Well-being and Humanities Education in Singapore , pp. 3 of 11

Burkeman refers to Stoic philosophers, such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, who argued that life consists of hardship, struggle, and failure and that it is our judgments and our thinking that classify an experience as bad or negative, rather than the experience itself. In other words, this approach to well-being means having greater control over our judgments and thinking about the world. This view is similar to Buddhist thinking with its emphasis on non-judgmental awareness. It highlights the need for carefully thinking about matters, checking our own assumptions, and considering different perspectives or ways of thinking about experience.

A negative approach emphasizes the having of experience, rather than quickly striving to impose concepts, labels, classifications, or categorizations. As Kahneman (2011) reminds us, we often too quickly see patterns in randomness and this leads to a range of biases in our thinking. We tend to “see the world as more tidy, simple, predictable, and coherent than it really is” (p. 204). Instead, a negative approach means acknowledging, similar to a range of thinkers like Bergson, Kant, Polanyi, Kuhn, and Wittgenstein, that “there is something vital in cognition that cannot be accounted for by purely rational ways of knowing” (Roy, 2005, p. 445).

Similarly, Alan Watts (1951) argues that when we impose categories, concepts, and definitions on experience “for this purpose or that we seem to have lost the actual joy and meaning of life” (p. 51). Since all life is constant change and flux, “the only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, and join the dance” (p. 43). This view suggests that the arts (perhaps literally dancing), heightened awareness and appreciation, spontaneity, open-mindedness, imagination, and deep engagement can all serve to promote well-being.

Burkeman (2012) also argues that our obsession with setting goals for ourselves (and others) results in missing out on other things that might more naturally or organically emerge in particular situations or settings (like classrooms). Drawing on the work of Steve Shapiro (2006), Burkeman claims that “goal-free living simply makes for happier humans” (p. 95). This is probably especially true when we are expected to meet goals and deadlines that are set for us rather than by us. Burkeman calls for a “see what happens” approach to working and living that might lead to fruitful discoveries (or failure, of course, which Burkeman says we also need to learn to accept as part of the negative approach).

It’s probably difficult to imagine letting go of our most cherished frameworks, concepts, or goals to “see what happens” but it means paying greater attention to the present moment, learning to accept that which we can’t control, and being more realistic about what we can accomplish. It means not being so invested in particular outcomes, being able to accept and learn from failure, not always seeking certitude, resolution or closure, having the confidence to follow leads to see where they might go, and being open to the world. 

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

Newsletter Subscription

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay up-to-date with new journal issues!