The “Science of Well-Being”, Yale University, and the moral hunger of an outdated society

3 April, 2021

A Science of Well-being course in Yale

The success of Science of Well-Being, a course taught by Yale University on the Internet to nearly three and a half million students, has become one of the cultural phenomena of the pandemic.

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Why is “the science of well-being” a hot topic

The Science of Well-Being was originally a Yale University classroom course taught during the spring of 2018 to 1,200 students. Subsequently, the university itself prepared a free version for Coursera intended to take up 10 weeks of study for those who followed it. It immediately drew hundreds of thousands of students. But if the result soon exceeded the institution’s expectations, the lockdowns and the pandemic have turned it into its main appeal on the Internet: 3,391,800 students have already studied the syllabus.

The success of the Science of Well-Being has become one of the cultural phenomena of the pandemic.

What is this “Science of Well-Being” about?

Laurie Santos (left) creator of Science of Well-being course, talks to students.
Laurie Santos (left) creator of the Science of Well-Being course, talking to students.

Not surprisingly, the Science of Well-Being has little of science and a lot of moral procedures. Students are invited to record and monitor their sleeping patterns, write gratitude journals and perform random acts of kindness … and evaluate whether such practices allow them to become happier. What’s interesting, as always, is not the recommendations themselves, but the ideology they entail.

The fact that a simple reminder about the importance of maintaining a regular sleep pattern is able to change the lives of thousands of people should in itself be shocking. Because in reality it only indicates the generalization of unhealthy work schedules and rhythms and the pervasiveness of a vital, systemic distress that the pandemic has only deepened. There is little Science of Well-Being and a lot of confirmation of the divorce between human development and capital accumulation which characterizes the current historical stage of capitalism, its crisis as a civilization. But about this, evidently, nothing is said no matter how obvious it may seem to us.

Even more striking are the gratitude diaries and the technique of negative visualization. In Jesuit fashion, students are invited to imagine themselves suddenly losing the most basic material foundations of their lives: home, job, access to medicine or health. Or even their most intimate affective and community relationships (partner, family, friends). After this masochistic exercise, gratitude is assumed to appear spontaneously.

But, towards whom are we supposed to show gratitude? What are we supposed to be grateful towards? The course doesn’t say. It lets the ideological pounding received over the years do its work. Some students stated that it had reaffirmed their supernatural beliefs. Others felt grateful for having been born in this or that country, or simply congratulated themselves on the generosity and fairness of the market. Pure reinforcement of all layers of religion in capitalism with the possibility of choosing their favorite one: supernatural apparatuses, nationalism or pure commodity religion.

One conclusion of the so-called Science of Well-Being that drew the attention of most students was performing random acts of kindness.

A small study of the Santos curriculum which struck students started by surveying 632 Americans about how they thought they would feel happier: if they were given $5 to spend on themselves or given $5 equally but told they must spend it on someone else. In the survey people predicted that they would be happier if they were allowed to keep the money for themselves. But participants consistently reported afterwards that they had, in fact, gained more satisfaction from spending money on someone.

Szypula [a student] had the opportunity to combine her new knowledge in a practical experiment on her sister’s birthday. Instead of keeping an expensive dress she had bought, she gave it to her sister. “I still feel that happiness months later,” she claims.

What did 3 million people learn from this online happiness course, The Irish Times

As you can see the Science of Well-Being is quite a ride. To begin with, what one can do for others appears, both in the rationale and in the example, to be necessarily mediated by money. That is to say, the total commodification of human relations is taken for granted. What was portrayed as an innocent and random beautiful gesture has become an exchange of money for commodities on behalf of others.

And yet, the example unintentionally unveils the world that the course’s whole discourse is rejecting: the community and its decommodified moral logic. The beneficiary is the sister, the context a birthday party and the good deed a gift. Even if she previously paid for the dress, what Szipula tells us is the satisfaction she feels in contributing to her most basic community, the family.

But, evidently, this mercantile Science of Well-Being is not going to cater to anything resembling belonging through contribution, however trite and well-known the concept may be. Better to stay in the safe and familiar world of generalized commodity exchange – and its hard and fast affective accountings – which are supposed to make us happy.

Why is this “Science of Well-Being” successful at all, when its message is the same old mercantile morality of a lifetime?

Title received by an student of "science of well-being"
Title received by a “Science of Wellness” alumna”

What this course’s success uncovers is that there is a real hunger for a new morality. With capitalism already as anti-human as it is anti-historical, it is up to the rising class, the proletariat, to provide a growing part of society with the basis for a new anti-mercantile morality advancing its historical alternative.

However, our class -systematically denied- has not yet reached a level of struggles and organization that would allow it to develop even a limited social leadership.

The result is a society in true civilizational decay in which the petty bourgeoisie, the most corrupt of the classes, has a level playing field to produce and sell ideologies expressing its aspirations. But these, however radical they may seem at a given moment, can only happen through the acceptance of the system of exploitation giving meaning to the petty bourgeoisie’s social situation in the market, the bureaucracy, and the state framework.

Science, which will not cease to be under the blinding mantle of ideology as long as society does not overcome class division, is not free from this pressure. From this Science of Well-Being to the anti-historical eugenicist delusions of feminism, academic lectures and articles are full of atavistic moral discourses and fantasies, reminiscent of the youthful era of the bourgeoisie and today as destructive and reactionary as the system they serve.

The need for a new morality, capable of bringing to the present the only possible alternative future to capitalism, will never emerge from the institutions of the state that exists to defend the system itself. Even less from the institution fed by the state in order to diffuse and create ideologies on demand, the University. The need for a new morality will not be satisfied by any Science of Well-Being or its Psychology. Communist morality knows no institutions, titles or classrooms but rather it knows of struggle, organization, discussion and learning.

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