Catherine Sanderson – The Science of Happiness (308)

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Catherine Sanderson - The Science of Happiness

Catherine Sanderson is the Poler Family Professor and Chair of Psychology at Amherst College.
She received a bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a specialization in Health and Development, from Stanford University, and received both masters and doctoral degrees in psychology from Princeton University.  Her research has received grant funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health. Professor Sanderson has published over 25 journal articles and book chapters in addition to four college textbooks, middle school and high school health textbooks, as well as the Introduction to Psychology course for The Great Courses. In 2012, she was named one of the country’s top 300 professors by the Princeton Review.

Catherine Sanderson Books & Media Features

Professor Sanderson has written trade books on parenting as well as how mindset influences happiness, health, and even how long we live (The Positive Shift). Her latest trade book, published in North America as Why We Act: Turning Bystanders Into Moral Rebels (Harvard University Press) and internationally as The Bystander Effect: The Psychology of Courage and Inaction (HarperCollins), examines why good people so often stay silent or do nothing in the face of wrongdoing. For a preview of the topics addressed in this book, watch Catherine’s TEDx talk on the Psychology of Inaction, which describes the factors that contribute to inaction and provides strategies we all can use to help people act, even when those around them are not.

Professor Sanderson speaks regularly for public and corporate audiences on topics such as the science of happiness, the power of emotional intelligence, the art of aging well, and the psychology of courage and inaction. These talks have been featured in numerous mainstream media outlets, including The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, USA Today, The Atlantic, CNN, and CBS Sunday Morning with Jane Pauley. She also writes a weekly blog for Psychology Today – Norms Matter – that examines the power of social influence on virtually all aspects of our lives.

Catherine lives with her husband, Bart Hollander, and three children – Andrew, Robert, and Caroline – in Hadley, Massachusetts.

You can follow Catherine on all the main social media platforms:

And now here’s Catherine Sanderson.

Full transcript below

Video on The Science of Happiness with Catherine Sanderson

Watch Catherine Sanderson’s TedX Talk – The Psychology of Inaction

Visit to Learn More About Catherine

Get Catherine Sanderson’s Latest Book – The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity

Connect with Catherine Sanderson on LinkedIn

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Podcast with Catherine Sanderson. The Science of Happiness.


people, book, psychology, happiness, pandemic, students, happy, teach, talk, person, wear, mask, professors, inaction, sit, positive psychology, feel, relationships, story, kids


Mike Malatesta, Catherine Sanderson

Mike Malatesta  00:06

Hey everybody. Welcome back to the How’d It Happen Podcast. So happy to have you here, as I am with every episode, and my podcast is powered by WINJECT Studio. And today, I have an amazing success story to share with you. I’ve got Dr. Catherine Sanderson on the podcast. Catherine, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining me.

Catherine Sanderson  00:35

Thank you so much for this invitation to talk. I’m so looking forward to it.

Mike Malatesta  00:39

So Katherine and I met a couple of weeks ago in Milwaukee at a YPO event at Cristo Rey, which is a charter school, an amazing charter school, from what I could see. And she gave a presentation there that I was blown away by on the psychology of and maybe the science of happiness. So you’re in for a treat, because she’s, well, first of all, she’s an excellent presenter, let’s just get that out of the way here. And I was fascinated by her because we had the chance to sit at the same table for dinner. And all I was thinking about was how much preparation time you had put into this and how all these sort of nerdy questions behind the scenes. At least, that’s what was going through my mind. So she’s very gracious in answering those questions, as well. So let me tell you about Catherine. So Catherine Sanderson is the polar family professor and chair of Psychology at Amherst College. She received a bachelor’s degree in psychology with specialization in health and development from Stanford University. Which by the way, that young man at the event was also going to Stanford as I recall.

Catherine Sanderson  01:57

Yeah. Wasn’t that a nice little like segue? Yeah, that was so yeah. And I’m so jealous of him that he gets a chance to start a new I would love to be heading out there for my first year.

Mike Malatesta  02:08

And you didn’t plan that. So he wasn’t selected to match up with your anything. Okay. Yeah, it was wild. Yeah. Yeah. So this, this kid from, you know, very modest means in the City of Milwaukee headed to Stanford. So yeah, that was nice. So anyway, and then she went from Stanford to another school, you might have heard up for her master’s and doctorate degrees, which both she earned from Princeton University. Her research has received grant funding from the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Health. She’s published over 25 journal articles and book chapters, in addition to for college textbooks, middle school and high school health textbooks, as well as the introduction to psychology  course, for the great courses, what is the great courses.

Catherine Sanderson  02:55

So the great courses is a lecture series. So it includes videos of professors that you can stream or you can buy. And it’s really designed to introduce people to a variety of different topics that maybe you know, you wish you’d taken a class in astronomy, or ancient Rome, or psychology in high school, and you didn’t have a chance to do so. So now, it’s a big series that runs on and just includes, you know, 1000s of classes, you know, many classes that people can watch, you know, online or you know, in video, etc.

Mike Malatesta  03:31

Okay, all right. Well, I gotta check that out the great courses, you should check it out as well. Thank you. In 2012, she was named one of the country’s top 300 Professors by the Princeton Review that sounds prestigious, thank you. Congratulations. Thank you. She’s written the books. He’s written a ton. As you can see her books. Just got a bunch of books, the power positive shift is one of her books, and then she her latest trade book, and I’m sorry to just keep tromping all over your introduction. But what is a trade book? I don’t know. I’ve never heard that before.

Catherine Sanderson  04:06

Oh, yeah. That’s, that’s kind of like an industry lingo thing. It basically means a book, you could buy it, like, you know, Barnes and Noble. So a book designed for a general audience as opposed to a textbook, you know, designed for a scholarly book designed for like, you know, other professors in my field. So a trade book is, you know, a book that you could pick up at an airport or, you know, designed again, for a general audience,

Mike Malatesta  04:30

okay. So not and it distinguishes it from a from a purely academic book,

Catherine Sanderson  04:35

or a textbook, you know, or when you think about books, you know, I could write books, you know, for undergraduate students to use in my classes, I could write books for other people with PhDs in psychology, and a trade book is sort of designed for the general audience. So anyone should be able to pick it up off the shelf and you know, be able to read it, you know, listen to it, etc.

Mike Malatesta  04:56

Okay. Okay, so her latest trade book published in North America with one title, which is why we act turning bystanders into moral rebels. And that’s from the Harvard University Press and internationally, the book is called the bystander effect the psychology of courage and inaction. And that is published by HarperCollins. I’m gonna get into this a little bit because you can tell him already, this whole trade book textbook, and then these different names, so I’m gonna get into that a little bit later. With that book examines why good people so often stay silent or do nothing in the face of wrongdoing. If you want to preview of the topics addressed in that book, you can watch Catherine’s TEDx talk on the psychology of inaction, which describes the factors that contribute to inaction and provide strategies we can all use to help people act even when those around them or not. Catherine regularly speaks for public and corporate audiences and you can find out more about that at her website, which is Her talks have been everywhere, for good reason, as I mentioned at the very beginning of this, including she has been featured in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, USA Today the Atlantic, CNN, CBS Sunday Morning with Jane Pauley, and on and on. We also have a commonality as well. If I remember correctly, your daughter is headed to Dickinson College in the fall of 2022. And that just happens to be my alma mater, as well as my wife’s alma mater. So go Dickinson. Is it red devils? I think it is. Yeah. Red Devils. Yeah, please. That’s what I that’s what I call it if maybe it’s changed. It’s been a little while since I’ve been there. But yeah, so Catherine. Same simple question. And that is, how did it happen for you.

