By Emily Gold Boutilier

Hint: the answer is not kids, and it’s not money.

[Happiness] Remember your first cell phone? It was great. 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 explain why belongings don’t make us happy. To be happier, it’s better to spend money on experiences: take a vacation, see a play, go to a game.

Chart of what we think makes us happy, but doesn

Here’s what else improves happiness: find ways to do what you’re good at. If this holds true, Sanderson is feeling uncommonly happy right now.

That’s because a lecture she gives on the science of happiness is 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,” says company founder Steven Schragis. “In fact, it may be number one.” In the past year alone, nearly 2,000 people nationwide have attended her One Day U lecture. She’s also given the talk at Amherst, and she’ll give it again at reunion this year.

“The power of the human spirit suggests we can regain happiness,” Sanderson says—through effort, mindset and behaviors. She draws on research in many fields, but not directly on her own studies, which focus on relationship satisfaction and health behavior.

Her lecture resonates, she says, because we all live our lives in an effort to be 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.”