in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #478: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity

Having a positive mindset comes with an unbelievable number of benefits, from better physical and mental health, to improved relationships and performance at work. If you’ve got a more negative bent, you’re really missing out on a lot. 

Fortunately, my guest says it’s possible to shift into a more positive gear. Her name is Dr. Catherine Sanderson and she’s a professor of psychology at Amherst College. In her latest book, The Positive Shift, she highlights scores of studies that show how a positive mindset can make us healthier and happier, and how that mindset can be achieved. Today she shares those insights with us, beginning with debunking the idea that a positive outlook means being naively Pollyanna-ish in disposition. Catherine then walks us through what the research says about the surprisingly robust benefits of having a positive perspective which affect every area of your life. We then discuss specific tactics you can use to develop a more positive outlook, even if you have an inborn inclination towards being negative.

Show Highlights

  • What does positivity actually look like? Is it a happy-go-lucky all the time?
  • The physiological health benefits of positivity
  • How our outlook impacts our relationships — both platonic and romantic
  • How much of our general outlook and happiness is determined by genetics?
  • So how can start truly shifting our mindset?
  • How to reframe negative situations to make them beneficial
  • Why being positive makes aging a much more enjoyable process
  • What do you do if you find yourself in a negativity vortex that you can’t get out of?
  • The influence of social media on our positivity/negativity
  • Overriding our tendencies to negativity 
  • How do we manage our desire to compare ourselves to other people?
  • The way your spending habits can change your outlook 
  • The importance of good relationships to your outlook in life 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of The Positive Shift by Catherine A. Sanderson.

Connect With Catherine

Catherine’s website 

Catherine on Twitter

Catherine on Facebook

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Having a positive mindset comes with an unbelievable number of benefits from better physical and mental health to improved relationships and performance at work. If you’ve got a more negative outlook you’re really missing out on a lot.

Fortunately, my guest says it’s possible to shift between more positive gear. Her name is Dr. Catherine Sanderson, and she’s a professor of psychology at Amherst College. In her latest book, The Positive Shift, she highlights scores of studies that show how a positive mindset can make us healthier and happier and how that mindset can be achieved. Today she shares those insights with us beginning with debunking the idea that a positive outlook means being naively pollyannish and dispositioned. Catherine then walk us through what the research says about the surprisingly robust benefits of having a positive perspective which affect every area of your life. We then discuss specific tactics you can use to developing more positive outlook even if you have inboard inclination towards being negative. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

Catherine Sanderson. Welcome to the show.

Sanderson: Thanks so much for the invitation to be here.

Brett McKay: You are a professor of psychology and you’ve written this book, The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset To Improve Happiness, Health And Longevity. What got you researching and writing about the benefits of positivity or positive outlook on life?

Sanderson: I teach a variety of classes. I do research on health psychology issues, I do research on relationship satisfaction, and within about the last 10 years within the field of psychology, there’s been a growing movement to looking at how those things actually interrelate. That in fact, the quality of our relationships has a major impact on our health. As I started doing more and more reading and research on this topic, it really became clear to me that so much of our happiness and our health is actually within our own control. For me, someone who’s not naturally positive, this was actually really encouraging.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I found that I’m an Eeyore at times too. We’ll talk about how we can control that and how much is that genetic.

Sanderson: I feel your pain.

Brett McKay: Right. What do we mean by positivity? Because I think a lot of people listening to this particularly guys, they think of like Haley Mills and Pollyanna. Which is like super, super positive, super cheesy. Is that what positivity looks like, or what does it look like, actually?

Sanderson: Yeah, that’s a really important question. Because in fact it is not going through life like everything is perfect and it’s all sunshine and rainbows. Positivity basically means not getting bogged down in terms of negative emotions. I think for women, you’re exactly right, that there may be different ways in which that manifests itself. Women are more likely to feel anxious, depressed. Men have other kinds of negative emotions that are more prevalent, like anger, for example. If you think about road rage or something.

So, positivity isn’t about going through life, just being like, everything’s wonderful. But it’s really about reducing the experience of negative emotions. Whether that’s anxiety, depression, loneliness, anger, frustration, et cetera.

Brett McKay: It looks a lot like resilience oftentimes.

