Amherst College psychology professor Catherine Sanderson examines what research in psychology tells us about how adverse events – such as a global pandemic – can lead to some positive outcomes.
Sanderson is the author of The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity. She has spoken several times about the science of happiness and positive thinking for our First Wednesdays series of public lectures.
Catherine Sanderson: It’s very, very easy right now for us all to focus on what is lost about this time. College students, high school students are in grief about graduations or, you know, prom spring sports seasons and so on that aren’t happening. Many adults are missing times that they were really looking forward to, whether that was a family reunion. In some cases, weddings. But in many cases, it could just be that day to day life that no longer is happening. So I think it’s really important for all of us to try to focus on what is good, not just what is bad.
Welcome to the Portable Humanist, the podcast where you can listen to Vermont Humanities talks and learn when you’re on the go. I’m Ryan Newswanger.
Catherine Sanderson is a psychology professor at Amherst College. Her most recent book is The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity. She has spoken several times about the science of happiness and positive thinking for our First Wednesdays series of public lectures.
We thought that her research seemed especially important to consider during this time of social distancing. At the end of her presentation, she responded to some of our questions about how to stay positive during the Covid-19 outbreak.
Catherine Sanderson: I’m Catherine Sanderson and I’m a Professor of Psychology at Amherst College. And for pretty obvious reasons, over the last couple of months I’ve developed a new talk on trying to boost your psychological resilience in a crisis.
Catherine Sanderson: And I’m so excited to be able to share the research in the field of psychology about the importance of resilience. So I’ll be talking today about different strategies that we can all use and really what the science says about how we can all make the best of this really unprecedented situation. But I want to start with a story that happened about six weeks ago now. My college shut down in mid-March. Our students packed up and left. And a couple of weeks after I reached out to one of my thesis students and I just said, hey, you know, how are you doing? Just checking in to make sure the thesis is progressing.
Catherine Sanderson: And she wrote back and said, “I have to be honest. In the last couple of weeks, I haven’t worked at all on my thesis. I’ve meant to. But every time I open the document, I’m just overwhelmed with a crushing sense of sadness.” And her comment just struck me that that’s really what so many people have been struck with over the last few months, that we’re not doing the normal things that we’re doing, whether it’s going to the gym, or seeing your colleagues in the office, or getting to visit in person with friends or family members. And so I really started thinking about what the field of psychology would say about what we can all take from this experience that’s positive, that’s good. And that’s what I’m going to share with you today.
Catherine Sanderson: And I want to start by talking about a really puzzling field—a really puzzling finding in the field of psychology about adversity. And what this puzzling finding is, is that people who’ve experienced some adverse experiences—two to six pretty bad things—actually are happier than people who’ve gone through life experiencing no bad things. And these are things that are pretty bad. So having a diagnosis of a really serious illness or disease, getting divorced, going bankrupt, getting fired, death of a loved one. So people who report experiencing between two or six of these in the last year or so actually report feeling happier than people who’ve experienced absolutely no bad events or just one bad event. And this might not be what we’d expect, right? That experiencing bad things hurts your happiness, experiencing no bad things makes you feel better. And so researchers have tried to examine, well, what is it about experiencing some bad things that actually leads us to feel happier? And what this research shows is that experiencing bad things gives us an opportunity to develop something that psychologists call “post-traumatic growth.” And here’s a standard scale that’s used in psychology to examine this: They give people this scale and they ask them to kind of think about positives that might have come out of their difficult experiences—changing priorities about what’s important, having a greater appreciation for the value of their life, being better able to do things with their life, developing greater spiritual understanding and connection, sense of closeness with other people, establishing a new path, gaining a sense that they can handle difficulties, developing stronger religious or spiritual faith again, believing that I’m stronger and learning about how good people can be.
Catherine Sanderson: And these are all wonderful things that can actually come out of really difficult experiences. So you could take a minute right now and sort of see: have the last couple of months during this global pandemic led you to do any of these things?
Catherine Sanderson: Because all of these are opportunities that we have to actually change and shift and develop who we are. I received a really lovely email from a student who’s taking one of my classes this semester that just ended, and he sent me this email and said he’d really appreciated, you know, a book I wrote a couple of years ago that he’d read. And it actually had led him to ponder his future beyond Amherst College and that he had a job lined up for a pretty well-known company (I won’t reveal the name). But after reading my book and sort of thinking about his relative priorities and what made him happy, he’s going to delay that job and he’s going to go into teaching. Because what he really has decided is important to him and brings him happiness is teaching other people. And that’s just a wonderful example of taking this time right now to sort of think about how could we do our lives differently? What has this opportunity taught us about ourselves? And I think that’s a really great example of the kinds of ways in which we can think about post-traumatic growth, not just, you know, unbearable sadness and loss about, you know, the difficult times that we are all living through.
