Subjective Well-Being: The priority of the century

Foundations of Social Emotional Learning

“Man sums up a web of contradictions”


Society has already experienced the utopia of establishing a unifying language of the people, with everybody reading from the same page. The dream of collective cooperation appeared to be close to realization with the arrival of the internet, reducing distances and reorganizing human relationships, in a growing process of digital inclusion. It gave visibility to individuals who previously went unnoticed. The student, proletarian, intellectual, politician, artist, and maid may be next to each other on the social networks. However, this voice, which was given to everybody, with a broad freedom of expression, discriminates perversely against those who are different, black, women, or homosexual, by disseminating and enhancing hate speeches and promoting tribalism. According to the North American sociologist Richard Sennett, tribalism is “the natural and animalistic impulse, coupling solidarity with others like yourself to aggression against those who differ.” In this regard, it presents the rivalry between virtual tribes, protected inside their bubbles and relating only to each other. They have the power to destroy the individual who loses the consideration of another, due to an adverse opinion posted on the social networks.

In addition to the crimes of preconception, xenophobia, misogyny, and racism, one aggravating factor stands out: news is often aired on social networks that is not committed to the truth, configuring a post-truth, a word that has gained notability from its inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary, which defines it as “denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This definition highlights a fundamental aspect of human behavior: the strength of emotions. They direct the course of action of individuals regarding the facts. With respect to this power that motivates individuals and magnetizes crowds, Henri Wallon (1879-1962), a French philosopher and psychologist, said “the cohesion of reactions, attitudes and feelings, which the emotions are capable of realizing in a group, explains the role that they should have performed at the start of human societies: even today, it is emotions that create an audience, that lift up a crowd, by a type of general consent that escapes each person’s control. They arouse a collective rapture capable of sometimes scandalizing individual reason.” The fake news published on Facebook, for example, can influence current political decisions, as suggested by some interpretations regarding the victory of Donald Trump, in the last North American elections.

This freedom of expression and communication, offered by the social network, gives the person the opportunity to meet with distant people, reconnect with old friends, and to have unlimited access to global news, in real-time, and multiple entertainment possibilities. In addition, a number of services are available for internet users such as video conferencing, fast communication by e-mail, buying tickets online, paying bills, and the chance to watch lectures. Moreover, the supply of products available for purchase is wide and the individual is satisfied, with just one click. However, what governs this relationship in a network are the actions to connect and disconnect from it. This connection/disconnection pairing interferes in the constitution of human ties that are becoming very fragile. At any obstacle, the individual can exclude people who will soon be replaced by others.

After this brief examination of the digital world, it can be ascertained that the internet has a very great power, both for construction and for destruction, which makes us think that the lesson of the philosopher Heraclitus, “good and evil are one,” applies to this context. Also, as Pascal already observed in the seventeenth century, man sums up a web of contradictions. Given this, from the tangle of contradictions present in the current historical moment, the need and the importance of widening human understanding is emphasized. This progresses to a complete education that considers, alongside the rational dimension and the cold intellectual logic, the importance of human subjectivity that governs us to feel and to act.

When looking at the past, scientists, historians, and philosophers have ascertained that the human condition has included much pain and suffering, arising from basic aspects for survival, such as the lack of food, a poor health system, diseases and plagues, and the absence of medications capable of resolving problems, which today are considered simple.

Therefore, the trilogy of war, plague and famine, represented the fatal shadow of death in the past of humanity. In addition to the pains of war, famine killed millions of people. In Europe, due to severe flooding and adverse weather, entire crops were devastated and many families died for lack of food. In the reign of Louis XIV, 15% of the French population died of starvation. The Black Death wiped out one third of the population of Europe. Smallpox and the Spanish flu killed millions of people, bringing pain and suffering to the population. Cities were wiped out. Albert Camus, in his book The Plague, makes a philosophical reflection on the human condition linked to plagues. He wrote: “Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”

We know that there are still areas of famine in some countries. However they result more due to political reasons, the logistical incompetence to supply food to the neediest populations, the inadequate distribution of income, the lack of honesty, and the incapacity and not the capacity to produce foodstuffs. In contrast to famine, currently more people are dying due to obesity. Yuval Harari, in his book Homo Deus, recalls that “in 2010, famine and malnutrition killed about one million people, whereas obesity killed three million.” Gradually, humanity has vanquished these adversities and the suffering produced by them has been reduced.