Sanderson: Absolutely. It’s frankly, being able to bounce back when bad things happen. Because the reality is bad things do happen, and they happen to all of us personally, professionally, and so on. People who have a positive outlook are better able to buffer these negative experiences and not get stuck in negativity.

Brett McKay: You spent a lot of the book talking about the benefits of positivity. Let’s walk through some of those. For example, we often think of positivity as the mental, the benefits there. But there’s actually physiological, health benefits of having a positive outlook on life. What are some of those.

Sanderson: That’s such an important finding. Because what we now see in the research is that people who have a general positive outlook on life experience, lots of positive benefits. This includes, as you noted, physiological changes in the body. This is things like lower blood pressure, lower heart rate. There’s evidence of lower levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. And the people who tend to be positive have lower levels of these other physiological markers that are linked with worse health outcomes.

Brett McKay: What are some of the bad health outcomes that can come from being like an Eeyore all the time?

Sanderson: Well, pretty much you name it, and it’s there. From small things like people who are more negative are more likely to acquire the common cold. So there’s a pretty low level problem that we’ve all experienced. But research has shown that if you measure people’s levels of positivity, and then with the people’s permission, you inject a cold virus in their nostril, people who are positive are less likely to manifest signs of the cold later on.

That’s just a really clear marker of how people who are positive have a stronger immune system and therefore can buffer negative effects of things that would get other people down. There’s a pretty low level problem, the common cold. Research has also shown that people with a positive outlook are less likely to experience more serious problems; heart attack, stroke in China, cardiovascular problems. There’s also evidence that people with a more positive outlook actually live longer. Really, across the whole range of different levels of health outcomes, there are tremendous benefits of positivity.

Brett McKay: Yeah, they can even affect things like obesity or blood glucose, because cortisol plays an influence on whether you retain fat or whether your blood glucose is elevated and that can lead to type two diabetes?

Sanderson: Absolutely. That’s one of the ways in which the research has been so clear over the last five to 10 years that we’re now understanding the interconnection between our thoughts and physiological markers in the body that, of course, are linked to these negative health outcomes.

Brett McKay: You mentioned aging, people who have a positive outlook on life tend to live longer than people who are negative, but also having a positive outlook on life can make aging more enjoyable and filled with vitality. Because people particularly think of getting old is like oh, like the grandma in movies from the 1950s where they wear a shawl and you’re just shuttling through the hallways. It doesn’t have to be like that.

Sanderson: No, and one of the things that I just think is so clear is that in our society images about getting older are so negative. I literally turned 50 about a month ago and people were like, oh, 50, whatever. I’m like, “You know what, it feels great to be 50.” I really hope I feel that way at 60 and 70 and beyond. But the reason why we have these negative images is that exactly as you said, we have this assumption that people shuffle along and people can’t drive and are hard of hearing and dementia and whatever. All of these stereotypes are so negative. People with a positive outlook about aging, don’t buy into those and therefore continue to be active in their careers and communities and volunteer work and so on, and very physically active because they don’t buy into those stereotypes.

Brett McKay: All right, so they have a positive outlook on it. Yeah, even the whole idea that as you get older, you become forgetful. That’s often just a self-fulfilling prophecy, right?

Sanderson: Exactly. I think one of the most interesting findings is that if it’s true that neurologically your brain decays with age, we should see that same association across cultures. The reality is you don’t. In cultures in which there are positive views about aging, with age comes wisdom and experience, and older people have so much to give. You don’t see those negative associations with aging and decay in memory. That really suggest it’s not just a biological process. It’s very much self a fulfilling prophecy.

Brett McKay: You see that those are cultures typically in the east, correct?

Sanderson: Yeah, it’s many Asian cultures.

Brett McKay: Right here in the West, we think you’re young. But it’s great to be young here on the west. Not so much to be old. But that doesn’t have to be true.

Sanderson: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Also, positivity can influence things like your career, correct?

Sanderson: Absolutely. Because part of the issue is that people who are positive when they experience a failure, disappointment, professional rejection, et cetera. They’re able to bounce back. They’re able to say, you know what, I’m going to try harder, I’m going approach this in a new way and so on. When negative things happen, they don’t get stuck.