Catherine Sanderson: So I want to focus now on three specific things that research in psychology tells us can happen following difficult adverse life experiences. One: adversity enhances small joys. And this is basically the example of savoring. People who’ve experienced some difficult things are much better at savoring the small moments of day-to-day life. This could be, you know, stopping and smelling the roses, enjoying a beautiful sunset. It could be, as this picture indicates, savoring the taste of fabulous chocolate. There’s a scale in psychology that measures the extent to which you savor experiences. So if you’re given a wonderful bar of chocolate, you could just eat it, chew it, swallow it and be done. Or you could make a point of savoring the taste of that chocolate. You could unwrap it slowly, appreciating how it looks, how it smells. You could break off a small piece and put it in your mouth. You could then savor the taste, the flavor, slowly swallow it and enjoy that whole sensation. And that’s an example of greater savoring of small pleasures. And what the research shows is that people who’ve been through adverse experiences get better at doing that sort of savoring of small joys of daily life. So that’s one thing that I think is really important for us all to remember during these hard times.
Catherine Sanderson: Two: adversity builds compassion. And probably many of us recognize this photo taken the day of the Boston Marathon explosions and this courageous man in the cowboy hat who rushed to help a severely critically ill young man who’d had his legs destroyed by one of the bombs. Researchers approached the man with the hat later on. He was interviewed repeatedly by the media. “What led you to rush and save this young man who was so critically injured instead of running to save yourself?” And this man with a cowboy hat described very clearly his past experience. He had lost two sons, one during war and one to suicide. And that experience on a very personal level of tremendous tragedy led him to feel great compassion for this young man who was so severely injured. And I think that’s a wonderful example about how experiencing personal adversity can actually lead us to feel more compassion for people around us. I’ve been really heartened by all of the stories of people reaching out to those around us, strangers and so on, supporting small businesses. And I think that’s a wonderful example about how we can take this experience and try to feel more compassionate for people around us. And I’ll talk later today about some strategies we can all use to do that.
Catherine Sanderson: We also know that adversity creates resilience. People who’ve been through adverse experiences develop a greater sense of confidence in their own ability to cope when things don’t go particularly well. Many colleges and universities have specific programs for incoming students that are like camping, canoeing, hiking, basically programs that are designed to have them undergo some kind of mildly adverse experience—am I going to be okay, you know, on this Outward Bound-type trip. Are we going to figure out how to start a fire? Or we going to have enough food? Am I going to get along with these people?
Catherine Sanderson: And programs like those have been shown to create a greater sense of resilience that students actually take with them far beyond. Because what happens is they get through this experience that’s kind of freaky, kind of uncertain. And then they gain confidence in themselves that when adverse things happen, they’re better able to cope. So when a college midterm exam doesn’t work out or they’re having trouble with a roommate or a romantic relationship ends, they have greater confidence they can get through it because they got through that hiking, camping, canoeing trip before. So living through this difficult time actually can give us a greater sense of, “OK, I can deal with adverse things, I can make it through,” and that’s really important. And perhaps the most important lesson from the field of psychology is that we can all use specific strategies for finding happiness even in the midst of this pandemic. There’s a wonderful quote from a book by Elizabeth Gilbert about the power of effort. And I want to share that with you now: “Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it. And sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever to stay afloat on top of it.”
Catherine Sanderson: And this quote, I think, epitomizes what we all should really be keeping in mind these days: that even in the midst of this terribly unprecedented time, we have an opportunity to expend personal effort to find happiness. And they’re all things that we can do in our daily lives that research has shown will, in fact, increase happiness. So I now want to turn and talk about what some of those things are.
Catherine Sanderson: First, we can do things that foster wellness. And this, I think, is actually extremely important right now, because eventually we are going to head out into the world, and it’s pretty clear that exposure to the coronavirus is going to happen and we’re going to need to have physically strong immune systems to be able to withstand potential infection if we are exposed. So what can we do to foster wellness? Well, lots of research suggests meditation is really great. Meditation is good for psychological well-being. Meditation is good for physical well-being. It’s cheap, it’s easy, it’s short. And so if you don’t do this already, starting a meditation practice is really important.
Catherine Sanderson: It’s really important to get some kind of physical exercise every day. And this can be as simple as walking your neighborhood. It can be walking in your home. I have a friend who has parents who live in Manhattan and they live in a high rise. And she says what they’ve been doing every day is climbing down something like 34 flights of stairs. And then they take the elevator up. And that’s a great example of making do with whatever you can in your environment. It’s also really important to get enough sleep. And I think that’s something that many of us sort of have felt historically, “Wow. I know it’s important to get good sleep, but I don’t really have time to get good sleep.” Right now, we should all be taking time to get good sleep—that we’re not commuting, that we’re not going into our regular jobs, or taking our kids to school, or whatever sort of the normal routines we’re in. So it’s a wonderful time to develop a really good sleep habit. And lots of research and psychology shows that better sleep [is] associated with reduced illness, better psychological well-being, lower rates of depression and anxiety and so on.
