First Wednesday lecture addresses powerful thoughts

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MANCHESTER — What if changing your outlook on happiness was as simple as smiling?

Maybe it's not that easy, but Amherst College professor and author Catherine Sanderson can attest to this. She'll elaborate more during her First Wednesday talk "There is Nothing Either Good or Bad, But Thinking Makes It So." Bring your notebook to the lecture on Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. at the First Congressional Church in Manchester. 

The talk is "about the science of happiness and how there are things we think that will make us happy... and how much of our happiness is in our own control, how we think and how we behave, etc.," Sanderson said. 

She studies research on how personality and social variables influence health-related behaviors. For example, hoping to be happier by acquiring more money and if people are truly happier with more money.

Two ways of collecting that data include asking people how happy they feel, or with broader questions such as "If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently?" 

Sanderson explained that researchers are analyzing patterns of brain activation with MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) by showing folks pictures of nature or having them eat chocolate; situations where they'd experience happiness.

 "There are many people that go through life and they don't feel happy," she said. "We hear all the time about anxiety and depression, etc. So much of that is just self-created and we don't have to live like that." 

Minor behavior changes can advance happiness, however, Sanderson advises that her talk isn't for everyone-those who are clinically depressed.

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 "I'm not naturally happy and it doesn't come easily to me. It's not something I naturally gravitate toward. What I've learned through research and writing is that we all have things we can do to change thoughts and behaviors to get happier," she said. "This talk is not a substitute for therapy for people who are experiencing psychological distress. If you don't want to be happier that's totally fine. If you're already happy, good for you."

Two common situations Sanderson is approached about involve dire life circumstances like a family member going through cancer, or an individual who suffers from a negative environment. While particular changes can make one feel happier, it doesn't always help a situation that can't be controlled, she explained. From there, Sanderson suggests one-on-one assistance or community support groups.

When Sanderson lost her mother to cancer at age 57 in 2004, she realized that all the things she thought were important to her in life, were no longer important. "

It really threw me for a loop," she said. "Everything I thought would make me happy, didn't. It gave me a sense of what I was focused on was totally unimportant. It helped me shift my focus."

Sanderson works to help improve people's lives."No matter where you fall on the natural happiness continuum there are always things we can do better."

Sanderson is the Manwell Family Professor of Life Sciences at Amherst College. She has published over 25 journal articles and book chapters in addition to four college textbooks, a high school health textbook, and a popular press book on parenting. She received a bachelor's degree in psychology from Standford University and both masters and doctoral degrees in psychology from Princeton. 

The Vermont Humanities Council's First Wednesdays lecture series are hosted by the Manchester Community Library.

A signing of Sanderson's book "The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset To Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity" will follow the lecture at Northshire Bookstore.


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