Professionally, they can bounce back from failure. They also because they know they have this ability to bounce back they’re less afraid of trying. that many People go through life being afraid of failure and rejection personally and professionally. That leads them to not take risks. of course, the reality is taking some risks can really pay off in terms of career advancement, in terms of development of romantic relationships.

Brett McKay: Well, we’ll talk about relationships here in a bit, but staying on the career thing. Also, your co-workers will enjoy being around you more if you have a positive outlook, right? That helps a lot with your career.

Sanderson: Absolutely. Many careers, of course, involved directly working not only with coworkers, but you report to people, you have clients, people report to you. So we have whole big networks of people within our professional lives. So, people who are positive generally get along better with other people. People want to be around them more. And of course, we know that happiness is contagious. So, hiring happy workers really pays off and that’s one of the reasons why many of the Silicon Valley companies have gone out of the way to make the workplace fun because they understand the link between happiness and professional success.

Brett McKay: How does our outlook on life, whether it’s positive or negative influence relationship? What do the studies say there?

Sanderson: People who are positive tend to have happier relationships, in terms of friendships, in terms of family relationships, in terms of marriages, long term relationships and so on. It’s very clear that there is an association between marriage longevity. If you look at the benefits of marriage for health, there are indeed benefits of marriage on longevity and health outcomes overall. But the key is, it’s not just being married, it’s having a happy marriage. People who are full of positivity tend to relate to people better. They tend to work through conflicts instead of just burying them or denying them or letting them build up.

When problems or issues arise in their relationships, they’re able to work through them, solve them, and maintain strong and healthy relationships.

Brett McKay: There’s one study you talked about in the book that I thought was really interesting was that people in relationships where they feel ambivalent about it, where they both feel positive and negative, or actually they’re worse off than people who are in a completely negative relationship, what’s going on there?

Sanderson: Right, that’s such an interesting finding. Again, research is still ongoing to really try to unpack exactly what’s going on. But one possibility maybe that when you have ambivalent feelings, you feel really stuck. If a relationship is all good, of course, that’s great. If a relationship is all bad, you may actually be aware this relationship is going to end, I’m not going to invest time and energy into it. Maybe I’m even looking to get out of it or exploring other options.

If you’re ambivalent, it may mean that you feel really stuck because you can recognize the bad but you can also recognize the good and that means that you just really get mired in a situation and can’t really decide whether to pull yourself out and that again, has negative effects.

Brett McKay: I can see that happening in jobs too.

Sanderson: Absolutely. What’s interesting is that clarity is very decisive for people. Because if you know this job is horrible, or this job is great, that reduces the amount of time that you have to do what we call mentalicing, meaning, thinking about it, should I stay or should I go? That’s ambivalence, in fact, is very exhausting, psychologically.

Brett McKay: We’ve been talking about a positive outlook. We’ll talk about what we can do to create more of a positive outlook on our life while mitigating the negative. But how much of our outlook on life, whether it’s positive or negative is due to genetics or just our inborn temperament?

Sanderson: There’s good news or bad news depending on who you are. But about 50% of our happiness is due to our genes. It’s not that there’s one happiness gene, there’s a lot of different genes that play a role, but about 50% of our happiness is in fact determined by our genes. That means that some people really do have a head start.

Brett McKay: But also, I think there’s a role that plays into that is your environment. I guess there’s a whole idea of epigenetics. If you encounter certain stressors, it might turn on those unhappiness genes. But if you didn’t encounter them, they might not have been turned on.

Sanderson: Absolutely. That means that genes play some role, but they’re not definitive. That means that no matter where you start on this genetic lottery, your environment clearly plays a role. That’s why people can undergo the same sort of difficult circumstance; childhood trauma or growing up in poverty or times of war, et cetera, and some people seem to be able to bounce back from that, and some people really can’t.

Brett McKay: Okay. If 50% is determined by genetics, it means we have some control, right? You might have this baseline, but you have some control. What is-

Sanderson: 50% is in your control.

Brett McKay: Right?

Sanderson: And that’s a lot.

Brett McKay: That is a lot. What can we do to start expecting good things to happen? If you’re typically like an Eeyore, what can you do to start having a mind shift to occur? Mindset shift?