Catherine Sanderson: And then finally, it’s really important for people who have particular religious and spiritual beliefs to practice those. If you don’t already have those, that’s fine. But if religious and spiritual beliefs are important to you, this is a really good reminder to remember to take time every day—to pray, to read some part of scripture if that’s meaningful to you, because research also shows that adopting a spiritual religious practice can be a really important part of fostering wellness. So these are all strategies, again, that you can use. And I want to say very clearly, this is not “one size fits all”—that for some people, they find spiritual beliefs very reassuring. For other people, it might be meditation. For other people, it might be jogging. It doesn’t matter what works for you. What matters is that you find something that works for you.
Catherine Sanderson: So one, foster wellness. Develop a plan. Two: spend time in nature. And I’m assuming a lot of people listening to this are going to be spending time in nature in Vermont, which, of course, is an absolutely beautiful state. So you’re lucky in that sense. And of course, it’s spring, summer. So it’s really a wonderful time to spend time outdoors. There is wonderful research in the field of psychology that illustrates the power of spending time in nature. A very clever study was done at a hospital in Pennsylvania a number of years ago. And what they did was they compared rates of recovery for patients who’d come in for a routine scheduled surgery, but had been assigned to one of two wings of the hospital. The way this hospital was set up, patients in one wing overlooked a parking lot. So patients assigned to that wing saw cars and asphalt and traffic. People assigned to the other wing of the hospital overlooked a lovely park. So they saw trees and bushes and flowers. So they compared rates of recovery for patients who’d had the exact same surgery. And what they found was that patients who’d been assigned to the wing overlooking the park had better reports from the nurses, required less pain medication, accomplished various surgical milestones faster— getting out of bed, you know, walking, eating solid food and so on—and got discharged faster from the hospital. So across every measure they studied, patients who’d been assigned to the wing overlooking the park did better. And that’s just looking at nature through a window. So you can imagine how much stronger the effects are if you actually get to spend time in nature in real life. Research done in big cities—New York City is what’s in the slide—have shown that just spending time briefly in nature, being in a park for short periods of time, leads to elevation in terms of mood. So spending even brief periods of time in nature, looking at nature through a window, all of that can be really important.
Catherine Sanderson: So now you’re probably asking, well, why? What’s so good about spending time in nature? So a very recent study tried to examine that question. And they brought in people—they put them in an MRI machine to measure patterns of brain activation—and they showed them different pictures. On the screen here, you can see two actual pictures that were used in this study. They’re both visually appealing. They have a range of colors. They have clouds, they have sky. So it’s not the case that they’re showing an urban city skyline that has, you know, graffiti or traffic or smog. They’re visually appealing. And yet what you see is that when people are in an MRI machine looking at an urban city skyline, they show lots of brain activation. Their brain is active, it’s firing, it’s processing. When people are in an MRI machine looking at rural nature scenes, they show relaxed, calm brainwaves like their brain is meditating or sleeping. And so what this study tells us is that looking at pictures of nature, being in nature, is physiologically relaxing for the body. And that probably helps explain why people looking at nature from a window had faster recovery from surgery because their body can devote greater resources to protecting their health from recovering from surgery. Because, again, at a neurological level, their brain is relaxed and quiet. So, two: spend time in nature. It’s going to be good for your physical well-being. It’s going to be good for your psychological well-being.
Catherine Sanderson: Three: find purpose. And I really love this one because I think right now many of us are kind of feeling like, what is my purpose? You know, the normal things that I did in my daily life aren’t available to me. And it’s one of the reasons I’ve been so happy to have the opportunity to give this talk, is that giving this talk is my way of finding purpose. So if you’re listening, thank you for doing that for me. So figure out what are ways that you can find a sense of purpose in your daily life. That could be giving a gift to someone. This photo of a basket is to remind me to tell you a story, and that is that my middle child is dating a woman right now and her mom is a nurse, and she’s going into the hospital every day dealing with patients who, of course, are sick, and including patients who are infected with the Covid virus. And so we sent her a few weeks ago a gift basket and just said, “Please take this into the hospital,” you know, “Share with your colleagues. We’re so appreciative of what you’re doing.” So send a gift to someone you know who’s working in a really difficult environment right now.