By looking at these moments in time, we can observe that today the maltreatment has changed places: it is created from the lack of connection of individuals with their peers, loneliness, high levels of anxiety, and the loss of meaning in relation to others that culminates in a high number of suicides. It follows, therefore, that the great historical neglect has been the lack of attention with subjective well-being. This reality should be treated very carefully and transforms into the greatest challenge of education in this century. From now on, subjective well-being transforms into the main item on the agenda of humanity.

 The scientific revolution and the contradictions of progress

Significant advance came with the scientific revolution, when man became aware of his ignorance and started to use empiricism as a measure to consolidate the new investigated concepts. There was, at this time, a break from the Church, which until then had dominated all knowledge. Thinkers such as Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Louis Pasteur were responsible for great innovations in the scientific field.

The enchantment with the idea of ​​progress, which sustained the industrial revolutions of the eighteenth century, brought with it the desire to provide well-being for everyone. Electric energy, factories, cars, planes, railroads, telephones, television, vaccines, antibiotics, and so many other achievements facilitated the lives of people, brought comfort to the housewife and to the business owner, longevity for mankind, and the reduction in infant mortality. These benefits reduced many human difficulties but did not guarantee the subjective well-being and the happiness of people.

The industrial revolutions culminated in a consumer society marked by the supposed lightness that ended up revealing a painful weight. From the perspective of the French philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky, society today presents this paradox: “The car, at first, was a light instrument. Today, when you travel by car, there is congestion. This is heavy. You have the burden of the things that come back. This time, not as Nietzsche said, due to the burden of metaphysics and the gods, but the burden due to the abundance and the outgrowth of consumerism.” Smartphones are another symbol of lightness and are used to chat with friends, to play games, and to access news and movies. Consequently, most people connected to the communication networks follow in the burden of isolation and in the illusion of escaping from boredom.

Another dimension that stands out at the present time is the speed of events. The unexpected has never been so present in our lives. “And when the unexpected appears, it is necessary to be capable of reviewing our theories and ideas, instead of letting the new fact enter by force into the theory that is incapable of receiving it.” It is intriguing to observe this conjecture of Edgar Morin that takes us back to the need to invest in the education of young people, preparing them to face the unpredictable. As pointed out by Nuccio Ordini, an Italian professor and philosopher, in his book The usefulness of the useless, it is urgently required to rescue the merits of knowledge, in a hyper-consumer society, such as the current one. He says: “Knowledge acts as a hindrance to the delusion of omnipotence of money and of utilitarianism. True, everything can be bought. From legislators to judges, from power to success: everything has its price. But not knowledge: the price to be paid for knowing is of a completely different kind.” Besides stimulating the acquisition of knowledge, sensitivity should be encouraged in young people and children, providing them with an excellent formal education. Particular attention should be paid to all the artistic modalities, to sports and especially providing them with an education for emotions and subjectivity, which considers the importance of the imagination and human interiority in order to understand life. The time has arrived to rescue an aspect that has been forgotten for millennia: to insert the constitution of the subjective well-being of humanity in the future agenda.

The contemporary scourges

We are experiencing a crisis of well-being. According to research by the World Health Organization (2015), there are 322 million depressed people in the world. This illness is responsible for making individuals unable to face everyday actions, such as going out, paying bills, working, socially circulating, and relating well with others. It is one of the major causes of suicide among the world population. Every year, over 800,000 people take their own life and this is considered the second largest cause of death among young people aged between 15 and 29 years old.

Unfortunately, current data estimates that, around the world, half a million people die each year, as victims of violence. Within families, behind closed doors, many children, women, and the elderly suffer abuse, and a large part of this reality is not classified by statistics.

The use of power that submits women also sexually exploits children who are psychologically maimed by the abuse. In the streets, whether covered by the shadows of the night or in broad daylight, juvenile delinquency is spreading. Some gather in gangs and commit petty crimes, but others are linked to organized crime; the clash between drug trafficking and the police also results in many deaths, fear and suffering. In some cities in the world, weapons are ready to victimize both the suspects and the innocent.