Sanderson: Sure. So, really important question. Two sets of things. One is actually being aware that your thoughts matter. For people who naturally are somewhat negative and I fall into this category and it sounds like you fall into this category, for people who are naturally negative they’re often not aware of it. They’re just like, well that’s just the world, and they’re not aware that that’s actually not the world, that’s their thoughts about the world.

So, one, being aware that your thoughts matter, and trying to then catch yourself if something negative or bad happens so that you can reframe it. The first step is really changing your thoughts, but that means you have to be aware when you’re having these thoughts and you have to practice reframing them. Something that used to be seen as this horrible disaster you’re able to put a more positive outlook on it instead. That’s one set of things, changing your thoughts. I can give an example of that. Would that be helpful? Maybe that’d be helpful.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that’d be very helpful.

Sanderson: Yeah. Here’s an example that right now, many high school seniors are waiting to hear news from colleges. Many students will get rejected from their top choice or whatever. And they can think of that as a calamity. Oh, my gosh, I didn’t get into my top choice school and I’m never going to be happy or employed or whatever. That’s an example, of course of a total overreaction. People could say, Hey, you know what, I didn’t get into my first choice school, this other school’s great, I’m going to make a lot of friends. I’m going to have a great college experience.

When you get better at saying this horrible thing happened, and putting a positive spin on it, over time that gets more natural. I gave a talk a few years ago on happiness. During the Q&A, a woman raised her hand and she said, “You know, whenever I’m stuck in traffic, I just take a minute, I take some deep breaths and I look out the window and I admire the setting sun.” It was this super positive view of basically being in a traffic jam. I said, “Well, thanks for that question. You really didn’t need to come to the talk.” Because she of course was already doing all the right thing.

But we can all get better at taking a negative experience and trying to reframe the negative experience in some more positive way.

Brett McKay: I imagine this is something that if you have a tendency to be an Eeyore that you’ll have to work on the rest of your life. There’ll never be a moment where you’re just a Tigger  naturally. You’re probably going to work on it forever.

Sanderson: I think that’s true, although I will also say I think it gets easier. I looked at the example of, let’s say that you are not a runner and you’ve decided you want to run a 10K or something. The first day that you lace on your shoes and go outside, it might be hard to run a mile. You might feel out of breath or your knees might hurt or your ankles or whatever. But over time, your body adapts to it and you get better at it.

Again, as I said, I’m naturally pretty negative. But I’ve really been working on it in part through writing this book. So, I had a disaster in December, a month ago. My computer hard drive crashed, and I lost everything, including a book manuscript that I was on deadline for. It crashed, I went in, they were like, “We can do nothing. Your computer is under warranty, we can get you a new computer, but you’ve lost everything.”

I came home and my husband was like, you seem to be handling this very well. And I’m like, “You know what, it’s not cancer, it’s not …” He was like, “I can’t believe it, because he felt worse about it than I did. It was a bummer and I’m slowly recreating what I had been working on. But there is an example, and that there are times in which if that had happened to me two three days I would not have gotten out of bed and I would have been, I’m never going to write a book again and I have no ideas. Every idea I ever had that was good was on that computer, and so on. So, there’s an example.

For some people, it comes easier. But for all of us, we actually can get better at doing it with practice. In part, because we become aware. Oh, yeah, this is what I tend to do, and I should stop.

Brett McKay: I had the computer crash on me thing happen to me in law school. I had a paper, most of it done and I lost it. I had to rewrite it. But it actually turned out better, I think, the second go around than the first go round.

Sanderson: Now, did you know that at the time? Because that’s the key.

Brett McKay: No, I didn’t know that it actually-

Sanderson: Yeah. Okay. Right.

Brett McKay: Positive is all about reframing situations. Let’s talk about specific situations where we can reframe to take a more positive look. One example you talked about that I thought was really interesting is stress. Because you always think of stress as this negative that we’re supposed to de stress and not be stressed, but you argue in the book that research shows that we can actually reframe stress so it can be beneficial.

Sanderson: Absolutely. I think that’s one of the most important research findings. Because we do have this overwhelming perspective in our society, stress is negative, stress is bad, stress is debilitating. But the reality is stress can also be viewed as exciting, invigorating, exhilarating. People in fact, can do their best work under stress. We can think about professional athletes, for example, who always do their very best when the game is on the line, when it’s a must win situation. A game seven, World Series or whatever.

