Why a better outlook pays off ‘in almost every possible dimension’

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Amherst College psychology professor Catherine Sanderson *97
Catherine Sanderson *97
Joanna Chattman

Amherst College psychology professor Catherine Sanderson *97, the author of The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity, talks with PAW about the science of happiness and how our outlook can shape our reality. Even if positivity doesn’t come naturally to you, making small lifestyle changes can help to shift your mindset. “One of the most encouraging things, to me, about all of this research now on the power of positive mindset, is that there’s something you can do,” Sanderson says.

This is part of a monthly series of interviews with alumni, faculty, and students. 


Brett Tomlinson: Welcome to the PAWcast. I’m Brett Tomlinson. And this month our guest is Catherine Sanderson, who earned her Ph.D. in psychology at Princeton in 1997. She is the Manwell Family Professor of Life Sciences at Amherst College. And her latest book is The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity. So with that in mind, we’re going to talk about her area of expertise, the science of happiness. Catherine, thank you for joining me.

Catherine Sanderson: Thank you so much for the invitation to talk.

BT: Now, on some level, it’s intuitive that a positive mindset is a good thing. I mean, all things being equal, you’re better off being happy. But your work is not about intuition. It’s about social science. So in what quantifiable ways does a positive mindset help to improve our lives?

CS: So, in all honesty, in almost every possible dimension, having a positive mindset is helpful. It’s better for our physical health. It’s better for our recovery from surgery. It’s better for the process of how we age. It’s better for how happy we are in our relationships. So, it’s frankly a very broad impact across virtually every aspect of life.

BT: And of course there’s the flip side. If our expectations, our outlook, kind of helps to shape our reality, then the negative expectations can be pretty damaging. Can you explain a bit about this — particularly in an example that comes up in the book, in the context of aging, how negative expectations, or negative outlook can be damaging?

CS: So, people who have negative expectations in general expect that things are going to go poorly. But unfortunately, that leads them then to behave in line with those expectations, and that really leads to a negative feedback loop, which actually a number of longtime faculty members at Princeton have studied. Joel Cooper, John Darley — historical, big figures in the field of psychology, and both longtime members of the Princeton faculty — have examined that repeatedly, that if you have a negative expectation, you behave in line with those expectations.

So if you buy into negative stereotypes about aging, “As I age I’m going to develop dementia. I’m going to lose my eyesight. I’m going to be a bad driver,” etc., then people, in fact, behave right in line with those expectations. And that leads to negative outcomes.

BT: And so much of that is, unfortunately, reinforced by attitudes of — well, I guess, particularly younger people in how they might treat older people. You write a bit about that, as well.

CS: Well, and to be honest, it’s very much a cultural phenomenon. So if you look at the images that we see in the media all the time within the United States and Western cultures, there’s a very strong portrayal of elderly people as feeble, and losing their minds, and less physically attractive, and all of these different kinds of things.

The reality is, those norms are not universal. So if you look at many Asian cultures, there’s in fact a very strong emphasis on older people are full of wisdom and experience. And, in fact, that’s really who we should go to when we need advice, because they’ve lived longer and are better able to provide thoughtful guidance. So, it’s not a universal truism that we have to have these negative expectations about aging. It’s very much determined by what our cultural mindset is about the process of aging.

BT: There’s a particular study in the book about different types of knowledge that older people score quite well in. I’m sorry, I’m blanking on the term—

CS: Yeah, I think the distinction you’re grappling with is crystalized versus fluid intelligence?

BT: Exactly.

CS: Yes, and when we think about intelligence in our society, we often think about intelligence as being speed of processing. So, how quickly can you do a math problem? And, the reality is, it is true that with age, people’s intelligence in terms of speed of processing does weaken somewhat. So we see that very consistently in studies. But here’s the distinction. As people age, they actually have more life experience, and so the kind of intelligence that we look at in terms of knowledge about the world, is actually quite high among people who are older, because, of course, they’ve actually had more life experience.

I use the example in my own teaching that if you have college students, you know, memorize facts about the Vietnam War, or the Nixon administration, or World War II, they are truly memorizing those facts. But if you ask people who lived through those experiences, they don’t describe them as having memorized those experiences. They’re just like, “Yes, I remember when Reagan was shot,” or when the towers came down on 9/11, and so on. And that’s an example about the benefit of having more life experience. You’ve acquired more knowledge.

BT: Getting back to this idea of a positive outlook. You mentioned in your book that there are people who have a natural tendency, an ability — I guess a gift, really, for taking a positive outlook, for finding the silver lining. But you also mention that you are not necessarily one of those people. Is that part of the reason you’ve taken an interest in this idea of shifting mindset?