Catherine Sanderson: In some communities, there’s gonna be a really big need for blood because regular blood donation drives have been shut down. So if this is something that you are healthy and can do, this is really a need in a lot of different areas of the country. So investigate whether that’s true in your area. This is a wonderful time to write a gratitude letter. Research has shown that expressing gratitude towards other people is really, really important. And so I’ve developed a strategy in which every Sunday I write a letter, a physical letter—like with a stamp, you know, put in my mailbox—to somebody who’s done something meaningful for me in my career, in my personal life and my family. And so think about people who you’d like to reach out to right now. [It] could be by text. It could be a phone call. But this is a time in which we can all step up and talk about how we appreciate other people around us.
Catherine Sanderson: We can also find purpose by developing some goals that we want to accomplish. My 16-year-old daughter and I organized her closet. She was not really a willing participant, but I think she feels good now that it’s done. And my family—hopefully they’re not listening to this—but what we have in line for June is cleaning out the garage. And so figure out what’s a way that you can develop purpose, goals, strategies. Write it down. Work towards it. And these are ways that we can basically supplement the things that we’re not able to do so easily in our daily lives right now, our regular routine of volunteering or helping out colleagues in the office or so on. Find other ways to have purpose in your daily life right now.
Catherine Sanderson: Build and maintain connections. And this is something that I think is so important because right now our normal way is being connected to people, you know, at our gym, our local coffee shop or, you know, in the office or a school or whatever are are really lacking. So finding ways to build and maintain connections therefore becomes especially important as a way of maintaining happiness—and again, also linked with physical health. I’ve been really heartened by all the different examples of Zoom connections that people have been doing. I am the faculty advisor at Amherst College for a cancer support group. These are basically kids who have a parent or sibling who is either been diagnosed with cancer or who they’ve lost to cancer. And we’ve actually been doing Zoom meetings over the last few months, and it’s been a wonderful way to just stay connected to these kids. And I think it’s been really important for them, too, to connect with other people who get what they’re going through and what they’ve experienced.
Catherine Sanderson: We can maintain connections with our pets. There is lots of fascinating research from the field of psychology about the benefits of pet ownership for physical and psychological well-being. In one of the most fascinating findings, research has shown that for people who look into their dog’s eyes, it raises a level of a chemical in our own bodies called oxytocin. And oxytocin is actually called the sort of bonding hormone. It’s the hormone that makes us feel good at a neurological-physiological level. It’s the same hormone that women experience an increase in shortly after giving birth, or also that everyone experiences a boost in after they hug someone. But simply looking into your dog’s eyes actually leads to the same chemical boost—literally makes us feel good. And what’s a particularly fascinating finding? Research has shown that your dog actually experiences that same boost in their bodies from looking at you. Gazing into your eyes. So this is good for people. It’s good for dogs. It’s a wonderful time, frankly, if you don’t already have a dog to think about adopting or fostering a dog, especially from a local animal shelter where dogs are often in need of good homes, and especially at this time in which they may not be getting regular visits from volunteers. This is a great time to adopt a dog or foster a dog temporarily. Good for you. Good for the dog.
Catherine Sanderson: We can also reach out on social media. Social media gets a very bad rap—kind of with reason—in the field of psychology that we often hear about social media. It’s linked with, you know, anxiety, depression, and so on. But research has actually shown that social media can be a wonderful way of maintaining connections. I’ve printed out a calendar and I’ve written a friend’s name on every single day. And that day I reach out to that person. I just text them and I say, “Hey, I’m thinking about you. Hope you’re doing well.” And so that’s a way in which I’m just trying to stay connected to people that I’m not getting to see regularly these days. And it’s been a wonderful way for me to build and maintain connections. So figure out ways in your own life that make sense to stay connected—through texting, through writing, through Zoom meetings, through pet ownership—to try to boost connections in your own life during these times in which we don’t have our normal connections so readily available.
Catherine Sanderson: And finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s really important to embrace healthy thoughts. It’s really important to remind ourselves of the importance of staying positive even during what can be really kind of isolating in hard times. There’s a wonderful quote by Nelson Mandela that I think speaks to the ability we all have to maintain positive thinking no matter what. And here’s his quote: “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”
Catherine Sanderson: And to me, this is such an important example because it’s very, very easy right now for us all to focus on what is lost about this time. College students, high school students are in grief about graduations or, you know, prom, spring sports seasons and so on that aren’t happening. Many adults are missing times that they were really looking forward to, whether that was a family reunion, in some cases, weddings. But in many cases, it could just be the day-to-day life that no longer is happening. So I think it’s really important for all of us to try to focus on what is good, not just what is bad. And if this ability doesn’t come easily or naturally to you—and it definitely does not come easily or naturally to me—they’re all things that we can do to try to boost our ability to develop this positive mindset even during these hard times.