The reality is that we can take examples of stress and we can frame them as this horrible, awful thing, or we can be like this is invigorating, and an opportunity and a challenge and I feel active and alert and alive. That’s a way of reframing a potentially negative experience.

Brett McKay: The research shows that people who reframe stress in a positive way, they don’t have the downsides that we typically think of that are associated with stress.

Sanderson: No, they in fact have benefits in terms of lower levels of anxiety and depression. They also have better work performance. If you take workers at a big Fortune 500 company and you give them this information about, hey, let’s reframe stress, they actually are more productive in their jobs. It has benefits personally and also professionally.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. I think people understand that stress in a physical way leads to growth. When you work out, you lift weights, you’re stressing the muscle and you know well it’s going to grow from that stress. But we don’t apply that same mentality to our mental work that we do.

Sanderson: Yeah, that’s a really great example because it’s exactly the same process of pushing yourself and you experience physical or psychological or mental or whatever growth as a result.

Brett McKay: Right. So, the reframe of the stress like, this is actually a chance for me to grow, get better, it’s not going to kill me. If you think stress is going to kill you, it’s going to kill you. But if you think it’s your chance to grow, it’ll be your chance for you to grow.

Sanderson: Yeah. I think one set of things is reframing situations like that. This is a big deadline that I’m working on, paper in law school or big project that I owe a client or whatever. I think the other thing is just recognize what is and is not stress. There’s a wonderful example, and this is not my book, but it’s another fabulous book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. I described this in my book, but the reality is zebras only react physiologically; heart beating fast, et cetera, when they’re being chased by a lion. When they’re actually about to die. Of course, humans are like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m in so much stress.” And it’s nothing. It’s, I have a job interview, I have a blind date, I have a lot of emails in my inbox, I’m stuck in a traffic jam or whatever. None of those are actually life or death.

It’s also saying, is this stress or is this not really life or death stress? And not taking things or overreacting to the small stresses of daily life that we all experience.

Brett McKay: We talked about having a positive outlook, we can actually make old age filled with vitality or twilight years. How can we reframe old age so that we get that benefit?

Sanderson: We can think about all of the benefits. For many people being in old age means that you have more free time. People who are no longer in the peak of their careers, may have more time to devote to hobbies, volunteer work, time with family, or whatever. People who are older also have very high quality relationships that research has shown that in our younger years, we’re very focused on having lots of people in our lives. So, very big social networks.

What you see older people doing is eliminating the riffraff. Really focusing on high quality relationships and they have fewer of them, but they’re with people who they really care about and do care about them. That leads to a number of distinct benefits. There are lots of benefits to being older in terms of quality of life.

Brett McKay: Right. I think one thing too, is the research shows that fluid intelligence does go down as you get older, basically. You can’t think as quick on your feet, but that wisdom, slower thinking, that experience, you have more of that. So that has a lot of benefits too.

Sanderson: Yes. I think one of the key examples there is that if you think about memory, older people don’t have to memorize facts about World War II or whatever, because they actually lived through World War II. Whereas younger people are like, “Oh, yeah, what were all those facts?” So, the reality is that having lived longer means that you have all of these experiences and they’re very accessible, and that’s exactly why you see this increase in crystallized intelligence as people grow older.

Brett McKay: Let’s say you’re doing all these things to reframe negative experiences in a more positive light. You’re more resilient, you bounce back. But what do you do if you find yourself sucked down this vortex of negativity because something bad happens and you start doing the catastrophizing, like you mentioned earlier, I didn’t get into this school, it means I’m not going to get a good job, I’m going to be broken, and live with my parents. How do you manage that and get yourself out of it?

Sanderson: I got to be honest, it’s not easy initially. For those of us who are naturally Eeyores, it’s not easy initially. The first step is, you got to recognize what you’re doing. So, I didn’t get into the school, I didn’t get this job I wanted, I lost this client, whatever, is this life or death? Is it life or death? I think being aware, okay, this is how I’m feeling it, but am I overreacting?

I think step one is really gaining this self-awareness because you have to catch yourself doing it because for people who naturally do it, they’re not aware they’re doing it. It’s just how you think. So, being aware that you’re having a negative thought and you maybe don’t have to have a negative thought is thing number one.

