Submitted on Monday, 5/5/2014, at 3:20 PM

Remember your first cell phone? You loved it. But when a friend got an iPhone your old flip phone lost its charm. You bought a new phone, and the cycle repeated.

This is one example Catherine Sanderson, the James E. Ostendarp Professor of Psychology, uses to describe why belongings don’t make people happy. To boost your happiness level, the science suggests, it’s better to spend money on experiences: take a vacation, see a play, go to a game.

Here’s what else improves happiness: figure out what you do well and find ways to do it. If this holds true, Sanderson is feeling uncommonly happy right now.

Catherine Sanderson Speaking in the Cole Assembly Room Sanderson giving her talk in the Cole Assembly Room at Amherst

That’s because a lecture she gives on the science of happiness has become one of the most popular offered by the adult education program One Day University. “Out of more than 200 different lectures from renowned professors from around the country, hers is in the top five” in attendance, says company founder Steven Schragis. “In fact, it may be number one.” In the past year alone, nearly 2,000 people have come to hear Sanderson’s talk, which she gives in cities nationwide. “Everybody wants to know about happiness,” Schragis says.

In addition to high attendance, her lecture has resulted in media attention from The Atlantic, The Washington Post, the Today show and others. She’s also given the talk at Amherst, and she’ll give it again at reunion this year.

Catherine Sanderson Catherine Sanderson

As Sanderson says in her lecture, happy people live longer than others, and they’re more helpful and more productive. They have a greater capacity to adapt to both good and bad life changes. “The power of human spirit suggests that we can regain happiness,” she tells her audience—through effort, mindset and behaviors.

Genetics explains about 50 percent of happiness, she says. The rest is determined by outside factors. Drawing on research in psychology, biology, neuroscience and economics, Sanderson explains to her audiences that neither education nor parenthood makes people happy. For men, marriage increases happiness; for women, only a happy marriage does.

Over the years, Sanderson has spoken on topics including the mind-body connection, the psychology of persuasion and the psychology of sports success, but her happiness lecture has resonated most, even though it’s not directly related to her research. (She studies relationship satisfaction and health behavior.)

Happiness is a topic that’s universally interesting, Sanderson says: we lead our lives in a deliberate effort to become happier or to ensure that our children are happy. “It’s the kind of talk,” she says, “that feels very meaningful for me to give.”


What we think makes us happy (but really doesn’t):
Good Weather

What actually makes us happy:
Giving to others
High self-esteem
Meaningful conversations

To increase happiness:
Keep a gratitude journal
Read a book you love
Figure out your strengths and find ways to use them
Spend time outside
Donate to charity
Spend money on experiences, not belongings
Don’t compare yourself to others
Build and maintain close relationships