Catherine Sanderson  07:11

So my story of how did I get to where I am really started during my undergraduate time at Stanford. And so I started Stanford, with a strong interest in medicine, and in particular with children. So I began volunteering in the pediatric hospital at Stanford Medical Center. And, you know, I really had a goal of becoming a pediatrician. And then I began pre-med studies at Stanford in chemistry, and it became clear that that was not really my forte, and it was going to be a long, long, frustrating road that may well not have ended up with acceptance to medical school. So let’s say that, that, that that dream, you know, very quickly shifted, and I then fell into psychology and, you know, psychology is, you know, related in many ways to the idea of helping people and I am, I thought I would become a child clinical psychologist. So I, you know, began studying psychology with, again, this desire to, you know, help people in a very direct way. And as part of that work, I volunteered for a campus hotline, dealing with people who were experiencing, you know, thoughts of suicide, and, you know, depression and other issues. And, and what became very clear to me was that I was not going to have the ability to really separate myself, from people dealing with very severe problems that I would leave my volunteer shift, and I would go home, and I would ruminate, and I would be obsessed about it, and I and I just felt, you know, sad. And I came to the realization pretty early, you know, probably my junior year that I was not going to be able to be a clinical psychologist and have a happy life, because it was going to really just sort of take me over the people who can sort of separate and that was not my ability. So that led me to explore other parts of psychology. And my senior year, I did a thesis with a wonderful professor and Fernald at Stanford. And the thesis was really researching how do babies learn to talk? So that was our topic. And what I found that year was that I loved research, I loved the idea of coming up with a question and figuring out a way to answer it, and then figuring out if I was right, and it kind of felt to me like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle, and I absolutely loved it. And I realized that was really where my passion fell. And then I also realized at the end of that year that I didn’t care at all about how babies learn to talk. Babies do learn to talk, they all learn, whatever. And that was not the question that was going to drive, you know, a 50-year career. And so that led me to sort of shift from developmental psychology to social psychology, which is what I do now. And by and large, because what I really love and I think what was clear in the talk that you heard, for me, given in my writing, again of trade books, what I love is psychology that matters in real and fundamental ways in people’s lives. And what I think I’m pretty good at and really enjoy is taking complex research findings in the field of social psychology that people can use to implement in their own lives, whether that’s how to be happy, or how to be healthier, or how to stand up to problematic behavior, that all of those are sort of the research questions that really intrigued me and, and that’s pretty much what I do now. I teach and write and talk about psychology that matters.

Mike Malatesta  10:36

And so, thanks, that’s an interesting journey. I’m curious, I want to kind of hone in on this clinical work that you did as a volunteer early on. Probably a good thing for you that you did it so early, because it? Well, it showed you that maybe that wasn’t the right path for you, right. But I guess I’m wondering, sitting in you’re trying to put myself in your shoes as a 19- or 20-year-old person, being on the phone with people who have are experiencing serious challenges in their life, I just check. How long did you do it for? And I mean, you sort of mentioned that, you know, how it dissuaded you from doing it long term? But how did you How were you able to help people when you were? How did you do it? That’s, if you can

Catherine Sanderson  11:27

remember, right? No, no. So that so it was a program that was run by the Counseling Center at Stanford, and it was really designed to be not therapy, right? It was not therapy, but it was really designed to help people access support, that would help them get actual treatment. So sometimes it was people just calling and saying, I feel sad, you know, I feel lonely, you know, I feel depressed, or you know, et cetera. So part of it was being a listening ear, a part of it was telling people, you know, you’re not alone. And then part of it was also saying, Here are resources that you can access. So that could be low-cost therapy, it could be free therapy, it could be, you should go to the emergency room, you know, that here is here is that, you know, here is this is a 911, you know, call, et cetera. So we receive training, and again, I imagine, training has probably evolved in the last, you know, 30 years, you know, or whatever, but we receive training, and it was ran by, you know, an entirely volunteer staff. And it was really designed to try to help have people have access to a listening ear, and some direction in that sense. But what I found for me was that there were other people who were volunteers, who could kind of do the volunteer work, who could, you know, talk to people for a period of time and you know, sort of cheer them up or direct them appropriately, and then they could kind of walk out and, you know, go get pizza and be fine. Okay, so yeah. And I was not like, I couldn’t do it like, and, and I think that’s something that for people who get degrees in clinical psychology, which is not my degree, but for people to get degrees in clinical psychology, I think there’s actual training and focus on helping people do this sort of disconnect. But I think there are people who are better at that sort of naturally than others. And I’m someone, I’m still not naturally good at doing that. I mean, I’m someone who still, you know, when I have students who are facing difficulties, I check in with them with with a fair amount of regularity, you know, that I’m somebody who continues to think about, you know, things and people that I’ve talked to, or that I’ve taught, you know, etc. And so, I do think they’re probably individual differences in people who can, you know, disconnect and compartmentalize and, and lead sort of happy and productive lives. And I just felt I would be, you know, a mom sitting at the dinner table, you know, unable to focus on you know, what was going on in my personal life, because I would be so swept up in these people who are really struggling, right?

Mike Malatesta  13:56

It almost sounds like the difference is the person who can do it, and do that for a living, is sort of like at the end of the session, or at the end of the call, they’re like, Well, we made good progress today. And you and probably me, too, because I think I’d be the same way. We’re like, we didn’t fix it today.

Catherine Sanderson  14:15

100% No, no. 100% and I imagine I have a cousin, who is a doctor who works in emergency rooms. And you know, he likes the excitement of you never know what’s gonna walk in the door. And you know, yet yeah, you know, and I just can’t imagine having that ability to see somebody, you know, in somebody’s family, you know, maybe facing, you know, the worst days of their lives and to be able to leave and go spend time with his family or whatever. So I do imagine there are people who are good at that. And and then I think there are probably people like us who just are not, and frankly, kind of figuring out where you are early on. I mean, I feel lucky that I that I decided to do I think one of my professors actually said, you know, well A good way to get some experience is to do X. And I was like, okay, you know, sign me. And then I learned boy. But that was really useful because as you can kind of tell from, you know, from my story of how I got here, a lot of my story was finding out things that I wasn’t good at chemistry was one hotline work with severely depressed people was another that was not good. And frankly, part of it was figuring out what what I was good at what I liked. And what I wasn’t good at, it was not a sort of linear progression to this is what I want to be doing. And I knew that 30 years ago,

Mike Malatesta  15:37

well, that’s maybe we can talk about this from a psychology standpoint that when you said that it sort of made me think about the sort of proliferates now of people espousing that you need to find your passion and follow it. And on the one hand, every time I hear that I’m like, okay, yeah, that that, that would be great. On the other hand, finding your passion seems to me to be the byproduct of exploration. And if you wait, to know and find your passion before you do any exploration, I feel like it’s, it has the opposite effect, like telling me that I need to find my passion actually keeps me stuck in doing in not exploring, do you is? What’s the psychology on that? Yeah.