Catherine Sanderson: And I want to end by describing a real-world example that I think speaks to the power that we all have to try to develop our strength in framing things in a positive way. And it’s a story that happened to a young man a number of years ago now. He was a sophomore at Princeton University, 19 years old. One night, he was returning home to his dorm, very drunk late at night, 3:00 a.m. or so, when he came across a little train on the edge of the Princeton campus. (This is a picture of the train.) And he climbed on top of the train and grabbed the two electric wires. So he was severely electrocuted, as you can imagine. A friend who was with him called 9-1-1 and he was airlifted to a local hospital, and he underwent extensive surgery, physical therapy, plastic surgery, and so on. But in the process, he lost both of his legs and one of his arms. (This is a picture of him today.) So this was obviously an extremely tragic situation that changed and shaped the direction of his life in really traumatic ways. But after recovering, he returned to Princeton with the help of a guide dog and he became pre-med. He finished Princeton. He then applied to medical school, was admitted to medical school. And today, he’s a doctor living and working in San Francisco.
Catherine Sanderson: So this is really a remarkable shift in terms of his fate, what happened to him. But a few years ago, a reporter from the Princeton alumni magazine interviewed him for a story. And they asked him the question that I imagine all of us would ask him if we had the opportunity someday to meet him. And here is the question: “If you could go back in time and undo this experience that has so dramatically changed your life, your body, would you do so?”
Catherine Sanderson: And here’s his answer: “No. Too much good stuff has come out of it. I was not headed towards a career in medicine before the accident, and I don’t think I’d be as good a physician if I hadn’t had that experience.” So B.J. Miller describes very poignantly the benefits that have come out of this life-altering tragedy. And what he says is he works today with veterans, with amputees, with quadriplegics. And when he walks into somebody’s room there’s an immediate sense of rapport and connection, because the person looks at his body and they immediately understand that on some level he totally gets what they’re going through. And that experience lets him be a better physician than if he hadn’t actually had this life-changing tragedy. And to me, this is really a powerful example of something that we could all use; that we all have the opportunity to take negative experiences and frame them as what’s good, not just what’s bad.
Catherine Sanderson: And there’s a wonderful book that some of you may know, but if you don’t know it already, I highly recommend it. Good pandemic reading. But it’s a book by the author, Pat Conroy. And what this book describes is the experience that he had on a basketball team that kept losing, that was losing and losing and losing again and again, and the lessons that he took from that experience. And here’s the quote: “Sports books are always about winning because winning is far more pleasurable and exhilarating to read about than losing. Winning is wonderful in every aspect. But the darker music of loss resonates on deeper, richer planes. Loss is a fiercer, more uncompromising teacher, cold-hearted but clear-eyed in its understanding that life is more dilemma than game and more trial than free pass. My acquaintance with loss has sustained me during the stormy passages of my life—when the pink slips came through the door, when the checks bounced at the bank, when I told my small children I was leaving their mother, when the despair caught up with me, when the dreams of suicide began feeling like love songs of release. Though I learned some things from the games we won that year, I learned much, much more from loss.”
Catherine Sanderson: And to me, this quote really epitomizes what on some level we’re all going through, that most of us have experienced some kind of loss during this last few months. For some people, that could be loss of a job or loss of income. For some people, that could be loss of a loved one. And I think it’s really so important right now that all of us try to focus on what we can learn and take from these last few months and hopefully develop skills to be able to carry us forward, to appreciate the small joys of daily life, to be able to stop and smell the roses. To be more compassionate to people around us and to develop a greater sense of our own skills and ability to be resilient, even in the face of loss and tragedy. And I’m hoping that this talk has given people some insight into what psychology, what empirical research in psychology, tells us that we can all do to develop these skills about being more resilient, even when it’s really hard to do so.
Catherine Sanderson: So I really appreciate you all listening today. I want to say now I know some people are on the call right now listening to it live, and I’m glad to take questions. But if you’re watching a video of this, it’s also totally fine to reach out to me. That’s my e-mail. email@example.com. It’s totally fine to email me with a question; I will respond. You can also watch other talks I’ve given on happiness and health and the mind-body connection for free on my website, which is sandersonspeaking.com. For people who want to connect via Instagram, I’m also on sandersonspeaking and I post every day about things about happiness and health and often dogs, my family. I really hope everyone’s staying safe. And for people who are really interested in this topic, I’ve written a book, The Positive Shift, came out last year, that talks about lots of the things that I’ve shared in more detail. For the nerds, for the science people who are really interested in that sort of topic, you can check it out. And I’ve arranged a discount through my publisher, which is BenBella Books. If you go on that website, you can get half off either the physical book or the e-book. And so, again, it’s available everywhere, but if you’re interested in checking it out, that’s a special discount code for people who’ve actually listened to this talk. So thanks for listening. And I am going to turn it over now for people who are on the video call if there are any questions. But most importantly, stay safe, everyone, and thanks for listening. Thank you.
