Celebrities Sheila Sim and Jade Seah have a new purpose in life: To help people lead happier lives through positive psychology
It may come as a surprise that celebrities Sheila Sim and Jade Seah barely knew each other before 2018 as they moved in different circles. The former moved with the acting crowd while the latter hung out with hosts and sports personalities.
It was serendipity that brought them together over a random coffee date with mutual friends where they both discovered a keen interest in pursuing further education in positive psychology.
In one of Seah’s Instagram posts, she wrote: “We shared about the internal struggles we each faced. About self-worth and finding meaning in life. We chatted about books and materials read on the subject of Positive Psychology. I shared how I was thinking of going abroad to do a Masters in this field, and Sheila shared how there is a school in Singapore offering it.”
That coffee shop conversation became the push for the two to sign up for a diploma course at The School of Positive Psychology.
As 36-year-old Sim explained: “We didn’t intend to sign up and study together and I didn’t think we would end up as classmates. It was fate that I saw her face again in the same class!”
While Sim was already practicing her own form of therapy through meditation and counselling to cope with life’s adversities, Seah’s head was buried in books reading about how to achieve happiness. “My journey with mental health has been a lot longer. I’ve never talked about this but as a child I always asked very existential questions like why are we on this earth, and sometimes it would upset me to a certain point that I would just be very depressed or low for no reason. My highs and lows were very distinct but at the time it wasn’t so common to test people for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or bipolar disorder so I just lived with it,” says Seah, 38.
She credits a book called Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar as the impetus for her to deep dive into positive psychology. “I really relate to logic and science so I started reading more about this topic and it truly helped me,” says Seah.
In his book, the few things that contribute to one’s happiness are relationships and to be in a flow state (or in the zone) — a scientific term in which one is fully immersed and energised in an activity that he or she enjoys.
An unlikely pairing
Through their one-year course, the girls discovered they share many things in common. Both are married to husbands from the finance industry, both are very sporty and slim standing at over 1.7m, both are self-confessed tomboys who also love to dress up, they wear their hearts on their sleeves and are unabashedly brash (so they say). “We don’t mince our words and don’t need to engage in small talk. We just dive right into serious topics,” says Seah.
Adds Sim: “We both hate passive aggression and we are very straightforward”.
Their day and night personalities also complement each other’s weaknesses. Sim is the chill, zen master in the duo while Seah is hyper, chatty and extroverted.
“At the beginning of our course, I purposely dressed down to try and blend in. But Jade being Jade would wear sequins, tassels, a shocking pink dress and heels. I felt transformed by her boldness and started wearing what I wanted to wear,” says Sim.
Seah, meanwhile, credits Sim for helping her pass with flying colours. “Sheila is the admin lady in the group,” she jokes.
“She’ll tell me which class to attend and where, what assignment is due, and remind me to take notes in class. I enjoy the mugging but I really think I have attention span issues. Without Sheila, I would have missed many deadlines and not graduated”.
Sim counters: “Jade is very competitive and I’m clearly not. I have two credits and some distinctions and higher distinctions. Jade, however, didn’t have a single credit — everything was HD and Ds”.
In pursuit of Wonder and Wellness
Since their graduation last year, the two started their own venture Wonder and Wellness, offering positive psychology-based workshops to “explore the science of well-being”.
During the lockdown, they teamed up with The Positive Movement to conduct Zoom workshops covering everything from self-care, self-compassion and body image. These sharing sessions include activities such as meditation and journaling — very common practices of positive psychology.
This year, the two plan to start up Wonder and Wellness again and conduct small group workshops to help the community. The new venture is the latest in their already busy work and life schedule. Since giving birth to her now seven-month-old daughter Layla, Sim has been on a hiatus from work to focus on motherhood, but is now slowly getting back into the groove of TV production with a new Chinese drama series called Live Your Dreams.
Meanwhile, Seah continues to host both lifestyle shows and corporate events while juggling a sporty life that includes training for a netball national league, teaching Bounce classes (mini trampoline-based workouts), and carving out time to enjoy solitary workouts from jogs to skateboarding and rollerblading. She is also awaiting acceptance into the University of Pennsylvania, where she hopes to pursue a Masters in Positive Psychology.
Options sits down with the pair over lunch at The Capitol Kempinksi Hotel’s 15 Stamford by Alvin Cheung to find out more about their journey in positive psychology and how it can be beneficial for everyone.
What was your main motivation to enrol for a course in Positive Psychology?
Sim: A lot of people reached out to me on Instagram because I shared a lot and I felt like the things that I said were not credible enough as I didn’t have enough knowledge to be sharing with them the right information. I wanted more support in terms of research and tools to help in a more professional way.
Seah: I was invited to host quite a number of events where I gave talks on motivation. I felt like I was almost short-changing everyone because I was merely speaking from my own experience. I, too, felt like I needed to offer more science and give them a little more
How is it different from traditional psychology or psychiatry?
Seah: I think the number one misconception people have about positive psychology is it’s learning how to be happy. Normal psychology or psychiatry gets you out of being a minus; from being a negative 10 to a neutral zero. But positive psychology is simply taking you from zero to being a plus anything. It basically retrains you to expand your potential.
Sounds like we could all use a little positive psychology in our lives.
Sim: Yes, actually all of us practice it to some degree without realising it. It was only through the course that everything made more sense to me.
Seah: I would encourage everybody who’s thinking about living happier or better to explore this topic. You don’t have to sign up for a course. You can start by just reading a book.
Sim: You can attend our IGLives for a start. I truly believe just knowing a bit more will help you in your daily life and work.