In line with social violence, terrorist attacks are highlighted that represent significant anguish for populations all over the world. Motivated by different fanaticisms, politics, religion and emotional illiteracy, terrorism exposes the intolerance to equals, producing barbarism through mass deaths and representing a major threat to the security of people. France, England, the United States, Spain, India, Turkey, Pakistan, and many other nations have lost men, women and children in scenes of horror.

In social relationships, there is a whole chapter of difficulties: unemployment, closure of borders to immigrants, the return to exacerbated nationalism, extremist strengthening, and right and left radical views. The lack of civility in gestures and the disrespect for human rights can be added to this list of obstacles. When analyzing our times, Zygmunt Bauman, a Polish philosopher and sociologist, called the new trends of civilization Retrotopia, the title of his posthumous work. According to his analysis, Retrotopia configures an attitude of devaluation of the present and the future and the idealization of the past. It is the opposite of Utopia, dreamed by Thomas More. Zygmunt Bauman says: “the future (once the safe bet for the investment of hopes) smacks increasingly of unspeakable (and recondite!) dangers. So hope, bereaved, and bereft of the future, seeks shelter in a once derided and condemned past, the home of superstitions and blunders. With the options available among time’s offers discredited, each carrying its measure of horror, the phenomenon of ‘imagination fatigue’, the exhaustion of options, emerges.” In other words, the idea of ​​unpredictability spreads terror, accentuates disillusion among contemporary men, and solutions are sought to the current problems in the formulas used in a remote past, instead of producing a project for the future. There is a crisis of optimism and expectancy. The memory of a bygone time is fickle, diffuse, loaded with subjectivities, and a mixture of memories and forgetfulness. For the construction of tomorrow we need to rescue expectancy; as Heraclitus (535 BC – 475 BC), a pre-Socratic philosopher said, “If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it.” Similarly, the teaching of M. Heidegger (1889-1976) projects us into the future: “The beginning is not found behind us, but is built in front of us.”

Also, when analyzing the contemporary world, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in the study Dialectic of enlightenment, express that society “instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.” Such an anthropological setback associated with historical progress had already been observed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century. Possessed by the taste of conquests, man has stifled certain values ​​such as kindness, solidarity, and altruism, which has resulted in barbarism taking their place. These realities show us that, alongside the gains, we also have losses.

When investigating the fundamental losses that have occurred in recent times in the field of education, Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), an Indian philosopher and educator, says “Present-day education is a complete failure because it has overemphasized technique. In overemphasizing technique we destroy man.” He also warns, “To cultivate capacity and efficiency without understanding life, without having a comprehensive perception of the ways of thinking and desire, will only make us increasingly ruthless, which is to engender wars and jeopardize our physical security.”

Based on these considerations, it can be ascertained how the scientific and technological revolutions have benefited humanity, but the interpersonal relationships still cry out for care. Conflicts between couples, within families, between parents and children, psychological pain and the subjective malaise are the great challenges that must be present in the agenda of humanity from now on.

The reform of thinking: the polyocular view and reflexes in education

From the paradigm of complexity, and according to the wise considerations of Edgar Morin, “seeing, perceiving, conceiving and thinking are interdependent. They are inseparable terms. It is both necessary to think to see and to see to think. Thinking allows conceiving and conceiving allows thinking. Each one of these terms has its own need, its own defect, and its own limit. The eye of the frog does not see the shape of its prey, the fly, but perceives the movement of its flight. And us, what do we see? What escapes us? It seems that certain looks only perceive the shape and others, only the movement. Should we not then make the looks communicate with each other and converse? We need to multiply the points of view and the stops to arrive at a polyscopic view. We need communication and dialogue with different views from ours. We need a polyocular view.”

This view opposes the fragmentation of knowledge that composes the linear, binary, and simplifying thinking, whose philosophical basis is found in René Descartes (1596-1650), the “father of modern rationalism.” The Cartesian analytical method was and still is the scientific reference for the understanding of reality. Based on this method, multiple fragmentations of reality appeared, namely: the division between the material and spiritual world; the separation between objectivity and subjectivity, mind and body, and religion and science, etc. Therefore, the error of Descartes was sustaining himself uniquely on pure rationality. In the view of Edgar Morin, “Descartes did not realize the subjective nature of every living being and placed the subject outside all biological roots. He operated in a disjunction between the thinking subject and the body, establishing a paradigmatic separation between the res cogitans (the thinking thing) and the res extensa (the body).”