Ryan Newswanger: Question: I know for us, at least with work, you know, we’ve had these various adjustments that we’ve gone through in the office where you might say, well, the first two or three weeks felt a particular way, and then after six weeks there was a different sort of feeling. And now that it’s eight or nine weeks, there’s also a different feeling. I’m curious what psychology might have to say about transitions or changes like this. Is there indeed a period where this really just becomes normal and there’s a little less this sense of everything that we’re missing, and more this is just how we wake up and go about work every day?
Catherine Sanderson Yeah, that’s a wonderful question. And it’s frankly one that I think lots of researchers in psychology are starting to examine right now, because, of course, this is a really new experience. I know people sort of early on were sort of thinking of this as, you know, a snow day. This is just temporary, and, you know, things are going to get back to normal. And I think, as you’ve just said, it’s very clear now that we’re sort of in a different phase of it because we’re not talking about it in terms of a matter of days or weeks right now. So I’m, of course, a professor at a college. And colleges and universities all around the world are now actually grappling with what does college life look like in August, in September, or October, and so on? And so I think that we are actually now wrapping our mind around how can we take what we used to do and adopt that sort of in a more longer-term way. And I think that’s why it’s really important for us to think about what are ways that we can actually shift and be connected with people? Because you’re right. This is no longer, “OK, how am I going to get through these two or three weeks or even two or three months?” This is really, “How am I going to do things in a different way?” And so I think some workplaces are going to be adapting to that. But I think also on a personal level, we all need to think about what are ways that I can kind of create new routines that I can actually stick with, not just for two or three weeks, but how I can actually adopt sort of healthy practices longer term. And psychology is just sort of beginning to grapple with when do people make that shift? I think it’s also clear that for different people that answer will be in fact, very different. So for people who are, you know, working, for example, in industries like working at their local supermarket or doing take-out at a restaurant, they may in fact be shifting their whole way of doing business, you know, moving forward. And so that also may be a very personal question that’s going to hit different people in different ways. So [it’s] really important to recognize that there’s more shifting to what a new normal will look like, and that may look different for different people. Great question. Thank you.
Gina Robinson: Katherine, thank you so much. This is just such a great talk. And I’m really dedicated to being happy and maintaining sort of a positive outlook. But what I’ve found recently is that when I connect with people, you know, the first question is sort of, “How are you holding up?” And it also seems to be a really popular thing to say, “This is terrible.” You know, I’m so stressed out or, you know, whatever it is. And when I hear that, I feel like there’s always this tendency to say, “Oh, me, too. Oh, this is tough for me, too.” And I’m wondering what kind of—are there ways to maybe transition that in a conversation to say, oh, you know, “Yes, it is tough, but”? So what would you suggest in those situations?
Catherine Sanderson: So first of all, I love that you are able to be a positive person. And I love that you are also—your question is really about how can you extend that positivity. I mean, I love that question, right. Because really what the research would show is that positivity is contagious, like the flu or the coronavirus. And so trying to focus on positivity is so very important. And so I think saying an acknowledgement of, yeah, it is it is stressful or it is hard. And then to be able to say the “but” is really important, because the “but” is really saying, “Yeah, it’s hard. But I’ve also found I really love to garden” or “but I’ve really found I love to”—because the thing is, is that we’re all kind of in the same boat and the boat is hard. And so I think being able to say to people, “Hey, you know what I’m doing? I’m doing this.” So here’s a really simple example. I am—and this is like a little bit of an embarrassing admission because, of course, like this is talk of, you know, “Professor Catherine Sanderson”—but I have a part-time side gig that I’ve had for like twenty-five years. Spoiler alert! And it is teaching aerobics. So I also teach aerobics. Like I also teach aerobics at a local gym. And I totally miss my class. I miss my class of people who are like super into exercise because, of course, the gyms are closed. And yet what my husband and I have done every day for the pandemic is something called the six-minute workout. And if people listening to this don’t know what that is, if you Google it, you can find out. But it’s literally six minutes and it’s alternating twelve different exercises for 30 seconds each. And that includes like push ups and squats and like wall sits and jumping jacks and whatever. And so there’s an example of something in which if somebody says to me, “Oh, my gosh, I missed the gym,” I say, “I totally miss the gym, too. But you know what my husband and I are doing? We’re doing the six-minute workout and it’s awesome!” And there is an example in which you can acknowledge, yeah, I miss this or yeah, I wish we were doing this. But, you know, here we are.