Catherine Sanderson  16:27

So it’s a great question. And it’s one that I think about a lot, frankly, as a professor, but also, as a mom, I have, you know, a son in college, a daughter, as we’ve mentioned, you know, heading off to college and other son who graduated from college a year ago, this weekend. And, you know, I think a lot that I have students who come into my office, you know, their first day of their first year, and they’re like, so just to let you know, I’m gonna double major in philosophy and biology, and that’s going to prepare me for my MD, PhD, you know, so whatever, I have it lined up. And there’s some students who come in with that sort of direction, and they’re very successful. But more often than not, I see students who arrive in college who have a direction, and, and then find, sometimes accidentally, you know, they Oh, I took this anthropology class, and all of a sudden, I found I love this, or, you know, I thought I was going to be pre-med, but I took this history class, and, and I can’t imagine not majoring in history. And I really try to encourage my students to open themselves up, because when you arrive at college, there’s so many different things that you actually can’t know anything about. Because in high school, you can’t take a class, you know, for most students can’t take a class in psychology or geology or, you know, political science. I mean, students take, you know, math and English and Spanish and their biology, but there’s so much that they don’t have exposure to. So I do think that a lot of a lot of things are are accidental, a lot of things are are random in some way. I mean, as you said, in my lovely bio, you know, I have the opportunity to have written a number of textbooks, I’ve written some trade books, almost all of those came out, you know, sort of accidentally somebody approached me and said, Would you like to do this? And I was like, hmm, maybe, you know, I don’t know, maybe I would, and sort of exploring and figuring out, you know, what you do like, and sometimes that is saying, yes, right, saying yes. And then figuring out, well, did you know, did that work out? Or did that not but really sort of opening yourself up to different opportunities, you know, I think helps you figure out what you love and what you’re good at. That

Mike Malatesta  18:31

is such that so that saying, yes, thing is marvelous advice, because I, I wrote in my trade book, I wrote a that was part of a chapter for me, it was like when I first got my job out of college, which was really a waste management company, which, when I was growing up was not my dream, you know, but as I evolved, it seemed like a good opportunity. But then the thing that really, I think, made it my profession was, every time I was offered an opportunity to do something, I just said, Yes, I didn’t ask how much it paid. I didn’t ask why picking me I didn’t that I just figured, if I say yes, I’m gonna get to explore something new. And that’ll either make me think this is the way to go or make me think, you know, maybe there’s a different way to go. But if I didn’t try, I would just, yeah, just that say yes, thing I think is very powerful.

Catherine Sanderson  19:27

There’s a, I was actually on a podcast a couple of years ago, and I’m completely blanking on the name, but it’s something like getting to gas or just say gas or something. But it’s actually ran out in Second City in Chicago. And there’s a wonderful podcast hook podcast host, Kelly Leonard, who actually taught me during that interview that one of the, I guess, hallmarks or secrets of improvisational theatre, is you always say yes, like you always just go with it because otherwise it stops the scene, right? If you’re like, Yeah, I don’t respond to that and You just keep going with it. And, and the idea, I think, is so clever because it really is just kind of being open to things, you know that that happened to you at random. And, and there’s so many times in my life in which I can think about things that, you know, I kind of didn’t want to say yes to, you know, and I did. And I’ll give just one, you know, tiny example is that about, I don’t know, maybe eight or so years ago, I was asked by one of my students, if I would be the faculty advisor for a cancer support group on campus, and my mother died of cancer. So I think that sort of is part of why they asked me, but it was a group of students who, whose lives had been touched in some way by cancer, some of these were kids who were themselves in remission, you know, from cancer, some of them were kids who had lost a parent or, you know, had a parent or sibling in hospice care. So I really did not want to say yes, because I was like this, I mean, kind of going along with the story that I, that I shared at the start here, like, you know, is this going to be is it going to be hard for me emotionally is it going to be something that I have difficulty separating from is it going to be a weird sort of combination of my role as a professor, you know, when sort of a distant, you know, advisor, you know, academic versus sitting with these kids in my living room, and, but the kid asked me, and the kid had lost his mom to cancer, and, you know, my heart went out to him. And so anyway, so I said, Yes. And the kids, I mean, pre pre COVID, the kids met in my living room, once a month, and they met in my living room, because some of them cry, and they didn’t want to do that, you know, on campus, and a lounge or, you know, a public setting, they wanted to sort of have the distance. And I will say that, I got to know, so many of these kids, you know, in such a meaningful way. And it’s really their kids who I mean, I literally heard from one of them yesterday, who wanted a letter of recommendation, you know, student graduated three or four years ago, another one, you know, I hear from with some regularity, I reach out to the kids pretty often on like, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, I’ll send an email, you know, to the group. And it’s and the relationships that I formed with those kids have just been super meaningful and continue to be so. And and it just an example of something that I did not want to say yes to I sort of, you know, I frankly, tried to find another faculty member who would agree Oh, you did. And I actually reached out to a colleague, and he’s like, maybe you like this? And she was like, not really. And, and then I was like, okay, you know, and, and but I, but I think now, but it’s just an example of something that that I tried to not say yes to. But I’m, but I’m so glad that I that I did say yes to and it’s been super meaningful, you know, to me, and I think to the kids,

Mike Malatesta  22:44

and I think if my memory is right on our conversation, even your you mentioned that the books and stuff coming from saying yes, but I think your speaking and presentation came kind of that way too. And we talked about Sean Aker, and yeah, so tell us about that.

Catherine Sanderson  23:01

Yeah. So, um, so there’s a group called one day University, if somebody Google’s that they can, I think it’s like one day And they’re a group that pre pandemic used to do. Like, a would bring in a series of professors, you know, you know, somebody in psychology and somebody music and somebody in history or whatever, and they would, you know, give talks, so general, you know, one hour talks, and these were held, you know, across the country, so I’ve gotten it in Milwaukee, I’ve done in Chicago, in New York City, and you know, San Francisco and DC and, you know, really all over and before the pandemic, I was doing it, you know, at least once a month, you know, sometimes more and it was always, you know, a lot of fun talking to, you know, big audiences and I talked about different topics in psychology, I talked about the mind body connection, and health and persuasion, etc. And you know, and it was fine, it was, you know, going well, and then, the organizer of one day University, who now has become a dear friend called me one day and said, Listen, you know, one of our most popular talks is the science of happiness by this really great person, you know, affiliated with Harvard University, Sean Aker, and he’s just been awesome. And in fact, he’s been so awesome. He’s been so awesome. Sorry about that. He’s been so awesome that he now has a whole career in which he speaks, you know, full time to you know, Disney and Nike and, you know, places across the country, such that, you know, he’s not really going to go and do these little, you know, Podunk one day University talks because you know, he’s now making a giant amount of money, you know, working for corporations and he goes so any chance you could pull together a talk on the science of happiness? And I was like, Sure, I mean, Science of Happiness is all about psychology like that’s you know, that’s easy so I I worked on you know, crafting a talk I had never taught about the science of happiness it’s not a you know, class I teach at Amherst, but I was like, you know, sure, I know psychology I you know, I can read the literature or whatever. So I created a talk on And the science of happiness. And that now, you know, I mean, that’s the talk you heard. That talk has been, you know, featured in The Boston Globe, it’s been featured in The Atlantic, it led to an interview on CBS Sunday Morning with Jane Pauley. And, and it led to a book that I published in January of 2019, the positive shift, all of those things came from Shawn Aker getting to famous to wealthy to talk and somebody saying, Hey, Catherine, you know, could you do this, and, and it’s been tremendously rewarding. I love you know, talking about the science of happiness. And one of the reasons that I love it is that I regularly hear from people, you know, who’ve heard the talk and have said something like, Listen, you know, I was feeling kind of like this, and your talk, you know, inspired me that now I can do something different, or, you know, I have never been a super happy person. And I’ve now I’ve started this gratitude journal, and it’s really helped. So I love the idea, you know, of reaching out and helping, and I will say, in particular, in the early days of the pandemic, so, you know, about two years ago now, I was not doing wow, I mean, I was really pretty freaked out. And I would sit, I would sit in bed at night and sort of Google, what is the rates of COVID transmission in my community? And how many ventilators are there left? And what are the signs of COVID, and I was really freaking out. And I started to get these emails from absolute strangers, emails, I got a postcard and the physical mail, I got a letter in the physical mail, and people would say, the strangers I remember hearing you talk about the science of happiness, you know, three years ago in Dallas, or I picked up your book, and I just every day, I flip to a random page, and I read it, and it’s always helpful. And I just want to know that during this pandemic, you know, your book, or, or your messages have been so helpful. And I would think to myself, I should read that book, you know, that sounds really useful, because I’m not doing well. But again, you know, that’s just an example of how I love the idea that, you know, people who I don’t know, you know, have found something that I’ve said or written, that has been useful to them in some way. And one of the key findings, in the positive side of the field of positive psychology is that happiness is contagious. So you know, me talking about happiness, you know, you allowing me to talk about happiness, actually spreads and creates more happiness in the world, which is good for all of us.

