined by constant motion, then Sanderson, who is 46, must be overjoyed.
On Amherst’s easygoing campus, she exceeds every speed limit. She teaches full-time. She has a long queue of students who have chosen her as their adviser. She makes evening visits to dorms to talk to small groups of students about how to start and nurture happy relationships. One night last month, she stopped by two dorms on a Monday evening, expecting perhaps 20 students in all. There were 22 at the first session, and 30 at the second.
Sanderson, whose mother died of ovarian cancer 11 years ago, draws on that experience to host a cancer support group at her home. She ran this year’s search for Amherst’s new athletic director, and she is the college’s faculty liaison to the NCAA. And there is family: She and her husband, Bart Hollander, have two sons, 16 and 14; and a daughter, 10.
In her spare time, she teaches aerobics at a local gym. It is the only place she’s called Cathy.
“In the faculty dining hall, you can hear her voice clearly,’’ says Catherine Epstein, the faculty dean at Amherst. “When you get to Amherst, you quickly hear about Catherine Sanderson.’’
One thing Epstein said women scholars learn early on: It is inadvisable to have children during the arduous six-year tenure process. But Sanderson had her first two children, and was pregnant with her third, by the time she was awarded tenure in 2003. So, Epstein said, she too had three children while seeking tenure.
For Sanderson, the academic elements of happiness and close relationships also animate her private life, she says. And she seems taken aback when she is asked whether she is happy. “I couldn’t give these talks if I wasn’t happy,’’ she says, frowning. “If I wasn’t living this, it would be hypocritical.’’
As a doctoral student in psychology at Princeton in the 1990s, her research focused on relationship satisfaction and health behaviors. When she landed at Amherst in 1997, it was to teach Close Relationships. And also health psychology, at a time when researchers were finding increasing evidence that happy people are healthier.
The exclamation point on her popular lectures on happiness is her list of 10 suggestions for increasing happiness — all empirically based. Some, like exercise and reading good books, had long been part of her life. She has adopted others because she found the research on their efficacy compelling.
And then there is her drive. Her mother, Judith Sanderson, was only 57 when she died, just four months after her diagnosis. “Her death was a clear reminder to me that life is short and unpredictable, and that finding ways to create a happy and meaningful life is extremely important,’’ Sanderson says.
“I love doing the happiness talk in part because it reminds me of what makes people truly happy,’’ Sanderson says. Simply giving her speech on happiness, she adds, makes her happy.
Which dovetails neatly with one of the main points she makes to her out-of-town audiences: “The best way to cheer yourself up is to cheer someone else up.’’
Not surprisingly, Sanderson is among the most popular teachers at Amherst. Her classes fill up rapidly. Many former students invite her to their weddings, and later on send her baby pictures.
Which is how Steven Schragis found her. Schragis, who founded One Day University nine years ago, seeks out the country’s best university professors to speak to crowds of adults, mostly baby boomers, on Sundays in hotel ballrooms around the country. (In Boston, the Globe co-sponsors the events.)
To attract those paying customers, Schragis has roamed the campuses of the nation’s top colleges and universities, recruiting professors — 187 so far — based on student ratings. That’s how he found Sanderson.
“She is the perfect example of what we look for — an incredibly talented professor who can entertain as much as she can educate,’’ Schragis said. Of the 187 professors, he ranks Sanderson among the top five.
Of course, audiences delight in her subject matter. When Sanderson appeared in front of an older audience, mostly retirees, in Naples on Feb. 8, she had some welcome news for them: People in their 70s are happier than college students.
And she keeps them laughing. Her talks, to both students and boomers, are sprinkled with interesting asides, rooted in scientific research but delivered off-handedly — “Married women who are happy are less likely to cheat. Those who do cheat are more likely to be unhappy. Men? They cheat at the same rate whether they are happy or not.’’
Sanderson’s onstage chops may be partly genetic. Her father, Allen R. Sanderson, teaches economics at the University of Chicago, where he has long been among that university’s most popular professors.
At Amherst, she doesn’t teach a course in happiness per se. But the ingredients for her traveling roadshow are drawn from several psychology courses she teaches, including one on close relationships and another on the psychology of good and evil.
It is the subject of close relationships that has made her a big draw for her informal evening meetings with students, many of whom find forming such ties among the most daunting challenges of their college years.
Students lounge on couches, as Sanderson drills down into her list of how to start, build, and nourish close relationships. And those include one critical step that many shy away from. When you find someone you like, she says, you have to send a signal to that person — a step that risks rejection and requires you to become vulnerable.
She knows whereof she speaks. When she was a at Stanford, she and a fellow student became very good friends. “But there was no romantic stuff,’’ she said.
In the fall of her senior year, she decided she really liked him, that “there was a connection.’’ So she took a chance and told him so. It went badly. She remembers what he said: “No, I don’t feel that way about you. I’m really not attracted to you.’’
So she dropped the issue — until the spring. She tried again. Same result.
“So I said to myself, ‘OK, fine. I’m done.’ ’’ The following January, Sanderson invited him to dinner. “I opened the door, and he took me into his arms and gave me this totally romantic, open-mouthed kiss. And I was like, ‘What is that?’ And he goes, ‘I love you.’ And I said, ‘I know. I know.’ ”
Sanderson paused, smiled, and then added: “And that’s my husband.’’
Some students whooped in delight. Others clapped. Most laughed. And off in the right corner, one woman student sat quietly, smiling through tears of happiness.