Catherine Sanderson: So today I miss talking live. I miss talking live to people and seeing people laugh and seeing people raise their hands and having that interaction. And instead, I’m sitting here, you know, talking to a webcam or whatever. But you know what? I’m so happy that you all have given me the opportunity to talk—to talk about psychology, to do what I do in my regular life. And so this isn’t the same. But there’s also a sense in which people can watch this who might not be able to drive to their local library, right? Or to their local place where they would normally see a professor. I had a funny e-mail the other day from someone who had seen me talk in Toronto last October, and we’d done a live talk, you know, in Toronto. And it was a super great audience and a beautiful building overlooking the city. And it was awesome. But I did a web interview the other day that he saw and he reached out and he said, “Now I get to see an academic talking from their kitchen.” And he goes, “Who would have thought?” And you know what? So I am doing this talk from my kitchen. And in a sense, you know, that’s like a really funny—I was going to show you my kitchen looks like, but I don’t think I have the technology to be able to figure that out. So there is an example in which like, there lots of like small things that we can sort of take a special perk in. So I love that you want to share that. And yeah, I think if you’re having a conversation with somebody who’s kind of, you know, going in a negative direction, turn it positive. What are you doing? Because we all need more positivity right now. And congratulations on being one of those people who does it easily. Not my forte.
Ryan Newswanger: I think I’ll follow up on that question—kind of out myself a little bit that, you know, during the, you know, there’s probably a three or four weeks where things were really shut down. And I work—I live in a very small village, so we don’t have a lot of traffic as it is, but things really, really, quieted down. And I had this feeling of actually this is sort of close to how I want to live. You know, I really like this peace and stillness. I like taking the long walk in the morning. Yet what comes with this is this sense of guilt. And also this recognition that for a lot of people—and especially during that time, you know, the pandemic was really raging through New York City—so being really hesitant to admit that to people. Or that when I did to say that feeling very apologetic, like this is actually suiting me pretty well. And I don’t know if you have any thoughts about that, too, like that balance of needing to recognize how hard this is for people in particular situations, while at the same time there are some benefits that for those of us who, you know, might want a break from the real “go go” North American lifestyle. This is this kind of interesting interlude.
Catherine Sanderson: Yeah. So I think you actually raised two really important things in that question. So I think one is actually trying to show compassion. So, you know, so I’m a professor. You know, my income has stayed the same. You know, they keep paying me and I’m teaching my kids on, you know, Zoom or whatever, but I’m getting my whole salary. There are certainly people who are not in that situation. So right now, financially, they’re really struggling. My daughter is a pretty serious ballet dancer and she buys all of her stuff from this wonderful woman, Marianne, who’s in our community. And of course, her store has been shut down. And it’s been really, really hard for her in terms of finances. And so I think being able to express compassion, acknowledging that some of us might be in a situation in which we’re not struggling because there’s some positives here—you know, a change of lifestyle or our financial situation has not gotten worse—and being able to express that compassion, to being able to say, “Hey, I know this is really hard for you and where you are” is important. My family has now bought a bunch of stuff from Marianne’s that she shipped to us, you know, that my daughter doesn’t need imminently, but eventually we’ll need—you know, tights or, you know, hair nets or whatever. And so being able to do things that are practically compassionate for other people who might be in a different situation, or to be able to just express, “Hey, I know things are really hard and I’m really sorry and I feel for you.” So I think in some sense, being able to acknowledge and express compassion that different people are in different situations also feels good; that, you know, we’re not sort of saying blissfully, “Oh, I’m so happy I don’t have to wear pants, you know, anymore when I teach classes” or, you know, whatever that is.
Catherine Sanderson: But I think the other thing, which I think your point really addresses, is that this situation, it’s not one size fits all. So I have two sons who are both college students. My older son is a junior in college and he is a total extrovert. And this situation has been a nightmare for him. You know, he misses his friends. He’s in a fraternity, of course, that’s gone. He’s on the newspaper staff, you know, that’s gone. He has a radio show, that’s gone. And he’s sad. He’s sad. He’s lonely. He misses his friends terribly. I have another son who’s a freshman in college, and he is a total introvert. And this situation has been a godsend. He didn’t like having a roommate. Now he’s back at home and he has a single. He was away from his high school girlfriend. His high school girlfriend, also back at home, he’s seeing her with some regularity. He’s very happy. He gets to have the meals that we prepare. And for an introvert, doing college online has been a godsend. His grades have skyrocketed because for him, he loves doing Zoom class. It was hard to participate in a big lecture hall; it’s very easy to type something into a chat room. And so, again, I think we have to acknowledge that this situation is hitting different people in different ways and to be sensitive to that, that on multiple different levels this is not one size fits all, and that if we can take some good from it for ourselves, that’s important to acknowledge and appreciate. And I think it’s also important to acknowledge what has worked well. So for some students, it may be easier to do a little bit of college online because participating in a big lecture hall can be difficult. And I think as faculty, we need to be sensitive to the ways in which this experience has really changed how some students are able to access faculty, to access resources. But it’s not all for bad; for some students, it can actually be for good. And that’s the same for people in which maybe the office setting was really distracting. Students who’ve reported, you know, in high school, in middle school, that they’ve had problems with bullying? This can be actually a safer way to learn in that sense. And so, again, it’s very easy for us all to focus on what’s bad. And for some people, there is a lot of bad. But it’s also important to recognize that there can be some good as well.