Mike Malatesta  27:22

So there’s a ton of interesting stuff that you said in there, I just want to pick up the long answer. No, no, no, that was good. That the, the first thing you said was that you never taught, and you don’t, you don’t teach on the science of happiness. So that I didn’t I don’t know if I knew that when I talked to you before, if we if we covered that, I found that very interesting. Because it makes me think, well, what do you first of all, what do you teach? And then second of all, you should be teaching science of happiness that they will allow you. So what are some of the things that you are? What are some of the classes you are teaching?

Catherine Sanderson  27:59

Yeah, so what I will say is that, first of all, I love teaching. I mean, that was, you know, probably obvious to you, and hearing me talk, I love teaching. And, and I love teaching pretty much everything. But in the field of of psychology, you know, positive psychology is kind of new. And positive psychology is kind of integrated into lots of other things that I teach so, so I don’t, so I could in fact, teach a class on positive psychology. I hope that none of my students are listening to this, because I’m asked by my students all the time, would you teach a class on positive psychology? And basically, the challenge is, in order to teach that class, I would have to give up teaching something else. And so it’s a little bit like, you know, oh, you know, which, which class could I dropped. So I teach Introduction to Psychology, which is, you know, the big overview of the discipline, which a lot of people don’t like to teach, because, again, it’s the big overview of the discipline, but I love teaching interest psychology, because it’s basically like teaching the Greatest Hits, right? Like little bit of this, and a little bit of this, and I get to talk about everything. So I love that class. I teach social psychology, which is really about you know, how do we relate to the world? You know, how, what do we get persuaded by? And how do we fall in love? And what leads us to behave altruistically, or aggressively? And how do we change our minds? And all of those topics are fascinating. And they’re particularly fascinating in these days of political polarization in society and COVID norms and you know, sort of all of these things that are changing all the time. So I love that class. I teach a class in sports psychology, a lot of students at Amherst are athletes, you know, current athletes or high school athletes. And so I teach about sports psychology, and I love that class. I just finished teaching a class on close relationships. So this is a seminar for seniors. And we talk about love and jealousy and conflict and attraction of and I love teaching about that because he here’s one of the keys to the field of positive psychology. single best predictor of your happiness, quality. That’s right. That’s it. So Okay, so although I don’t teach a class and I could teach a class on positive psychology, I teach about so much of positive psychology. Another class I teach is health psychology. And the link between happiness and health is clear. In fact, my book, the positive shift, the full title is the positive shift, colon mastering mindset to improve happiness, health, and longevity. So although the field of health psychology isn’t the same as the field of positive psychology, it absolutely is interrelated. Because what we know is that people who have a positive outlook and, and good relationships and spend time in nature and focus on gratitude, all of those things increase happiness, they also all increase health and longevity. And so so much of my teaching actually feels like it takes little pieces of positive psychology and just interweaves them into the whole discipline.

Mike Malatesta  30:56

Okay, fair enough. And I do that that makes sense to me. One of the other things that you were talking about was this sort of early and COVID how you were Googling and that kind of thing. And I’m wondering, and you said, you know, you get the postcards and stuff, and people are saying about stuff in your book, and you’re thinking to yourself, and I should read my own book here. But I, as an, as you were saying, I’m thinking about leadership books, and I’m thinking about your type of books, and all these different types of books, where people are experts in their, you know, imparting their wisdom and experience on it, but it’s not always easy to do what you say.

Catherine Sanderson  31:34

No, I mean, it’s not. And, you know, one of the one of the key findings is that, you know, I know the literature, I know, the literature well. And when I am mindful of the literature, I am good about practicing it, but it honestly for me, and I mean, this is one of the points, of course, I made in the talk that I gave to you, and actually, was the opening story of my book, that one of the keys is that, you know, I am not someone who’s naturally happy that I, you know, have a family history of depression, and you know, bipolar disorder, including, you know, close genetic relatives, you know, who suffer from both of those. And so, genetically, I am not prewired to be a happy person, and I’ve spent a lot of my life, you know, feeling sad, or anxious, or sad and anxious. And, and so for me, I think one of the challenges of the pandemic, it for me, you know, early on was, all of the things that I knew that made me happy, I couldn’t do you know, so, I didn’t initially find it rewarding to teach online in zoom, you know, just sitting there, I feed off my students and sort of sit there, you know, early on to a bunch of people out there cameras on, you know, like, this was not easy. For me, I had a bunch of speaking engagements, you know, talking about science and happiness, I had a book two or all of those got canceled. One of my, you know, key things that I love doing pre pandemic, this is a little bit of a sort of embarrassing tidbit. But pre pandemic, I taught aerobics, like, I taught as in, in a gym for money aerobics, and I love that that was my exercise. And of course, the gym, shut down, there was no aerobics, there was no gym. And so sort of this way that I had been exercising for, you know, 20 years, was all of a sudden, gone, because that was my exercise. And so sort of all of these things that I had used to feel greater happiness were just gone. And so I think, for me, it was actually really hard. Now, I will say, on a more uplifting note, you know, there, I really started saying, okay, you know, I’m gonna have to develop new skills and strategies, you know, in this strange new world. And, and I spent a chunk of time doing that. And that was, in fact, really rewarding. And I think in lots of ways, I’m probably happier now than I was before the pandemic, in lots of distinct ways. But for me, it was really a process of sort of saying, here are all of the strategies and tools that I’ve used that I know work for me to find happiness, and then all of a sudden dunk on. And so what do I do? And it was certainly a process for me.

Mike Malatesta  34:08

Ah, yeah, that was very interesting for you to go through that because you know, the things that bring you happiness, relationships, you don’t have relationships. Health, you don’t have health have the same kind of health, smile, you’re not you’re not having these relationships. So you’re not smiling with people, you’re wearing a mask, no one can see you, right. It’s yeah, so even the best of us customers, right, even though once you know all the science, still,

Catherine Sanderson  34:40

it’s hard. It was really hard. And I think that it was also the kind of thing where one of the one of the key findings in the literature on positive psychology is that control matters. And I think, you know, for me, I am you know, kind of a high need for control person. Um, You might well be as well. Um, and so one of the challenges of a pandemic was all of a sudden, control was gone, right? You couldn’t control? When am I going to go back to my office? What are my kids going to go back to college in high school? What am I going to be able to get on a plane? Again, you know, when? When are things going to open up? You know, when, you know, when can I eat a restaurant, you know, all of these things. And so the uncertainty was really, really challenging, you know, for me, and I think for a lot of people, and that, I think, was one of the hardest things about the pandemic was this lack of certainty about, you know, when, when are things gonna get back to normal? You know, when or when, when will we be okay, and you know, that again, still, in a sense, seems like an open question.

Mike Malatesta  35:43

How does your high need for control manifest itself? Habit? How does?