Thing number two is you then have to say, okay, could I reframe this in some way? Maybe I didn’t like this. job so much to begin with, or maybe this is an opportunity for me to develop skills in a different area of my career or whatever. So, trying to reframe it in a more positive way after you have that self-awareness is really important.

Brett McKay: Besides the reframing things, I guess it means very similar to what cognitive behavioral therapy does, right? It helps you … You question your assumptions you have with your thinking. There’s other things you can do too. If you find yourself in a negativity vortex, things like go take a walk or go outside can interrupt those negative thought patterns?

Sanderson: Yeah. As I said before, there’s two sets of things you can do. One are thoughts, two are behaviors. The key with behaviors is that some of the research suggests actually changing your behavior can change your thoughts, and that is exactly again the principle of cognitive behavioral therapy. So, yeah, going for a walk, standing up, distracting yourself can be useful. Spending time in nature. Going for a walk is good, going for a walk outside is especially good.

But even other kinds of behaviors can really help us. People who get enough sleep are actually less likely to show this sort of cycle of negativity. We also know that there are behaviors that people can do in their daily lives that can interrupt this negative cycle and increase happiness.

Brett McKay: Yeah, the sleep thing is really interesting. I’ve noticed myself I typically get super negative at night, right before bed. That’s when you start ruminating and thinking how everything’s terrible, and I’m like, I should just go to bed. I go to bed, I wake up in the morning, I feel great, and I don’t I’m not thinking like that anymore.

Sanderson: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the challenges too is that many people when they have trouble sleeping, get on social media. There’s this cyclic thing. You’re not feeling great, then you go online and check Twitter or something, and read an article and then you get more riled up or whatever. So, being able to shut your mind off, get enough sleep is a really important way of improving your psychological well-being. Of course, it’s also good for you physically, that people who get enough sleep are less likely to get the common cold, they have fewer arguments with romantic partners and so on.

Brett McKay: All right. You just mentioned social media, what influence does social media have on our positivity or negativity?

Sanderson: It’s not good. One of the challenges is that lots of research has shown that when people are on social media they overwhelmingly feel worse about their own lives. That’s because most people on social media present only the good. So, here are my career successes, here’s my fabulous family vacation, my kids valedictorian, whatever. The problem is, is that when you go on social media, and you see all of these illustrations of other people having these really perfect lives, you can feel worse in comparison. For most people, social media brings us down.

Brett McKay: Besides these social comparison that happens in social media, are there any other aspects of it that can cause us to have a more negative outlook on life?

Sanderson: One of the most interesting findings is that even the mere presence of a cell phone seems to disrupt people’s ability to focus on their here and now relationship. The other challenge if you look at a cell phone use in particular is that it can take away time that we would otherwise be spending exercising, talking with a friend, doing something social, going to a party, whatever. It interrupts our ability to really focus on our current relationship partners and that of course has negative influences.

Brett McKay: I’ve seen studies too that say that social media, if you use it to facilitate in person meetups or facilitate those relationships you have with people in real life like family members or close friends, it can be a boom. Where it can go to negative territory is when you are reading about the lives of people you have no clue who they are really. That’s where things are going down.

Sanderson: Yes. I think the other key is that there are times, and social media, of course, gets a bad rap overall. But there are also times in which social media can have benefits. There’s one example that I think really speaks to that. That is when people are sharing what we call their authentic selves on social media. As I described before, lots of researchers, people tend to present only the good. But there are times in which people are on social media and they’re saying, “My kid won’t sleep through the night, or I’m feeling really lonely and it’s Valentine’s Day or whatever.” There are times in which if you are on social media, and you are being authentic, you are expressing what’s actually going on in your own life, it can actually be very supportive.

The example that I turn to with this is my mother died about 14 years ago. For years I avoided a social media on Mother’s Day, because it was just really brutal seeing all these moms and daughters together, it was just awful. And then I decided to do something new. That is that on Mother’s Day, I post a picture of me and my mom, and I’ll write, I’m really missing my mom today. And then I will tag all of the other people I know who I’m friends with who have also lost their moms. Which, of course, every year is more and more people.

