Well-being and Humanities Education in Singapore


In February (2014), I was invited to Nagoya University (Japan) to participate in a symposium on well-being and education in the ASEAN region. Participants from ASEAN nations shared the state of well-being in their nations and considered the role education can play to promote well-being. My participation in this symposium led me to think about well-being in Singapore and the relationship between Humanities education and well-being.

Most of my work has focused on preparing teachers to teach critical thinking skills that will help students make meaning of their lives and the society around them. In Singapore and elsewhere these skills are considered necessary for the development of human capital – to produce skilled workers – and they are seen as necessary for producing effective citizens in the future. Seldom, however, had I thought about the relationship between these skills and well-being.

Presumably, these skills translate into people creating better lives for themselves and others. However, the disconnect often seems to be that we fail to fully consider how the skills and understandings central to Humanities education actually help young people live well – to live rich lives full of meaning and purpose, to care about and for themselves, others, and the world. 

In this article, I outline some frameworks for thinking about well-being and then draw on several studies to examine the state of well-being in Singapore. I then consider the role of Humanities education in promoting well-being before concluding with some general comments about how we, as Humanities educators, might give well-being a more central place in our curricula and teaching.

What is Well-being?

There is a range of views about what constitutes well-being. To begin with, well-being is distinct from happiness. Happiness is an episodic emotional state and is not necessarily a determinant of well-being (Raibley, 2011). For Burkeman (2012), focusing on happiness can actually create a great deal of unhappiness because it results in efforts to deny the negative aspects of life – the risk, uncertainty, insecurity, failure, and sadness that are an inexorable part of living.

For Seligman (2011) and others (e.g., Boarini, et al., 2012), happiness is also not easily measurable as a psychological construct. Instead, Seligman proposed the idea of well-being as consisting of five measurable components: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Each of these five elements contributes to well-being, can be pursued for their own sake, and can be independently measured. These five constructs, what Seligman refers to by the acronym PERMA, are briefly summarized below with some questions we might ask ourselves:


An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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