The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

A New Merit Badge for the Girl Scouts: The Science of Happiness

A new Girl Scout badge is the Science of Happiness.

I was never a Scout, but as I was growing up I was aware of the merit badges that could be earned by Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, and they always seemed pretty cool as indicators that someone was an expert in a given endeavor. Many of domains of merit badge expertise seemed exotic to me as a kid in the Chicago suburbs, like climbing, fly fishing, and wood carving.

Be that as it may, nothing stands still, even Scouting organizations, and the Girl Scouts have recently introduced new merit badges for the 21st century. The new badges are not exotic because they are not supposed to be. But they are still cool.

Science of Happiness Merit Badge

My attention in particular was piqued by reports in the media of a new Girl Scout badge called the Science of Happiness. Sounds like positive psychology, right? And that is not a coincidence because the requirements for the badge were developed in consultation with positive psychology founder Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman has been a friend of mine for many decades, and it is unusual for me to gush over or to my long-time friends. But when I read about this new merit badge, I sent him a fan letter. This sort of consultation is exactly what positive psychologists should be doing, lending informed expertise to endeavors that make the world a better place.

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In more general terms, the new Girl Scout merit badges embody an updated view of girls as active and inquisitive citizens of the world, creators and contributors as well as consumers. Science, entrepreneurship, and social innovation are now represented. Old merit badges have been revamped. So, the Fashion, Fitness and Makeup Merit Badge is now the Science of Style Merit Badge and has girls explore the use of nanotechnology in fabrics and the chemistry of sunscreens. And among the new merit badges are those for website creation, product design, and - I love it - customer loyalty.

What does one do to earn the Science of Happiness Merit Badge? The science is underscored, and girls are asked not only to devise their own interventions but to test them. "You're both the experimenter and the research subject." Would that all people enamored of positive psychology put ideas to empirical test!

Specific steps for earning the merit badge are provided, and emphasis is placed on documenting in a journal or with a self-designed survey the effects of such strategies as achieving flow, counting blessings, and savoring - the usual suspect positive psychology interventions. What impressed me was the explicit comment that not all interventions will work as intended, and the Scout should make note of that and try something different.

More novel suggestions include the involvement of other people in attaining happiness. So, a Scout might enlist a friend or family member as a happiness helper. Or a Scout should try to make someone else happy.

One of Seligman's favorite lines about the goal of positive psychology has to do with increasing the tonnage of happiness on the planet. I don't know how much a typical Girl Scout weighs, before or after cookies, but there are more than three million Scouts and adult volunteers in the US. That's some serious tonnage in the aggregate, and even if only a handful of these girls pursue the Science of Happiness Merit Badge, at least it will be on everyone's radar screen. Happiness is attainable, and there is a science behind how to do so.

Some of the media stories about the Science of Happiness Merit Badge were, alas, critical and cynical. What is wrong with people? We are told that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. I would like to add that we should at the very least not curse someone else's candle, especially if it is held by one of our children.

 

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

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