The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

University of Michigan Squirrels

Michigan squirrels have figured out what their setting affords.

University of Michigan Squirrel (Sciurus niger michiganus)

Were I to believe in reincarnation, I would hope to do my next cycle as a squirrel on the main campus of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In terms of quality of life, this would be a step up for me, no doubt, so I better get busy accruing good deeds, just in case dreams really do come true.

Most Michigan squirrels are fat, fluffy, and more than a little feisty. The main campus is bordered by streets but otherwise has no automobile traffic. Trees abound - that's after all why we call it Ann Arbor. For reasons that might deserve discussion in another blog entry, dogs do not run free on campus. What's not to like from a squirrel's point of view? No bothersome calculus or chemistry exams, no tenure worries, no concerns about the W-L record against other Big Ten teams.

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Couple all of this with the tens of thousands of students who walk around campus every day with backpacks loaded with treats that they love to share with the squirrels. A frequent sight on campus is a squirrel eating out of the hand of a student. This may not be the most prudent thing for a student to do, but I have never seen a squirrel chomp down on anyone's fingers. "Don't bite the hand that feeds you" is advice apparently heeded better by Michigan squirrels than by many human beings.

The squirrels expect to be fed, and they have taught Michigan students how to feed them. Not all learning here takes place in classrooms, and Michigan students if nothing else learn their lessons well.

A recent story in our student newspaper featured the squirrels and inspired me to write this entry. I learned that the university has a Squirrel Club with 800+ human members. Whether fans of the chipmunks and groundhogs on campus are allowed to join the Squirrel Club is not clear, although I hope so.

One of my biology colleagues was quoted in the story. He may have been guilty of anthropomorphizing, but he observed that the squirrels act annoyed when they are not fed! He further said that the University of Michigan squirrels are unusual. Not only are they unafraid of people, they also survive the winter well and have two full breeding seasons a year. His punchline: "[Interacting with humans] ... doesn't have any detrimental effects on their well-being."

I love it ... squirrels described in terms of their well-being! Positive psychology language is taking over the world.

So what's the good life point for those of you who are not squirrels or do not believe in reincarnation? Simply that the Michigan squirrels have figured out what their setting affords, and they have made the most of it by being pleasing. We all should be so savvy.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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