Catherine Sanderson  35:49

Yeah, so I would say it manifests itself in lots of ways. I would say that, you know, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future. In, in the field of psychology, we call that cognitive labor. So I spend a lot of time thinking about, you know, what is what is the future going to hold? So my daughter is starting college, as we’ve talked about, you know, before getting on this podcast with you today, you know, I helped her think about what freshman seminars Should she take, and what are potential college major, she could, you know, pursue, and I literally spent time sort of going through and looking at different majors and being okay, you know, there could be this, you know, there could be this, you know, there could be this. So, that’s an example, I am always planning a vacation, I am always planning, okay, you know, what are we going to do, you know, at Christmas, what are we going to do in December, and those are all examples of sort of ways in which I am trying to exercise control over my life, I have a, I’m just gonna pull, I have literally a syllabus here. This is the syllabus for a class that I’m teaching starting in September. This, of course, is the end of May, I do not need to have my syllabus done this week for a class that will start in September, but part of this is thinking, Okay, what is my fault? Like, What is my fault? Like, what am I doing? And that is about need for control? How does this sort of structure through what are the assignments and so I think, in a sense, it probably leads me to be, you know, organized and efficient. But it means that I really am sort of thinking about, you know, multiple different things in my personal and professional life, really, at every moment.

Mike Malatesta  37:21

Okay. And interestingly, so you’re not thinking about the future in the way that a lot of people think about the future, which is with worry and uncertainty, it seems like your focus on the future is about eliminating both of those things, and maybe more

Catherine Sanderson  37:37

100%. And it’s also I will see that, you know, my, the future planning for me is very much about what can I control, there are things that I can’t control, right, I can’t control a lot of different things. But this is what I can control. So Amherst has, from the beginning of the pandemic, professors have had to wear masks when they teach students, I mean, even you know, last week or two weeks ago, when my classes ended, I was wearing a mask, my students were all wearing a mask and not just wearing a mask, wearing it in 95 masks, everybody’s wearing an n 95. Mask, although everybody is vaccinated and boosted and tested once a week. But you know what, I can’t control that I can’t control college rules about masks, I can’t control college rules about, you know, distancing, I can’t control any of that. But you know, what I can control, I can control my assignments, and what the students are going to read. And you know, when they’re going to take their tests and whatever. And so I’m pretty big at focusing on you know, what is within my control?

Mike Malatesta  38:34

What is okay, thanks for bringing that up. Because we talked about that at that dinner as well as this probably the one of the last institutions that was still requiring that at the, in May of 2022, what do you just so I’m going to try to try to link this this future thing with, with the psychology of having gone through multiple years of being told you have to do this, which you know, wearing a mask or for some and not just at Amherst, but anywhere Do you feel like, what do you feel like the psychological consequences are going to be particularly on the younger people who, you know, haven’t had the years of being like, this is bowl, you know, I don’t want to do this. They’re like, this is, you know, this is what the, you know, this is what they say they, whoever they are, this is what they say. And I wonder how that will inform their future when it comes to their own their What do you think?

Catherine Sanderson  39:32

Yeah, so there’s, there’s actually fascinating research in psychology that has looked at the differences between what psychologists I’m gonna get a little bit nerdy here, so I’m just gonna apologize ahead of time has looked at the differences between cultures that are what we call tight versus loose, and basically their cultures in which there was a lot of sort of adherence to social norms. This is what we do. You know, this is you know, we We trust the government, we follow orders, you know, et cetera. And then cultures that are much looser, in terms of there’s not a consistent, you know, this is what we do. This is how we obey, you know, et cetera. And, and what’s really interesting is that cultures vary, you know, this is, of course, data, pre pandemic cultures vary tremendously on how much they adhere to sort of tight social norms, versus there’s much more sort of individual freedom and flexibility. And one of the key demonstrations within that, in terms of COVID, is that in many of the Asian countries, you know, Japan, you know, China, you know, Korea, etc, people were wearing masks before the pandemic. And wearing a mask is just kind of, you know, what you did, you saw it, and, and they’re continuing to wear masks now. And what you see in the United States is there, there are real differences across cultures, within the United States. So again, in certain parts of the country, mass wearing continues to be pretty normal. And in other parts of the country, mask wearing tends to be, you know, virtually nonexistent. And so what I find most interesting is when I’m teaching students, I’m teaching students who are coming from all over students who are coming from China, who are like, of course, I’m wearing a mask, and I’m gonna continue wearing a mask. And then I have students who are coming from, let’s say, Texas, in which they haven’t worn a mask for a year and a half. And it’s really weird to be on campus wearing a mask. And so what’s interesting about colleges across the country, is it’s kind of a melting pot, right of students coming from across the country across the world, in which there are very different traditions and norms about mass squaring this semester, and intro psych. I simultaneously had students emailing me saying, Could you please remind other students of the importance of wearing the N 95 Mask fully over their nose? You know, in class, I’ve noticed some slippage. And then I had other students coming to office hours being like, I’m not wearing a mask in office hours. That’s good, right. And my rule in office hours for the record that we were allowed to control what happened in our offices, my role in office hours was, I will do whatever the student does. So if a student wants to wear a mask, I wear a mask, if a student doesn’t want to wear a mask, I don’t wear a mask, but I felt like my office should be a place where they are comfortable. And, and if they’re more comfortable wearing a mask, I will wear a mask. If they’re more comfortable not wearing a mask, I won’t wear masks, but I’m going to defer to their preferences to create a sort of feeling of inclusivity. What is best for them. But to me, that’s really the most interesting piece is sort of understanding that different people come from different backgrounds and experiences. And I think it’ll be fascinating to see how that sort of shapes up and changes in the weeks and months and years ahead.

Mike Malatesta  42:50

Yeah, so I don’t have a global view. So I’m, this is a probably an ignorant view. But like when I the first time I went to the airport after the mass mandate was removed, you had 100% compliance, generally in airports prior 100 100%. And I and on airplanes, and then as soon as that was removed, I would say and you’ve been in airports, so what was my experience was maybe 10% of people were wearing. Yeah, so that guy, so that right? Yeah, yeah. So that’s it to me something really interesting about psychology, what people actually believe. Because, you know, when the government says you have to wear it, well, like you said, you’re out, it could be out, especially if there are consequences. You’re you have to wear. China, for example, there are very severe consequences if you don’t wear it. But as soon as they say you don’t have to wear it, then it’s a done. It’s a choice again, right. There was a person. I suppose there’s a psychological decision being made there. Right. What?

Catherine Sanderson  43:58

Yeah, I’m laughing because here’s what’s hysterical to me, as you’re saying this. And literally, I hadn’t put this together until your question just now. So I have flown twice in May, once I flew to Milwaukee, and I gave a talk, you know, for your group. And I flew again, last week to Cleveland, I gave a talk, talk on the science of resilience for a group in Cleveland. So my campus has ruled that I have to be tested once a week. And if I get COVID I actually can’t go to my office like, like my ID gets deactivated. And so I am highly motivated to not get COVID because it really interrupts my life. I have to get tested once a week and if I test positive, I can’t go to my office. And that is you know, certainly interruptive so I very dutifully wear my mask on an airplane I wear I wear my mask on in the airport, I wear my mask on the airplane, and I did that going to Milwaukee, I did that go into Cleveland. So here’s what’s funny. Both of those talks were talked over a meal. So in Milwaukee, it was a dinner in Cleveland, it was a lunch. And of course, I don’t wear my talk, I don’t wear a mask when I’m talking, I don’t wear a mask when I’m eating. And so I sat at both of those events without a mask on, you know, in an enclosed room with with a lot of people not wearing a mask. So I gave my talk in Cleveland on Wednesday, I put my mask on, you know, flew home work for a very long time in the airport, you know, change your plane cetera. On Friday morning, I got an email saying the person who sat next to me at lunch in Cleveland just tested positive. So I was like, Whoa, I was so dutiful in the airport, I was so dutiful on the airplane. But you know, she tested positive. And I sat with her for two hours at a luncheon, she tested positive 48 hours after, you know, so today when we’re recording this, you know, I’m technically like, still in the sort of, you know, I guess I’m on day five, or day six or something. And it just strikes me as you know, I feel like I’ve been so dutiful. But I had, you know, I had dinner plans for a graduation party on Saturday night with friends. And I emailed them and said, you know, yesterday, and they are both doctors, the people who are holding the graduation party, and I said, you know, hey, my, I sat next to somebody for two hours at lunch on Wednesday, you know, today, she tested positive Friday, and they both said, you know, there are unvaccinated, one year old and three year old kids come into this party. Please don’t come and you know, that, you know, and so again, I think one of the challenges is that even those of us who are trying to be safe, it’s it’s just very hard. Deck, right. And I felt like I was being super safe. And, you know, now I might be patient zero, you know, so there we go.