So many people have said to me that it felt so comforting that here’s a day that’s hard for them, and I’m acknowledging that it’s hard for me also. Because one of the things is that feeling sad and alone is worse than feeling sad, and connected to other people. Social media can provide that opportunity for people to develop connections and therefore feel less alone.

Brett McKay: I think another way social media can make us more negative is that people tend to have a negativity bias. So the stuff that spreads on social media is often negative, just unpleasant stuff. If you constantly see that over and over and over again in your feed, you get the idea, well, everything’s terrible when everything’s not terrible.

Sanderson: Yes. We actually probably are evolutionarily hardwired in the brain to respond more quickly to negative events. Because the reality is, if at an evolutionary level, if there’s a threat; there’s a snake, there’s a poisonous spider, there’s a lion or whatever, you need to be able to adapt very quickly and respond to those negative threats in a way that like, oh, there’s a pretty rainbow or a flower. Evolutionarily, you didn’t need to recognize those so quickly to survive.

There’s some evidence in fact that our brains are hard wired to pay attention to negative stuff more than positive.

Brett McKay: Again, you have to override that by questioning like, okay, is it really as bad as my brain says it is? Probably not.

Sanderson: Yes, exactly.

Brett McKay: You mentioned comparison on social media, but comparison can also happen offline. I think you quoted Theodore Roosevelt who said that comparison is the thief of joy. How can we manage that tendency for us to want to compare ourselves to others. When we usually do that, it ends up making us feel terrible. So, what can we do about that?

Sanderson: It’s really important to recognize that when we compare ourselves to other people on social media, or in other ways, we’re not really comparing ourselves to other people. Because all we’re doing is comparing ourselves to what we’re seeing of them. We don’t actually know what goes on in their real lives. Often, when we do this comparison, we’re thinking, oh, everything in their life is so perfect, and they just got this great job or whatever, and I feel worse. But we’re not actually recognizing all that they’re going through.

I think that’s really important for us to keep in mind that we understand all that’s bad in our own lives in a way that we don’t recognize what’s bad in other people’s lives. These comparisons in effect aren’t really accurate. And being able to disengage from that comparison and focus on yourself and your own goals and achievements and not how do they compare to other people is essential.

Brett McKay: I think that’s important because when we compare, it’s typically relative. You might be doing great in your career. You’re making a good salary, an absolute salary but then you compare it to the people in your neighborhood, and because they’re making a little bit more than you you’re like, “Well, maybe I’m not doing as great.” Even though you are doing fantastic.

Sanderson: Right. There’s something that I think really illustrates that finding and it’s an economics principle which is called the wealthy neighborhood paradox. This example in fact illustrates that people who live in wealthy neighborhood. So, neighborhoods that have been identified as having very high income based on zip codes, people tend to feel less happy. The challenges, these are people who are living in really wealthy places in which they’re not worried about basic survival or food or safety or whatever, they have lots of money. But the issue is they may not have as much as their next door neighbor who has a nicer car or a second home or a pool or whatever it is.

The challenge is yes, that we stop saying, am I okay, and we start saying, oh my gosh, these people are doing so much better than I am. That’s not the reality. Because the reality is, you can be doing just fine, and you should be happy in that.

Brett McKay: There’s a whole big fish in a little pond or little fish in a big pond. If you’re the big fish in the little pond, you actually might do better or feel better than you would.

Sanderson: Yeah, there’s actually really interesting research, I think, published last year, that shows that high school students who go to really elite private schools, prep schools can sometimes feel much worse because the comparison is all around them. Whereas people who are in less selective schools actually have higher self-esteem because they’re not forced to do that kind of comparison all the time.

Brett McKay: Because you’re feeling better, you probably will perform better. It’s this vicious cycle.

Sanderson: Yeah, exactly, and be happier. All of the benefits, right?

Brett McKay: Another interesting thing in the research you found is that the way we spend our money can influence whether we have a negative or positive outlook on life. What’s some of the research there?

Sanderson: What I think is so interesting about that is that people often assume more money, more money, more money, then I’ll be happier. That’s a very, very common belief in our society. The reality is that once you have achieved a basic standard of living that you’re not worried about basic survival, there’s very little data suggesting that greater and greater wealth is going to lead to greater happiness.

