The first half of Sha-En Yeo’s life could be a textbook example of realizing the Singapore Dream — a promise of “happily ever after” built on academic success and material attainments. She had been a model student of the education system, graduating from a top school and clinching a fully-funded teaching scholarship, which guaranteed her career track for the rest of her life.
However, she soon discovered that finding gold at the end of the rainbow didn’t translate to happiness. “I think a lot of people still don't know that,” she tells us. “They think they have to get certain material things to be fulfilled. These things can make us happy if there's a meaning attached to it, but research has found that material purchases have diminishing returns unless there is significance attached to it.”
As a teacher, Sha-En felt that there were untapped possibilities within the education system she had successfully navigated. Good academic results still remained the priority of schools and parents, sometimes at the expense of the student's well-being.
“Every child in school has a potential they haven't yet reached,” Sha-En says. “If we want them to be ready for the uncertainty we live in, especially in current times, you can't only teach English, Math, and Science. Those aren’t enough to survive, much less thrive.”
Seeking an opportunity to study the balance between academics and well-being, Sha-En decided to try a different path. She enrolled in higher studies at a prestigious Ivy League university to pursue a masters degree in Positive Psychology, with her husband and newborn daughter in tow. It was a challenging time that included a difficult five months of shuttling between two countries to complete her coursework. “I’ve never been so certain of something in my life,” Sha-En tells us. “Because when something calls you, you’ll make it happen some way or another.”
Trusting herself proved to be the best choice. Armed with the right strategies, Sha-En now teaches the skills of positive psychology as a solution to transform the mindset of others. Through coaching, training, and consulting to individuals — as well as with large and small organizations — she cultivates a positive culture for people to thrive in, conveying her vision of happiness to those burdened by stress and anxiety. Here at Nuguru, her programs reveal mindfulness techniques on how to take back control of your life.
Her philosophy is simple: as long as you’re willing to work for it, you can create happiness wherever you are, even in the most difficult situations.
This includes the sometimes challenging tasks of parenting, which Sha-En is no stranger to as a mother herself.
“We often go into parenting thinking we’re in charge, that we can mold our children into what we want them to be. But the truth is we can't,” Sha-En says.
“At the same time, we are still so influential in our children’s lives. That changed me as a person because it made me stop to consider my role as a parent.”
Helping parents achieve happier lives by accomplishing their roles is key to Sha-En’s parenting-focused programs, such as “From setback to comeback”, "Flexing your positivity muscle", "Spot and stop negative self talk", and “Never lose your mind(fulness) again!”. Much of these courses comes down to learning how to cultivate what Sha-En calls “mindful parenting”, a journey of moving away from knee-jerk reactions to a parenting approach that embraces negotiation and communication. “After a while, you realize mindful parenting always begins with an awareness of what’s happening internally for yourself and also for them, then moving to have space to communicate with each other.”
Sha-En recounts a time when her elder daughter came home from school, pouting and upset that “everyone else” had watched the movie, Inside Out. “It could have been so easy to tell her it’s just a movie, and just because all her friends had watched it doesn’t mean she had to. You know, typical dismissive parenting statements. But as we talked, I realized she was not upset because she didn’t watch the movie, but because she was feeling left out in conversations. By not being reactive, she was able to feel she could share what she was really experiencing.”
“In the rush of time, we tend to respond to children as we would to an adult. We make many assumptions. If I’m using mindful parenting, I’m slowing down. I’m not reactive. I’m trying to understand where my child is coming from, and give her a solution without telling her what to do.”
But mindfulness does not come without conscientious practice and individual will. Sha-En candidly sums up the challenge of parenting her two daughters, one of whom is now a pre-teen. She says, “Sometimes it can be challenging to let go of who I want them to be in favor of who they want to be. My elder daughter now likes to have her own space, and if I’m not mindful, I might just intrude into the space that she wants to have. It’s a struggle to find that balance, and sometimes I only realize what I’m doing when I see her facial expression change in the middle of a 10-minute nagging session. That’s when I know it’s time for me to walk away.”
On top of her parenting responsibilities, Sha-En tries to stay mindful by giving herself permission to pause. “The one thing that really helps me is going from one moment to the other,” she tells us. “Now I'm here with you. I've got a lot of things to do. But at this moment, if I worry about them, then I'm not present. My background screensaver will be moving, which takes up energy. So I just tell myself to relax and enjoy the moment. And when you leave, I'll look at my to-do list again to identify the next moment.”
Some might find being “presently aware of every moment” too simplistic a method for achieving greater happiness. However, Sha-En is quick to remind us that happiness does not mean feeling merry and bright all the time.
LISTEN: Sha-En explains one framework of how you can measure happiness in your life
“Happiness can come from overcoming, which means you have gone through suffering. It can come from relief. It can come from many angles and it doesn't always have to look like a magazine picture. At the end of the day, if you are doing the things you love, being around the people you love, and making an impact on the world, then every day is a good day, isn't it?”