Mike Malatesta  46:46

And interestingly, it would have occurred, the exposure occurred at a time when you when you’ve always been sort of, okay not to wear a mask when you’re eating and

Catherine Sanderson  46:54

100% 100. And it was it was not, I mean, there were probably 50 people in the room. It was not, you know, 200 people it was not answered or a movie theater. Yeah. And it was eating a meal. Yeah.

Mike Malatesta  47:07

So, let’s, let’s get, let’s get into the science a little bit, if you don’t mind. So, you said you said a little bit earlier that you’re probably not naturally the most happy person and I was in your first slide is you ask us, are we are we kitten and rainbow? People? Right? I think that’s the first slide. And you asked that and I raised my hand. My wife, like, hit me. Because, because I was thinking, yeah, pretty much. I’m pretty much like that. And she’s like, No, you’re not like that. So. And it sounds like you’re not like that. And probably a lot of people aren’t like that. Even people who in public come across that way. And maybe be because they feel like they have to. Because it’s hard to be a kitten, right? A kitten and rainbow person all the time.

Catherine Sanderson  48:00

I mean, what’s interesting is, is so you were you raise your hand for not a kittens and rainbows person? Is


that right? Or no? Or did I raise my hand that I was Yes.

Catherine Sanderson  48:10

And your wife called you out with? Like, you are not? Yes. So I’m gonna say she’s probably right. But right. Yeah. But what I will say is that I think for those of us who are not, which seems like the two of us, it’s impossible to imagine, you know, that it that it could be so easy to go through life. But I will say, there are people who I think do find it very easy. I remember, you know, maybe about five years ago, I gave a talk on Science of Happiness, get to the q&a. And woman raised her hand, and you know, I call on her and she goes, I don’t really have a question. She goes, I really just wanted to tell you a story. And she said, as I was driving to this talk tonight, I got stuck in a horrible traffic jam. And you know, it was just this, you know, super, you know, long traffic jam, and no one was moving. And I just sat in the car. And I just remember thinking like, oh my gosh, I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to just sit here in peace and look at the sunset. And you know, I’m just so glad for this moment. And I said to her listen, anyone who can sit in a traffic jam, and marvel at the natural sense that they’re seeing, you had no reason to come to this talk today. Like you are like you did not, you just should have driven home like you did not need to come because again, that was such an example. I you know, I tell a story in my book, the positive shift about you know, someone who in a traffic jam, a friend of a friend who enter traffic whenever he’s in a traffic jam thinks to himself, oh my gosh, I’m so lucky that I’m not in the car accident that probably caused this car traffic accident. And that’s like, you know, remarkable ability of doing this kind of thing because most of us were in traffic, feel frustrated and you know, we’re going to be late and this is a waste of time. And you know, this is awful. And you know, my whole day is slipping away. And and so again, I think there are people who can just sort of naturally put that you know, Happy perspective on, you know, I gave a story in in my talk and I described it in my book of my son, you know, being excited about, you know, his F plus, which was everything Yeah, higher than. And so I do think there are people and when I do that question, you know, in different audiences I do you find that it’s about a third of people, you know, 25% 33% of people, something like that do say, Yeah, I just always find, you know, the silver lining, I’m pretty much always happy. So again, there do seem to be people who are probably genetically predisposed to be like that. So I think that is true. But again, let me claim to the key thing, which is that if you’re not, there are still strategies you can use to get happier. So if you’re not just don’t, you know, hang up the towel or whatever. Right?

Mike Malatesta  50:45

Yeah. And I think I may have been like, in my mind, I was, that’s your you are helping explain that I might have been thinking optimist. As opposed to happiness, like, I’m optimistic almost all the time. But I’m not always happy about my guess.

Catherine Sanderson  51:05

And I also think that what’s interesting and, frankly, is interesting, particularly during, you know, what has been a difficult two years, you know, in terms of COVID, but also really has, of course, been a tragic, two year, couple of weeks in terms of mass shootings, in both, you know, Buffalo and in Texas, there are also people who are resilient, and resilient is different than the kittens and rainbows because there are people who are resilient, which means when bad things happen, they seem to be able to take those events in stride and continue on, in ways that other people just don’t. And I’m always struck by the research on this, and that, you know, you hear stories about, you know, well, I mean, frankly, the the example that you gave earlier of the young man, who is heading to Stanford in the fall, who clearly, you know, has, has probably experienced some adversity, you know, is growing up in a low income family, hence, he’s attending, you know, that particular high school, and he is probably somebody who is naturally resilient, who has been able to take adversity, and get himself into this school, and, and excel in this school, even when he doesn’t have the sort of financial resources or other sort of advantages that other kids might have. And he probably is like, sort of the epitome of one of those cases of people who are genetically predisposed to be resilient in the face of difficulty. And they’re people who seem to have some kind of the genetic constellation that allows them to do that. And then people who do not

Mike Malatesta  52:43

write, I’d mind for some reason my mind flashed to like defense attorneys who defend people who have done really horrible things, you really have to be able to detach yourself from your mission or your assignment and the circumstances around why you are having that right.

Catherine Sanderson  53:06

100%. Right. No, and it’s interesting, because you and I have talked earlier in this interview about, you know, my cousin who works in the ER, and we’ve talked about, like, my inability to sort of separate and turn Yeah, well, psychology, and that’s probably a similar thing, right? If you’re a defense attorney, and you’re representing the person who, you know, shot up the Parkland High School or whatever, you know, boy being able to say, you know, my responsibility is for this person, you know, right now, and to separate out that, that probably, in some sense, those may be common personality traits, right? That ability.

Mike Malatesta  53:44

Yeah, yeah. So we know that, well, we know from your talking, I think most people know this, maybe, intellectually, that money and stuff doesn’t bring you happiness. Or it doesn’t for very long, it’s fleeting happiness, or it’s temporary, or it’s some other type of non-permanence and, and even children. You had a little sliders that are the world’s worst roommate, initially, right? Children are the world’s worst roommate. So you took us through a bunch of those things. And then you, you basically took us through four things. Four, I guess, overall themes, relationships, genes, adaption and effort. Right? You gave us strategies on all of those, but I’m wondering if you could just give us an overview of why are those Why are those the four things that matter? And why do they matter? And how do they matter?

Catherine Sanderson  54:43

So I mean, I think those I think those all matter, although they matter in different ways. So if we think about sort of, Gene so I’m gonna just kind of start with the basic the reality in terms of genes is that about half of our happiness is due to our genes. And again, that probably Is the kittens and rainbows kind of a gene, you know, optimism, et cetera, but but also probably resilience and we just talked about. So genetics means some people get a head start. But again, that means 50% is up to us.