The linear view fails and cannot embrace the complexity of the human and social phenomena. We are facing the challenge of reforming thinking and, as stated by Morin, bringing together the separate knowledge and the capability of embracing the paradox of unity and multiplicity, their interdependent relationships and impermanence. It is also important to highlight the recursive nature of complex thinking. Morin, once more, speaking of recursive causality, uses the symbolism of the tree, with its branches touching the ground, which, in turn, become roots that create a new trunk. He says, “Complex thinking is recursive. It also feeds on itself and recreates itself all the time. On discovering my method, it turned on my thinking and obliged me to think of the political, pedagogical and philosophical consequences. I produced a method, which, in turn, produced me during my life.”  The concept of recursiveness was similarly observed in Cybernetics, which is a science that studies the mechanisms of communication and control in machines and living beings, developed by the Austrian Heinz von Foerster ( 1911-2002). He expanded the understanding of the complex paradigm, emphasizing the idea that all knowledge should protect self-knowledge.

The view of the complexity and the understanding of the recursive causality should be present in the educational processes. All the education of the future should be based on this. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) considers sensitivity as the root of human cognition, i.e., the acquisition of knowledge does not occur coldly, neutrally, or without subjectivity. By taking into account this absence of neutrality, Kant provides evidence of the subject of knowledge, its possibilities and borders. From the observation of Kant, Edgar Morin, an unrivalled master in reflections of complexity, declares: “This does not concern slipping back towards subjectivism: it concerns quite the contrary of addressing this complex problem in which the thinking subject becomes the object of his knowledge while remaining the subject.”

Another very important reinforcement for the reform of thinking in the direction of the paradigm of complexity, which designs the new bases of education, we find in Blaise Pascal (1623- 1662), a physicist, mathematician, philosopher and theologian. According to him, the part can only be understood in terms of the whole and vice versa. He therefore highlights the importance of contextualization. Consequently, in order to learn the constitution of something and its meaning, it is fundamental to place it in context. In Pascal’s words: “Since everything then is cause and effect, dependent and supporting, mediate and immediate, and all is held together by a natural though imperceptible chain, which binds together things most distant and most different, I hold it equally impossible to know the parts without knowing the whole, and to know the whole without knowing the parts in detail.” Based on this premise, the elaboration of knowledge, by means of contextualization, should embrace the different dimensions of the student, i.e., the emotive and material questions and not only the mental issues.

This multiocular point of view has already been perceived in the reflections of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher. In his studies, the dialectic is present in which contradiction is not denied, but is considered as an intrinsic part of the actual movement of thinking. He says “there exists another specific area beyond the existential experience, which is that of the complexity that perceives different faces of the same reality, including the contradictory.” The synthesis that is arrived at, from Hegel, is not the end of the reflexive movement, but the beginning of a game that never ends.

From Freudian anthropology to the depths of the human soul in literature

In the search for knowledge, wisdom, and the understanding of reality through complexity, it is equally necessary to consider the Freudian contributions and those from great literary works, both in prose and in poetry.

Freud investigates the psychic apparatus in his investigation of human subjectivity. He identifies the conflicts, the lucidity and madness, the shadows, the dreams, the deepest caverns of man, the demons present in everyone, in the relationship with oneself and with the world. His studies unravel many mysteries of the nature of man, in his multiplicity and unity.

In line with the investigation of the human condition, and particularly of the psyche, there is also the literature that, alongside science, reveals the human being. In this regard, Dostoyevsky declares: “With full realism, to find the man in man … They call me a psychologist. That is not true. I am only a realist in the higher sense; that is, I portray all the depths of the human soul.” Those who have read Crime and Punishment, a psychological novel by Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), a Russian writer and philosopher, is capable of penetrating the somber world of Raskolnikov, tormented by guilt, as a result of the crime he has committed. He performs a surgical analysis in the oppressed mind, in the fantasies, in the absurd fears, and in the psychological oppression.