Seah: Understanding the science of happiness makes me feel a bit less guilty about certain things. For example, I decided to take the afternoon off to spend time with my mother because it contributes to my happiness. Some people mock and say ‘this is instinctive, you need to study this?’ But to me having learned about it gives me the awareness and helps to remind me to carve out pockets of happiness for myself.
What are some of your key learnings?
Seah: Through this course we discovered that we all have the ability to reframe our minds to change how we feel, even in the heat of the moment. By being aware of your anger, you can widen the space between the emotion and how you choose to respond. It sounds very lofty but mindset makes all the difference when handling conflict.
Sim: There’s always a reason for negative emotions. Being able to rise above that feeling and decide how you want to react requires awareness. For me, one of the biggest takeaways is knowing that all emotions serve a purpose, including anger. I think it puts you in a position to decide whether you want to get angry or not, because you are in control of your own choices.
Staying positive is not about staying happy all the time. It’s knowing that you are resilient and you’re adaptable in handling situations. When you are angry or when you need to make a stand, you do.
Inevitably we are all faced with different types of people, different types of experiences and emotions every day. You can’t control other people, you can only control yourself, so to me that part of positive psychology is strengthening and understanding yourself and self-awareness.
It is easier said than done, isn’t it?
Sim: That is why we all need to learn a little more about positive psychology. Once you have the tools, then it’s about practicing and taking time to rewire your mind. I always say, you are not the person that you are today, overnight. It took a period of time for you to develop this personality so you’ll need a certain period of time to undo those things as well.
What challenges did you face during the course?
Seah: I struggled with the theory of Positive Reframing. I asked dozens of questions, just as I did when I was a child like ‘how can you just change your mind like that? Isn’t it lying to yourself?’ Other than that, the course reminded me how much I loved studying, actually. We were model students. We sat in front, took notes, asked questions and didn’t care if people thought we were kiasu!
Sim: For me it’s regulating emotions. I used to tell my husband when I’m angry I’m really angry, but when I’m happy I’m extremely happy; it’s a package deal. It’s easy for me to say that but it’s very hard for somebody to have to deal with it. Rather than control anger, we learn to regulate it. Happiness doesn’t always have to be a 10.
Can this knowledge be applied to the corporate world?
Seah: Yes of course. Having the consciousness is the first step. For example, if you hate your job, then you ask yourself what is it about your job that you hate? I believe in designing your life to do more of the stuff you’re good at and less of the things you’re not so good at. When you are doing the things you love you are in a flow state — a level we all aspire to attain.
My husband has been using some of my theories and techniques at work with his staff. He also does work on himself too. To him, seeing a therapist is like getting a massage — you don’t need to wait for something to be wrong before you get it treated. That’s a very positive psychology way of thinking, because you’re not trying to fix something that’s broken, you’re trying to make something that’s okay even better.
Hopefully we’re moving towards that as a society where people are realising that it’s not about fixing broken things, it’s about just living better.
Do you think this can help with the recent spike in domestic abuse cases?
Sim: The situation at home has become especially frightening during the “circuit breaker” but I feel people are now more open to seeking help, which is why you see actual numbers. It’s comforting to see how therapy is no longer taboo today. There is no shame in seeking professional help.
Seah: I think couples in this instance will benefit from traditional relationship counselling. Positive psychology is really for regular people to learn to live optimally. Normal psychology helps you to get to a functioning level, but positive psychology is learning how to live better.
Has the course helped you in your own relationships?
Sim: So much. My relationships with people around me have improved tremendously. People close to me definitely have mentioned how much I have changed since I started. I feel even Jade has changed; she’s less whiny and complain-y! What is so wonderful about having gone through this and starting Wonder and Wellness is that the more we help, the more we learn, the more we grow. It’s a beauty and joy to just be doing it.
I must say both our husbands have been very supportive. We conducted a lot of online workshops where they attended and participated. They are both actually very introverted and definitely not big sharers, so it was surprising to see them so interactive. I think they must have seen the change in us and in turn, they changed too.
Do you feel you’ve become better versions or yourself?
Seah: Better for sure, but not perfect. We all struggle with perfection but that’s not exactly the point of happiness. For example, I’m a messy person and it upsets me that I’m messy. I used to say I’ll take three days off to clean the whole house, but now I’ll just aim for one shelf. I know I’m never going to have that clean Japanese minimalist home and that’s okay. I love how positive psychology tells you to strengthen your strengths, rather than fix your weaknesses.
Sheila, has this impacted your new role as a mother?
Sim: Many people said I’ve changed since becoming a mum. But I think it’s all the self-work I’ve done through the years with meditation, counselling and positive psychology. I really want to be there for fellow mothers and to properly help them, so next thing on my to-do list is sign up for a Positive Parenting course.
You know, I was just talking to a friend the other day, and she said that it’s so much easier to be a conscious parent than to be a conscious wife. It’s interesting how you have a lot of patience for your child, but when your husband says something, you just snap, right? I suppose the expectation is that your partner should never fail you, but we’re all human at the end of the day. We just need to remind ourselves to be more mindful.
So what’s next for Wonder and Wellness?
Seah: This is the year we’re really moving forward with a few new initiatives and continue with workshops and small group coaching classes. Hopefully, we can meet offline and conduct classes with a more physical element to help the body connect with language and emotion. I’m thinking of a way to incorporate Bounce into it. In the meantime we hope to do more IGLive chats so we can share in a more casual way. On a personal level, I’ve also applied to do my Masters in Positive Psychology to help solidify my role as an accredited practitioner.
Essential Reading List
Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman