The Yale Chaplain’s Office does not list Scientology anywhere on its home page, but after 1,200 undergrads crowded into Battel Chapel for the first session of “Psychology and the Good Life,” it might as well add scientism. Taught by Laurie Santos and attended by pretty much everyone, this biweekly lecture promises to teach “scientifically validated strategies” for happiness and answer your most pressing ethical quandaries along the way.
It also promises to inflate our culture’s already inflated opinion of the scientific method, promote bad hierarchies instead of good ones and systematically mislead students about the nature of the good life — all while reproducing the assumptions behind our current happiness deficit.
Most ordinary people believe that “the meaning of life” is a very big, very complicated inquiry. Not Santos. Clocking in at just under sixteen pages, her syllabus reads like an almanac of self-evident propositions ranked in ascending order of obviousness: Money can’t buy happiness (Csikszentmihalyi 1999). Sleep is good for you (American Psychological Association 2004). Sexual arousal can impair judgment and decision making (Ariel and Loewenstein, 2006, see also Weiner 2011 and Clinton 1998). All true — and hardly worth remarking on.
But what is worth remarking on is the scientistic outlook that transforms banalities into research programs, common sense into expertise. On moral as well as empirical questions, it regards ancient wisdom as advice — the kind you read about in the Sunday papers — and convention as superstition, a stock of untested hypotheses to be confirmed or rejected as the data demand. It prides itself on being anti-ideology and pro-“what works” — two constructs that are deployed much more often than they are defined — and it prefers regressions to dialectic, lectures to seminars.
This weltanschauung, which is so central to the cult of Santos, claims to be values-neutral. It is not. Like any epistemology, it centralizes authority in the hands of particular people and particular knowledge-makers, each with her own values, her own pieties, her own prejudices.
Case in point: PSYC 157 does not discuss well-documented personality differences between the sexes (especially when it comes to labor market preferences), or the deleterious effects of hook-up culture (especially on women’s mental health) or the evidence that religious attendance improves well-being along a variety of dimensions, but it does discuss several studies that purport to show how marriage and child-rearing negatively impact happiness.
The result is a narrative highly congenial to the liberal mind: Faith and family get pigeonholed as either unimportant or downright pernicious, while behavioral “nudging” is described as a “strategy for helping others” — a strategy, I would add, that enjoyed significant support among Obama’s council of economic advisors.
That’s not to invalidate the social sciences, of course, nor is it to suggest that we shouldn’t study the pros and cons of major life decisions.
But Santos’s ideological priors haven’t just influenced her assigned readings; they’ve also influenced the way those readings are being packaged and presented.
Psychology and The Good Life is quite upfront about the metric of happiness at use here. Commonly referred to as “subjective well-being,” this construct reflects a person’s holistic sense of life satisfaction as measured by a numerical scale (e.g. one equals miserable, nine equals nirvana).
There are technical worries about subjective well-being — people might have difficulty mapping complex mental states onto integers, for instance — but the real problem is deeper and more philosophical: Subjective well-being is not the stuff that makes life worth living.
Paying the bills. Bickering with a spouse. Chauffeuring kids to little league. These things suck — they stress us out, sap our energy and compound our worries. If you ask a sleep-deprived, over-taxed, hyper-caffeinated father to rate his happiness on a scale of one to ten, chances are his answer will involve four very pointed letters.
Ask him if he regrets having children, however, and he will almost certainly say no. Ask him on his deathbed if it was worth it — not whether it was fun, not whether it was satisfying, but whether it was worth it — and he will almost certainly say yes. To assert, as Santos did in Thursday’s lecture slides, that kids don’t “really” make us happier is to either completely misdefine happiness or completely miss the point. It indulges a sick sort of presentism, one that privileges momentary comfort over long-term fulfillment, and relegates the good life to the realm of subjective taste and experience, where personal values reign supreme and universalism dares not tread.
This ethos — egoistic, meliorist and thoroughly modern — has presided over the worst mental health crisis in over a generation. Pundits, provosts and even scientists agree that today’s millennials aren’t very happy, however the term is defined. Perhaps the culprit is just a lack of “mindfulness,” a failure to rewire our habits for the digital age.
But my money’s on the culture, which lays siege to mediating institutions and unchosen attachments, and which, as of last week, gained a new legion.
Aaron Sibarium is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column typically runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at email@example.com .