What matters far more than how much money you have is actually how you spend that money. People who spend money on experiences; sell tickets to the big game or travel or concert or Broadway show or whatever have higher levels of happiness than people who spend money on belongings; expensive watch, purse, car shoes, whatever. It’s not how much money you have it really seems to be how do you spend that money.

Brett McKay: I imagine spending on experiences with other people compounds to positivity.

Sanderson: Absolutely. One of the interesting findings, of course, is that we’re more likely to spend money on belonging that are for ourselves. We often don’t share our coat or laptop or whatever with somebody else. But when we talk about experiences, we often are doing those with family members or friends. So, oh, let’s all go out and try this new restaurant, or let’s take a family trip to Italy, or whatever. So, spending money on experiences lets you anticipate them, lets you reflect back on them, and also lets you do them with other people, which adds to the enjoyment.

Brett McKay: There’s some other interesting research that you highlight, and I’ve seen other places too, is that people who are just thinking about money can put you in a negative mindset. Just thinking about cash, like, a Scrooge McDuck is going to turn you into a Scrooge McDuck.

Sanderson: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, even very subtle primes about money increase people’s focus on acquiring possessions and materialism, all of which is associated with lower levels of happiness.

Brett McKay: The sad thing is that I think millennials and Gen Z, this research shows they’re very materialistic. They’d rather have lots of money and stuff than, I think the study they said, make a difference in the world or something like that. That could be leading to a lot of young people feeling anxious and depressed, and there’s probably other factors there. But that could be a factor too.

Sanderson: Absolutely. There’s been research that has examined the level of narcissism, self-focused on college seniors for many, many years. Research shows that narcissism is rising. Narcissism of course is the opposite of empathy and connection and so on. Yet, what we know brings people happiness, the quality of their relationships, not how much money they have.

Brett McKay: Well, speaking of the quality of your relationships, that can have a big factor on your positive or negative outlook on life. What role do our relationship, how can that influence our outlook on life?

Sanderson: The single best predictor of happiness is the quality of our relationships. As I said before, it’s not how many relationships you have, it’s whether they are high quality relationships. The people who have high quality relationships, again, with family members, friends, dating partner, spouses, whatever, have very consistently higher levels of happiness. In part because when we have those high quality relationships, we can be our authentic selves. We don’t have to pretend that we’re something, we can be who we really are. It also allows us to have meaningful conversations, and that really provides a boost in happiness.

Brett McKay: I think it could also mean that if your relationships are terribly. There’s toxic people in your life, it may mean you have to cut those off because they’re just dragging you down too much, and it can be hard.

Sanderson: Yeah, there was actually a piece in The Washington Post within the last few weeks about that. The reality is that when you have toxic people in your life, it’s bad for your own physical and psychological well-being. What I say is if there are people you can cut out, try to cut them out. But if there are people who you can’t cut out, it’s your sister or something, or you just can’t avoid it, try to minimize contact and to try to make sure that after you spend time with that person, spend time doing something that you know is going to bring you out of it.

So, I’m going to see my sister at Thanksgiving, but after Thanksgiving, I’m going to go for a run and then I’m going to go see a movie with my best friend and whatever, because I know I’m going to need that lift after I have to spend time with this toxic person.

Brett McKay: You could also reframe it like well, it’s an opportunity for me to practice my empathy and grow as a person by spending time with this person.

Sanderson: I see you’re very good at this. How are you naturally an Eeyore? That’s such a good example.

Brett McKay: I’ve read lots of books on it. So, I know the tricks. Putting it into practice is the hard part. Putting it into practice is the hard part.

Sanderson: Yeah, that’s good.

Brett McKay: Well, Catherine, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book?

Sanderson: I have a website which is, and that website provides information about this book and some audio courses I’ve done. There are copies of my speeches that if people want to watch a video and learn more about me.

Brett McKay: Well, fantastic. Well Catherine Sanderson, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Sanderson: Take care. Have a nice rest of your day.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Dr. Catherine Sanderson. She’s the author of the book, The Positive Shift. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. Also, check out our show notes at where you find links to resources we’re going to delve deeper into the topic.

Well that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Check out our website, where you can find thousands of well researched, thorough articles on personal finance, personal development, how to be a better family man, to health and fitness, you name it, we’ve got it. If you haven’t done so already, I appreciate you take one minute to give us review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think can get something out of it.

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