Ryan Newswanger: All right. I had one more, if that’s OK, if no one else has something. I’m trying to not end this on a downer note here. And I don’t know if this exists as a percentage or not. But just, you know, recognizing, I guess, the question is that there are some people for whom adversity essentially breaks them, where they stuck in bitterness or they never get over it. Do you have a sense from psychology, kind of, what are the percentages roughly of people who are able to make something of it, become more resilient, become fuller, more giving people? And what are the percentages of people who this is just something that they live with in a way, and there was sort of a before and an after, and the after is certainly not better.
Catherine Sanderson: So that is a really important question. And so what the psychology research would say is that there are some people who seem to have a genetic predisposition. There’s actually a part of their brain that seems to be better able to buffer difficult experiences. And so this ability doesn’t really come to play when everything’s kind of hunky-dory, everything’s great. But for some people, when bad things happen, they kind of seem to just, you know, buffer them and keep going. And for other people, they get really mired and stuck. And that can be things like a pandemic, but it can also be, you know, a divorce or loss of a loved one or getting fired or, you know, sort of other things.
Catherine Sanderson: And so you see this sort of genetic predisposition to be able to go with the flow and be okay vs. have a much more debilitating negative experience. And the percentages are very hard to determine because basically this doesn’t come into play until you experience some bad stuff. So we don’t know, you know, how many people might have this ability because the bad stuff hasn’t happened. And we’re not at the level of being able to, you know, genetically test everybody, you know, for this particular part of the brain in terms of activation. But I think what’s also really important to remember is that even [for] people who don’t seem to have this genetic predisposition of being able to go with the flow, there are things we can learn and do, even if it’s not our natural predisposition. And the best predictor of being able to buffer difficult experiences and get through them being more positive and and kind of OK and not get mired and stuck, the best predictor is having good relationships. I mean, that could be having good relationships with a friend, a spouse, a sibling, a family member, you know, whatever. But it’s really the time in which our close relationships seem to be particularly important. And it’s not about having lots of relationships, you know, lots of Facebook friends or a giant social network. What really seems to be important is having one or two people who we really can connect with and we can have authentic and meaningful and personal and intimate relationships with. And if we have those, we can get through almost anything. But you really need to have those. And if you don’t have those already, this pandemic is a wonderful time to kind of reach out and strengthen those, to look for those people around you who can provide that support.
Ryan Newswanger: I just wanted to put a comment—like we have a friend who’s a vet who runs an animal hospital near here, and she was just talking about how many people are getting puppies and are adopting dogs. And you gave a little context to why that might be aside from like, well, now we’re around the house all the time so we can train the puppy more easily.
Catherine Sanderson: Yeah. Well, listen, I will say, as one who has adopted over the course of a number of years three different rescue dogs, this is a wonderful time actually for dogs, because people are around a lot. Dogs are getting a lot of walks. And I think it’s a wonderful time if you don’t already have a pet, it’s a great time to get one in terms of being able to train a puppy or, you know, foster an adult dog. But also it’s good for our psychological well-being. It’s good for our physical well-being. And even if you’re in a situation where you can’t permanently adopt a dog because, you know, things are gonna get back to normal and your job, you know, travels a lot or you’re not home or whatever, even giving pets a break from the shelter can help dramatically reduce their stress and can make them more adoptable in the future because they’ve kind of gotten used to people and family life in a new way. So I strongly encourage people who don’t already have a dog, go out and get one or get a second one. That is definitely some good that can come from you and from pets during this pandemic.
Gina Robinson: This was a really great talk and I really appreciate it. I did get a lot of notes for things to do in the next couple of weeks.
Catherine Sanderson: Good. Well, thank you all so much. And I really appreciate this opportunity to talk. And let me know when the video is posted or shared, because I’d love to share it with people that I know, because really right now we can all use more strategies. So thank you all for the opportunity. This talk gave me a feeling of connection with you all, and purpose. And stay safe, everyone.
That’s Catherine Sanderson, professor of psychology at Amherst College and the author of The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity.