Well-Being And The Drive For Success Is A Double Helix

Text by Dr Lim Lai Cheng
Photo by Wikicommons

There is a popular story told of a businessman who was curious about why a fisherman in a small village was contented to just work for a few hours for a small basket of catch each day. “Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” he asked and “What do you do the rest of your time?”

“I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a walk with my wife, sip wine and play the guitar with my buddies; I have a full and busy life” was the answer. The businessman proceeded to suggest that the fisherman spend more time fishing so that with the proceeds, he can buy a bigger boat, and very soon, with even more proceeds, he would have a fleet of fishing boats. He could then sell direct to businesses, and manage his own distribution and processing, move to a big city and further expand his enterprise.

The fisherman asked how long that would take. To the suggestion of 15-20 years, he followed on with, “What then?” The young businessman’s response was, “then, you can sell your company and become very rich”. “What then?” the fisherman asked.

The young businessman’s response followed, somewhat sheepishly: “Then you would retire, move to a small village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a walk with your wife and drink and play the guitar with your pals.”

Growing up in a fast-paced and economically driven society like Singapore, we are often caught in the same paradox. Like the businessman in the story, we tend to think that happiness will come in a distant future when we have more material possessions and when external circumstances are favourable. As an educator, I have made the same mistake in thinking that students’ well-being will come in the future; that what is more important is for them to accumulate an inordinate amount of knowledge, learn skills and develop attitudes that will get them good results and allow them to find a job and good life conditions so that they can, eventually, be happy.

Positive psychologists have convinced me that we can have our cake and eat it – that schools have an important role to promote individual well-being as well as drive for academic success and that both goals can work to reinforce each other (see Figure 1).

2 (a)Figure 1: Academics and character & well being as a double helix

The theory of well-being advocated by one of the most renowned psychologists in this field, Prof Martin Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, posits five key aspects that must be present for well-being to exist in all human beings: positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment (PERMA, in short).

When we apply Seligman’s model to education, it means that the best schooling must include educating children on values and character, as well as how to interact well with others, set goals for themselves and work towards achieving those goals. Positive education, a movement that is gaining momentum across the world, works to create a school culture that supports caring, trusting relationships. It is an approach that encourages and supports individuals and the community to flourish and focuses on specific skills that assist students to build positive emotions, enhance personal resilience, promote mindfulness and encourage a healthy lifestyle.

Enhancing positive experiences in schools is not a zero sum game. With reference to Figure 2 below, schools or systems that are high on well-being but low on excellence (academic or otherwise) will produce stagnation or students who underperform. Those that are low on well-being and high on the drive for success necessarily end up with students and staff who are cynical or burnt-out. Those that are low on both produce languishing students who are neither happy nor performing. Finally, when schools or systems focus on well-being and excellence, they will have thriving or flourishing individuals.

2(b)Figure 2: Focus on well-being and excellence

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that measures student performance by country in key subject areas such as Mathematics, Science and Reading. Since its first study in 2000, PISA has been driving a lot of behavioural change and policy revision in many education systems around the world. Asian countries or cities, notably Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea and Japan outperform the rest of the world in the latest survey (2012) of fifteen-year-olds.

Countries that are aiming to emulate the high performers have been tempted to push for academic outcomes through more hours of classroom instruction, more homework and more frequent testing to climb up the ranklist. However, PISA statistics tell only one part of the whole story.

In order to ensure personal mastery and success for life, academic development has to be coupled with the development of character strengths and well-being. Researchers have come up with evidence suggesting a relationship between academic performance and strengths. Seligman and Peterson (2004), for instance, have identified six clusters of strengths under which they listed a set of character traits. The clusters consist of wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, and spirituality and transcendence.

A team of educators at the Character Lab in New York has reduced the list of twenty four from the six clusters, to seven key character strengths that they are building a scientific developmental model for. The seven character traits are grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, curiosity and zest. If schools are able to integrate the development of these key traits with efforts at academic attainments, the chances of children’s success in an increasingly complex and competitive world will be much higher.

To understand how we can make a fundamental change, let’s look at how a new government school in Singapore has embraced positive education in a whole-school approach. Westwood Primary School is a three-year-old elementary school in Jurong, whose vision is “to inspire our community to lead meaningful and engaged lives.”

With their school tagline, “Positively Westwood”, staff and leaders of the school, including the School Advisory Committee members have endorsed a framework that emphasizes imparting both skills and competencies and teaching wellbeing, so that the students can gain greater insights of the self as an agent for change and knowledge creation.


Building on Seligman’s PERMA model, children are taught to thrive through:

Thinking Mindfully (Growth Mindset & Mindfulness): Positive Accomplishment
Healthy Coping (Resilience & Energy Management): Positive Health
Relating Well (Active Constructive Responding): Positive Relationship
(Being) In the Moment (Optimal Engagement): Positive Engagement
Values-driven Actions (Meaning & Purpose): Positive Meaning
Emotions of Positivity (Gratitude): Positive Emotion

Daily activities and classroom interaction remind them that they are to be a “self-directed learner, trustworthy friend, compassionate leader, and confident and positive person”.

Some strategies used by teachers daily include common icons like the traffic light system to teach explicit reflective thinking. For example, a traffic-light to represent: Stop-Think-Go is used by teachers to guide pupils to reflect on their actions and thoughts in class. Teachers also hold regular “What Went Well” (WWW) moments in the classroom, at the end of the day or week for regular reflection opportunities for the students. Reward charts are created to institute specific praise for effort, rather than just achievement in tasks and relationships. Teachers also make use of opportunities to offer words of affirmation to the children and support for peer encouragement of effort and behavior is also made explicit.

Southeast Asia is a region with one of the youngest populations in the world. Positive education or the development of well-being and character strengths can certainly lead to more positive attitudes and dispositions among schools in the region, no matter what stage their academic attainment is, at this point in time. Not only is positivity a desirable end in itself, it is also a means to other desirable ends and contributes to societal end-goals such as citizen well-being and quality of life, a compassionate and inclusive society, rootedness and commitment as well as an adaptive and resilient nation. It makes sense to embrace the double helix.

About the author

Dr Lim Lai Cheng is Academic Director of the Institute for Societal Leadership at the Singapore Management University. Prior to joining the university, she had worked as teacher, head of department, deputy principal and she was principal of three schools. She has served on various national committees on education reviews in Singapore. She is advisor to the African Leadership Academy in South Africa and the LEAF Foundation in Slovakia and a Director of the Principals’ Academy Inc, Singapore and a member of the steering committee of the International Positive Education Network.


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