Also in literature, Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and his exemplary work, In Search of Lost Time, reveals the profound perception of the soul and of human feelings. In his narrative, Proust makes temporal advances and retreats, long digressions and extensions, providing the readers an opportunity to reflect on what has been read, and to begin to understand themselves and the complexity that involves the human condition.

There are so many poets, playwrights, and prose writers who have introduced extremely sensitive human dimensions and revealed the acute human pain and suffering. Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Shakespeare, Cervantes and many others represented in their works a strategy of liberation of the spirit, through the sublimation of the most intimate desires or by the expansion of the unconscious. The art of poetry touches man in his delicate emotion, is a companion in solitude, and is an epiphany. Many are the paths visited by poets that echo in the soul of the reader.

Philosophers, psychologists, men of letters and artists have sewn the backdrop of our reflections and revealed the need for a new educational approach, in the direction of an integral education, based on subjective well-being.

Social Emotional Learning

Due to the high rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, and internal human suffering, the agenda of humanity is changing. As we know, the cultural transformations occur from education that today is directed to a liberating line that welcomes diversity. If we look around the world, we can observe specific examples of this change.

There are countries that seek to liberate the joys of childhood, a childhood that is the pillar of all existence. Therefore, there are already schools where there is no rush to teach the alphabet and numbers to infants. In them, we understand the importance of providing the child the opportunity to play, to socialize, and to be happy, using significant amounts of music, games, and several play activities as teaching resources. Other schools innovate customs with the exchange of the traditional fragmentation of content by multidisciplinary themes. In the perspective of the paradigm of complexity, these institutions already promote the necessary and fundamental transition from the separate and disjointed linear Cartesian thinking, to the understanding that everything is interconnected and dependent, and that knowledge is not compartmentalized. There are even more daring schools that alter the physical space. Instead of the customary closed classrooms, with desks in rows, the pupils gather in open areas, and the desks are replaced by more comfortable furniture, which is arranged to encourage more approximation, dialogue and cooperation.

 In contrast to these wonderful models of education, there is another reality that prevails in the world. This is where children and adolescents live in situations of risk, family breakdowns, and the abandonment and negligence of parents.

 When examining these two realities, the important role of Social and Emotional Learning is emphasized, in order to meet the needs not only of the children attending the well-structured schools with innovative educational approaches, but also, and mainly, the enormous quantity of children and young people who are mistreated by their families and society, for whom school represents the only opportunity of social and professional direction.

There are children, young people and adults who cannot concentrate, either in the classroom or in everyday life. They are imbued with uncomfortable emotions such as anger, jealousy, fear, guilt, anxiety, and rejection. In short, all these emotions have to be made conscious and regulated to result in creative and constructive behavior. If there is no educational and guiding process, these unpleasant emotions can block learning, in school and in life, reinforcing the high rates of emotional illiteracy, physical and mental suffering, underdevelopment, and violence in the family and in society.

The verification of conflict, psychological pain, and the multiple forms of violence that poison the lives of individuals requires a new educational intervention. For this operation, those studying Social and Emotional Learning from around the world strive to research and develop programs to address the most important item on the new agenda of humanity: the subjective well-being.

In the awareness that emotions guide all human actions and that through them we go to war or build peace, the imperative importance of Social and Emotional Learning is emphasized. It can bring peace and harmony to individuals and regenerate fundamental values ​​for a cohesive and healthy coexistence between people. It can quieten and pacify our afflicted and needy minds with deeper meanings of the act of being alive.

João Roberto de Araújo / 2018

JOÃO ROBERTO DE ARAUJO is the founder and Creator of Opportunities of 50-50 SEL Solutions. He is 74 years old and was a pioneer in the development processes of social emotional skills in Brazil, where he worked for thirty years.

He has created educational materials used by approximately 700,000 students and 20,000 teachers. Living today in Paris, France, he is developing his work of social emotional learning in French schools.

He has the dream of finding partners to “work together” and to “be a bridge” between the challenges of human coexistence and the resources of social emotional skills.

He is working towards making the proposal of 50-50 SEL Solutions known worldwide.


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