CS: Absolutely, and I’m really glad that you said that. Because I think one of the biggest misconceptions that people have is the idea that your happiness is a function of whether you are lucky. Of whether you had wonderful life circumstances — you know, won the lottery, or, you know, got into Princeton, or whatever. Or, whether you have really good genes. So, “Yes, I’m just a naturally happy person.” And, the reality is, that certainly does give some people a head start. So there are people who have a genetic head start on experiencing happiness. But there’s lots that we can do. And I find that very hopeful as, yes, someone who is not naturally happy. So I’m somebody who is, by nature, anxious. I worry. I have a tendency to ruminate. And one of the most encouraging things, to me, about all of this research now on the power of positive mindset, is that there’s something you can do. So if you don’t naturally find that silver lining, if you don’t have that gift, there are indeed things that you can do to help develop skills in that area, and increase your happiness.

BT: And, kind of embedded in the text, are these questionnaires that you’ve drawn from other researchers. Things like the self-compassion scale, the stress mindset — ways of kind of asking yourself questions, and taking stock. So, in your — in your experience, how important is a self-awareness, or self-assessment in learning where you need to make changes in your mindset?

CS: So, there’s lots of research broadly within the field of psychology about the importance of so-called emotional intelligence, or what we call EQ. And what that research really shows is that you need to understand where you are. You need to have a self-awareness, because that lets you, in fact, understand where you could improve. And I think one of the essential parts of that is that people often like focusing on their strengths — things that they’re good at. So if you’re naturally good at math, or naturally musical, or athletic, or whatever, it feels very good to focus on that and think about times in which that strength has been advantageous. But the reality is, is that if we can spend some time thinking about things that don’t come so easily to us — you know, areas in which we’re somewhat weaker, or struggle — those are areas in which we can then say, “OK, I could do a better job of treating myself with self-compassion.” Or, “I could do a better job of thinking about stress in a less debilitating way.” So I think it’s really important for people to start understanding what their current strengths and weaknesses are so that they can then devote time, energy, and effort into where it’s going to pay off the best.

BT: I’m curious about your path in psychology and in academia. When did you first take an interest in this idea — the science of happiness, and what was it that kind of drew you in?

CS: So as a graduate student at Princeton in the 1990s, I worked with a number of fabulous faculty, and I had two main lines of research. One line of research focused on close relationships, so dating relationships, and marriages, and friendships. And the other line of research examined health-related behavior, so how people manage their eating and exercise, and safer sex behavior, and so on. And those were really two distinct lines of research that I was pursuing in graduate school. I got a job, a tenure-track position at Amherst College as I finished Princeton, and continued those two lines of research — again, late 1990s.

The field of psychology during that time was undergoing this real shift from what had been a focus broadly in the field on negative things. So many people, when they hear about psychology, they remember studying, you know, depression, and neuroses, and phobias, and so on. And there was a big shift in the field of psychology that focused instead on, “Hey, let’s talk about what’s good. Let’s talk about happiness, and love, and joy, and contentment,” and so on. And so this was really a shift that was happening broadly in the field. And I was fortunate enough to have these two lines of research — on close relationships and health-related behavior — both of which really were within the field of positive psychology, because they are talking about building good relationships, building healthy behavior. And so my line of research really fit right in with where the field was going in interesting and intriguing ways.

BT: I don’t want to give away too much from the book. I don’t want to give away spoilers. But, near the end there are many suggestions for sort of changes in behavior that can help shift your mindset. And I wanted to bring up a few of these, and perhaps you can kind of briefly expand on what the research tells us about why these things are important. So just, first off, get more sleep. Why is that important?

CS: So, getting more sleep is about one of the easiest and most important things that we can do. That lots and lots of studies have shown that people who get enough sleep, obviously feel better physically. Getting enough sleep is good for your immune system, so your body is better able to fight of minor infections, colds, and so on. But sleep also helps us in other ways. It helps us concentrate, pay attention, remember things. So students who get enough sleep do better in school. But it also helps us in terms of our interpersonal relationships. So when we’re sleep deprived, we’re grumpier. So we’re more likely to have conflict with our spouse, for example. So getting enough sleep is so important, and truly, relatively speaking, much easier than lots of other things we do to feel good.

I often ask people when I give large public lectures, I say, “Who here makes a point of getting enough sleep?” And very few people raise their hands. And then I say, “Who here makes a point of exercising every day?” And many, many people raise their hands. And then I sort of joke and say, “Hey, did you know that sleeping is actually easier than exercising?” And of course it is, right? Of course exercising is harder than just sleeping. And yet people are like, “You know what, I really gotta exercise, and I’m just gonna ignore sleep.” So, sleeping is cheap, sleeping is easy, and most Americans should be doing it more than they are.