Mike Malatesta  55:11

So is there a, is there a particular gene marker that you can look at that are serious?

Catherine Sanderson  55:17

No. And that’s actually really important question. Thank you for asking that. Because what it seems to be is that there are a bunch of different genes that all play a role. And some of those might be genes that, for example, allow us to easily have good relationships, even the the work on resilience, there’s like a constellation of six different genes that seem to allow people to be resilient. So it’s not the happy gene, or the not happy gene, it seems to be a combination, you know, a variety of and probably even more, you know, than we know, so genes are a part of it. The process of adaptation is something that we often think of as hurting happiness, because it means when you get you know, more stopped for a raise or whatever, oh, then you’re gonna be happy forever, and it and then it wears off. Again, as you said, it’s fleeting, it’s temporary, we adapt. But the key about adaptation is it also means horrible, tragic, awful things can happen. And I can still be happy again. And that’s really important, because adaptation doesn’t just work in me, good things happen. And I adapt, and then I’m not permanently happy. adaptation means you can experience loss and grief and tragedy, and eventually, not immediately, but eventually also find happiness. So I look at those as sort of two sides of a coin, in terms of happiness. Now, would that

Mike Malatesta  56:34

be like the sort of time heals all wounds type of thing? There’s,

Catherine Sanderson  56:39

yeah, I think that that would be and it also means that, that over time, we adjust to the reality of, you know, I wish that my mom had not died, and I am sad, or that I don’t have her in my life. But I can still, you know, do X, Y, and Z and be happy. It can mean you know, that people who’ve had cancer, who’ve been diagnosed with cancer overwhelmingly, will point to benefits that they have accrued, what we call in psychology, post traumatic growth, that after some trauma, many people find a new sense of meaning, or hope, or spiritual faith or other kinds of things. So so all of those things may result, and may and may help explain this adaptation. Okay. Now, the third thing that you reference, which I think in some ways is the most important, and that is effort that I think many people have a sense of happiness, and something that happens to them, you know, if I’m genetically lucky, if I win the lottery, you know, if I get that prize job, or my kids turn out perfectly, or, you know, I marry the perfect person that, you know, happiness is something that happens to me. And the reality is, just isn’t true, right? That happiness is about effort, I have to decide to be happy, and I have to do things that will make me happy. And that effort, really links back to something you and I have also talked about in this conversation, which is about control. I can’t control lots of different things in the world. But what I can control are things in my life that make me happy, and I make a pretty diligent effort and my in my own life. Again, because I’m not naturally happy to sort of say, these are the things that I need to do to feel happy. And I do them and I do them pretty in a pretty sort of structured and organized way. And, and the things that make me happy may not make you happy, or your listeners happy, your wife happy, your child happy or whatever, but finding the things that work for you is really important. And then finally, and I’m saying this one finally only because really what the research would tell us over and over again, is that the quality of our relationships is the single best predictor of our happiness and, and that can be relationships with romantic partners, with friends, with family members, with colleagues with neighbors, you know, etc. But the quality of our of our relationships is the single best predictor of our happiness. And we’re, in fact, the sort of flipside of that is that loneliness is as detrimental to happiness and health as smoking, you know, so, so finding and pursuing good relationships, again, in your personal professional life is just extraordinarily important. And that is actually something that we all do have some control over.

Mike Malatesta  59:18

And speaking of relationships, do I remember you saying that men are much easier to be make happy in a relationship than women or something along those lines?

Catherine Sanderson  59:27

I mean, married man, I think what you’re reflecting on married men are happier than single men and and it doesn’t matter who they’re married to. It doesn’t matter. Yeah, right. Marriage for men is very good. And that’s in part because women even women who work outside the home often carry the brunt of you know, child care, you know, family, you know, dinners you know, cleaning, planning for holidays, you know, social engagements. So, so it’s one of the reasons why when men experienced the loss Have a spouse, they are much more likely to get remarried, they’re much more likely to find, okay, I’m gonna get remarried, whereas women may say may get remarried may not, but may also say, you know, I can spend more time with my sister or my friends or, you know, I’m going to travel with my kids or, you know, whatever. So that marriage tends to be consistently better for a for men than it is for women.

Mike Malatesta  1:00:20

And it’s okay, interestingly, when so when men get remarried, they’re just as happy as the first time they were married. Not making it, like an overall point there, but just generally speaking, it’s like, oh, I can have a relationship. So

Catherine Sanderson  1:00:35

the state of marriage is very good from it. Okay.

Mike Malatesta  1:00:39

Just that’s it; full stop. So, do you have time for just one more thing that I want to explore? So I want to explore this people standing by this inaction thing that we that we’ve mentioned in your bio, and I feel like maybe the most, I don’t know if it’s the most famous case, but it’s the one I remember a story of Kitty Genovese, rather than a VC or however you say her name. And the story was that, you know, she was basically attacked on the street in New York City, or one of those cities and, and nobody did anything about it. And I think and I listened to a podcast that went deep into that, and, and it turned out that people did a lot of things. But none of the things that were done actually ended up saving her life. And I don’t remember all the details, but I’m but I’m really curious about this inaction thing, because I feel like when I see something happening, that I’m not quite it doesn’t look quite right. That also, I’m not 100% Sure is wrong. I think two things one, is this any of my business? And to if I asked, What am I going to get? Am I going to get you know, killed? So there’s like this too, because your normal human reaction I think the way that we’re wired right, maybe amygdala or whatever, we see something happening, we either want to run away from it, or we want to run into it, depending on how threatened we feel, I suppose or, or what or what the outs are.


Do we have and if you don’t have an out you’re gonna have attack, right. So anyway, curious,

Mike Malatesta  1:02:13

what is this all about?

