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1/23/12blog post

the five elements of "happiness" - lessons from The Girl Scouts

The Girl Scouts have always been about a lot more than cookies and cookouts, and have recently revamped their recognition system to reflect the needs of young girls. The Scouts’ merit badges underwent their first major overall since 1987, with one badge in particular being the subject of both criticism and compliments. Scouts in grades six through eight can now earn a “Science of Happiness” merit badge.

This new badge has been described as “cheesy” and “absurd” by some critics. Happiness is a subjective sense of satisfaction that cannot be dissected in a scientific laboratory, and it’s silly to encourage preteen girls for thinking otherwise.

The rationale behind the badge is that wellbeing can be scientifically analyzed like other psychological conditions. Scouts earn the badge by following the scientific method to study their own happiness and that of others. They are involved in such activities as helping others, learning to forgive, reflecting on family memories and events, and keeping a journal of their activities. The focus on preteen girls was intentional, based on data that girls’ wellbeing is severely challenged during adolescence with issues of anxiety and depression.

The critics are wrong on this issue. I applaud the Girl Scouts for trying to integrate psychological research into the lives of young girls at a critical time of their development. Based upon years of research by Dr. Martin Seligman, it is possible to scientifically study the factors that give people a positive sense of well being. Five elements are important:

  • Positive Emotion. People with a high sense of well being frequently do things that make them feel good. They are balanced in their pursuit of positive feelings, and weigh the benefits of doing something that feels good immediately (e.g., eating lots of ice cream) with the long-term consequences (weight gain).
  • Engagement. Happy people make commitments, and are conscientious in following through with their activities. They feel connected to their jobs, other people, church, and recreational activities.
  • Relationships. The quality and quantity of our contact with others are critical factors in determining our well being. Do we surround our lives with people who are positive, funny, ethical, and caring? Do we act the same way towards them? Do we enjoy spending time with our kids, coworkers, and spouse? Do we avoid holding others to impossible standards? Are we quick to forgive others for misdeeds and apologize when we are wrong?
  • Meaning and purpose. Is our life filled with things that truly matter to us and others? People with a high sense of well being actively seek out things that they value, rather than complain about their boredom and unhappiness.
  • Accomplishment. Happy people take satisfaction in their many achievements. Regardless of how mundane the task, they feel a real sense of pride in doing something to the best of their ability.

We can learn something from the Girl Scouts in their study of happiness.