BT: OK, that’s a good message to our student listeners, particularly.

CS: I have — two of my children are in high school, and one is in college, and it’s a message I give them all the time.

BT: Second thing, get outside, get into nature. Why is that important?

CS: So nature is a wonderful thing in terms of our psychological and physical wellbeing. People who spend time in nature feel less stress. They feel better physically. They also feel happier. And what’s particularly good about this research is that it’s true that spending time physically in nature is beneficial, but I’m sitting in my house right now looking at massive amounts of snow. You may be looking at the same in your situation. Even looking at nature through a window — for example when it’s freezing cold outside — even that is beneficial. People who look at nature through a window in a hospital bed recover faster from surgery than people who are in the same hospital having had the same surgery, but are looking at a parking lot, or asphalt, etc. So looking at nature through a window is good. Spending time in nature is good. And, again, it’s good for blood pressure, it lowers stress, it increases positive mood.

BT: I couldn’t agree more. I put a bird feeder outside our kitchen window, and it’s the greatest investment ever.

CS: Oh I love that. And that’s a wonderful example, the bird feeder, by the way. That’s really great.

BT: And then, just one more. Perhaps related to the other two. Take technology breaks.

CS: Yes, so this — I mean, this, of course, is the hardest one for people to imagine. But the reality is that spending time on technology, social media in particular, can be detrimental in lots of ways. So first of all, spending time on technology often reduces our time spent doing other things. So people say, “Well I don’t go to sleep at night, because I am up reading the newspaper on my phone,” or checking Twitter, or whatever. So it can actually interfere with our ability to spend time outside. Going for a walk, or whatever, because we’re spending time on technology.

But the other real challenge is that on social media, many people compare themselves to other people who seem to be presenting these wonderful lives. And that can make us feel worse in comparison. There’s a wonderful quote by Teddy Roosevelt, which is, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” And that quote, I think, really epitomizes one of the main problems with many forms of social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and so on. It’s that people are often posting wonderful accomplishments, you know, “My child is valedictorian,” and “I just had this book published,” and “My whole family when to Tahiti for two weeks and loved each other the whole time.” And everybody looks wonderful and happy, like they have these very perfect lives. And so when you’re on social media, and you’re looking at the reality of your own life, you can feel worse in comparison. So trying to stay off social media can also be a really important way of feeling better.

BT: These are all helpful, and I’ll add one more that is in the book, but we don’t have to talk specifically about it. But reading a book is always a good thing.

CS: Reading a book is a great thing, yes, yes!

BT: And your book is a great one to check out. Now one final question. You have a wide range of examples that you cite in your book, from medicine, from psychology, obviously, neuroscience. What are the big, unanswered questions in the science of happiness that you’d like to see more progress on?

CS: Oh, so many! So many things that there’s really exciting research undertaking right now. I think one really important question is how do people across different cultures think about happiness? So there is some research suggesting that happiness doesn’t have the same meaning across different cultures. That some cultures think about happiness very much as an individual emotion — pride, joy. Other people think about happiness as much more about an interpersonal experience. So things about connection with other people — love, companionship. And so I think it’s really interesting to think about how our conceptualization of what is happy may depend on our upbringing. And that could be our culture, broadly construed. It could be our culture within our specific family, or community, religious organization, and so on. So sort of what is the nature and meaning of happiness?

I think the other really exciting area of new research is looking at how do we study happiness without self-report? So things like using neuroscience data, looking at fMRI scans, so brain scans. Or other sorts of measures — genetic testing — in which we’re just getting a sense of. What are the different factors that contribute to happiness? And how do we test it without just saying to people, “Are you happy?” Are there ways that we can test it more effectively using higher level technology that we’re, again, just beginning to be able to really explore in this area.

BT: Definitely. Exciting times. Well, Catherine, thank you so much for joining me. I’ve really enjoyed it.

CS: Well, I love talking about happiness. I think it’s really important for everyone to focus on putting more happiness in their lives and the lives of those around us, so thank you for this opportunity.  

BT: Catherine Sanderson’s latest book is The Positive Shift, and she may be coming to a city near you. She’ll be speaking at public events in Boca Raton, Cleveland, and Baltimore this month. You can find the details on her website, sandersonspeaking.com.

This podcast was recorded with help from Daniel Kearns at the Princeton Broadcast Center. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please subscribe on iTunes. And if you’re already a subscriber, please leave a review. The music in this podcast is licensed from FirstCom Music.