Catherine Sanderson  1:02:16

So, in all honesty, this is like where I mean, so although we’ve talked about the size, happiness, this that my newest book really is on this is on this precise topic, and, and this book came from an incident that happened to my son in his first two weeks of college about five years ago, now. He started college. And two weeks into his first year, he called me one night and said, Mom, a student died in my dorm last night. And, and then he told me the story. And the story was one that even if you don’t know this particular case, it’s going to sound familiar because it happens all the time. Kid was drinking on a Saturday night, he fell and hit his head, his friends and roommates watched over him for hours, they strapped a backpack to his shoulders didn’t stop them from rolling onto his back and vomiting and asphyxiation to themself. They checked to make sure he was still breathing. So they did all these things, because they cared about him, and they wanted him to be okay. But what they didn’t do for 19 hours was call 911. And when they finally did call, he was rushed by ambulance to a local hospital, the hospital kept him alive on life support until his family could fly in from out of state and be with him when they disconnected them. But the kid died. 19 years old, first two weeks of college. And when my son told me that story, I was just, I mean, I was just so struck by how that story could have gone differently. I was struck as a mom, I was struck as a college professor, that that sort of story plays out all the time. So that really is the that was the impetus for my book, why we asked that story, because I really wanted to understand the psychology of inaction in that case. So when we talk about the bystander effect, and yes, I talked about the Kitty Genovese the book, um, story in my book, you know, at length, I sort of unpack that story and how it was told and what happened, etcetera. But what we often think about is the bystander effect is are these sort of dramatic examples right? So the Kitty Genovese the story, somebody, you know, jumped out of the night and started stabbing her or, you know, recently we think about, you know, somebody with an assault rifle and is there a hero who charges them etcetera. But what I really unpack in my book, are the much more sort of mundane examples that happen all the time. So, you know, someone sitting in a boardroom, and hearing something racist or sexist or homophobic. somebody sitting in a locker room and talking, having somebody engage in discussion of sexual misconduct. We’ve all been in situations in which we hear or see something problematic, and we’re not really sure what to do. And so my book really kind of goes through Well, what is the psychology of that? At and as you sort of alluded to in the, when you see something and you’re not sure what to do, um, there actually are three factors that the psychology research points to that lead people to not step up one, they don’t really know what’s happening, you know, is that student drunk or really unconscious and in trouble? Is that harmless flirting? Or is that sexual harassment? You know, Is that racist and offensive? Or is that kind of a harmless joke? So one thing that happens is we just don’t know how to interpret it. It’s ambiguous, too. We know it’s problematic, but we’re in a group and we think, well, it’s not my responsibility, like any of these other people could step up. It doesn’t have to be me. And this sort of sense of diffusion of responsibility or what psychologists call social loafing, and then three, social loafing. Good, isn’t it? People love that term. Yeah, it totally makes sense. Three, we worry about the consequences. If I speak up, am I going to be ostracized? Am I going to be rejected from my, you know, fraternity? Am I going to be a whistleblower who doesn’t get the promotion? Am I going to be physically harmed? And so those three factors, not really sure what we’re seeing ambiguity, diffusion of responsibility, feeling like it’s not our responsibility, and then fear of the consequences. Those are the three factors that overwhelmingly lead people not to step up. And the good news is, is that by understanding the sort of psychology of inaction, we can actually overcome those forces. So my book kind of delves into the psychology of inaction. Then it talks about specific examples of bullying in school sexual misconduct in colleges, unethical behavior in various different kinds of workplaces, from law firms to Congress, to police departments, to Harvey Weinstein’s headquarters, you know, to Enron, and Theranos, you know, et cetera. And then the last two, what I call the uplifting chapters, talk about what can we tell from the people who do step up the so-called Moral rebels who always speak up the whistleblowers? And how can we all sort of train ourselves to be people who speak up and step up and do the right thing, even when it’s hard. So that app, in fact, is my sort of newest passion? And, and I’m hoping this book makes a difference.

Mike Malatesta  1:07:14

How do you practice it? How?

Catherine Sanderson  1:07:18

Yeah, so So one, I think that I am very mindful of putting myself in somebody else’s shoes. So I spent a lot of time sort of talking about empathy. Shortly after the pandemic, hit one of my friends called me to tell me a story about her daughter, Claire, who had been a Claire was adopted from China when she was a baby. Claire’s, like 2223 years old. She’s on a crowded bus in Boston, shortly after the pandemic hits, when a man on the bus stands up, pointed and says you should go back to China, you and your fellow Chinese people are killing Americans, the buses crowded, and nobody does anything. Nobody calls out the man. But nobody even goes over and sits with Claire and distracts her or supports her. She just sits on the bus alone, scared. And so what I think to myself is if it was my daughter sitting on that bus, I’d want somebody to go sit with her. If it was my son in a college dorm room unconscious, I would want somebody to immediately call 911. And so I spend a lot of time sort of thinking about empathy. And I also talk a lot about how, in most situations, there are lots of other people who are also thinking, ooh, that’s problematic, but don’t want to get involved. And so I find myself often being the person at a meeting saying like, Hey, I think we might be kind of misinterpreting this, or hey, maybe you didn’t mean it, but, and overwhelmingly, when that happens, people will email me later or come up to me privately and be like, I’m so glad you said that. I was thinking that. And so I think again, understanding the psychology of inaction can help all of us step up and make the world a better place.

Mike Malatesta  1:08:58

Well, thank you for sharing that. It’s a that’s an that’s in your book why we act in the US right? Why we act turning bystanders into moral rebels. Yeah, that’s a really complicated topic, I think, really complicated topic. Because a lot of it because you don’t know what people is going on in their head, the people that are saying these things declare, you know, you don’t know. You know, you don’t know if it’s, if you get in, you get in the middle of that. Whether there’s, you know, gonna be a weapon or whether there’s, you know, you just don’t know. And that’s scary for people. And I

Catherine Sanderson  1:09:41

think that’s also why, you know, one of the keys and I again, I talked about this at length is being a moral rebel doesn’t have to mean standing up and telling that guy Shut up, sit down, you know, you’re stupid, you’re racist. You know, being a moral rebel can be I’m gonna go over and sit with Claire and be like, Hey, what are we doing this weekend? Have you seen this? This movie? Oh, I really like your skirt. I mean, being a moral rebel doesn’t have to be standing up and saying, you know, I’m charging the person being a moral rebel can be sitting with somebody can be giving them support can be offering them, you know, comfort or support in private, but it can be basically letting the person who’s being victimized in some way know that they’re not alone. Yeah, I see time and time again. And what’s been striking to me, in talking about this, this topic, again, which I’ve done for, you know, law firms and teachers and high schools, and, you know, corporate boards, etc., is that overwhelmingly, everybody will say to me, let me tell you a story. And then they’ll tell me a story. And it’ll be a story sometimes of, you know, 30 years ago, I was on a bus, and I saw this thing, and I didn’t step up. And I’ve always felt terrible, or, you know, I remember, you know, being in a locker room, and this person said something, and I should have spoken up, or I remember being in an airport, and so many, many people have stories of times that they that they didn’t step up, and they wish they had, or that their kid was being bullied or attacked, and no one stood up. So it’s something that I think many of us can relate to. And understanding Well, what inhibits us from speaking up is in fact, very powerful.

Mike Malatesta  1:11:15

That was a really great tactic or strategy that you shared there was like, so instead of you feeling like you need to, you know, get into the aggressors face just empathize with the aggressor, see?

Catherine Sanderson  1:11:30

Yeah, exactly, exactly. You know, it doesn’t have to be being the big hero, it can just going and sitting with somebody, you know, it can be for a high school student, you know, if there’s a kid being bullied, go sit with that kid at lunch. I mean, again, it can be lots of different things that are just about let me support the person. And, and again, there are lots of different tools and strategies that we can all use, that really can make a difference.

Mike Malatesta  1:11:56

Well, Dr. Sanderson, thank you so much for for joining me today. As I mentioned at the beginning, Sanderson is where you can find out about Catherine with a see can also check out her TED Talk. And of course, her books, which I assume are available everywhere books are sold. But I don’t know if there’s a particular place you want to drive people or you want people to connect with you in a certain way.

Catherine Sanderson  1:12:23

Well, um, thanks for asking. So yes, my books are available everywhere, including Amazon, but But at what I like to call it in particular is independent bookstores have been really hurt during the pandemic. So I’m always encouraged if people will support their local independent bookstore. And for people who are fans of audible, I actually read my books aloud. So if you’d like to hear me read, and you’re on Audible, and you enjoy, you know, listening to books while you run on a treadmill, or driving the car or whatever, you can hear me read my books aloud as well.

Mike Malatesta  1:12:53

Awesome. I’m gonna download your latest book right now on Audible. And I’m going to listen to it because I do want to hear your voice. Tell me about?

Catherine Sanderson  1:13:02

Well, in fact, many people have said that it’s like, when the author reads the book, there’s like kind of a special meaning of that. So not a professional book reader. But there are my words. So there we go.

Mike Malatesta  1:13:14

All right. Well, thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure getting to know you and I appreciate you sharing with us and letting me explore your story.

Catherine Sanderson  1:13:21

Well, thank you so much for the invitation to talk and I will look forward to connecting at Dickinson family reunions.

Mike Malatesta  1:13:27

Oh, there we go. Sounds good.

Catherine Sanderson  1:13:31

Take care.

Mike Malatesta

Mike Malatesta

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