"One Happy Word at a Time"

The story of BAC Alumni, Sharlyn J & happywords.co

two person holding papercut heart

Meet the high-spirited Sharlyn J, a force of positivity and energy, whose infectious smile, and boundless enthusiasm can brighten even the gloomiest days. Her love for people, and passion for the psychosocial well-being of teenagers and young adults, is truly remarkable.

Despite the digital barrier of a Zoom call, Sharlyn's energy and charisma radiated through the screen, leaving us mesmerised by her passion for the community. Born and raised in Johor Bharu, Sharlyn's philosophy that "words bring life," drives happywords.co - an organisation that speaks the language of love and compassion to the modern generation of youths. Happywords.co is a haven for anyone struggling to deal with their thoughts and emotions, and Sharlyn's unwavering dedication to this cause is truly inspiring.

The journey of thousand miles begins with…

After completing her A-Levels at Brickfields Asia College (BAC), Sharlyn continued with the UK Transfer Degree (Law) programme at BAC, and went on to complete a Bachelor's Degree in Law & Criminology at Aberystwyth University, UK.

But her story truly started when she landed back on Malaysian soil. Eager to explore life beyond the walls of academics, Sharlyn set out to make a difference by feeding the homeless with her like-minded compatriots. Little did she know, her innate empathy was about to take her in a direction she could never have predicted.

Beginning her journey of self-discovery while navigating the streets of Malaysia, she encountered people from all walks of life, each with a unique story, and found herself drawn to the plight of the underprivileged. What began as a simple exercise in empathy and connection blossomed into a deep-seated passion for working on the ground with people - a passion that fuels her every day.

Each story she hears is like a tiny window into the human experience, offering glimpses of joy, sorrow, triumph, and tragedy. With each passing conversation, Sharlyn's understanding of the world grew deeper, she developed a stronger sense of empathy, and her commitment to making a difference became more resolute. Unbeknownst to her, these seemingly casual encounters would sow the seeds for her life's work. As she listened intently to the stories of those she met, Sharlyn realised there was something special about working on the ground with people - something that ignited a passion within her, and filled her with a sense of purpose.

Change Starts with Listening

Sharlyn's tendency to listen patiently and empathetically led her on the path of being a writer in a magazine, and she discovered a new arena to hone her skills - one that put her face-to-face with the young minds of Malaysia. Sharlyn began speaking to high school and university students from all corners of the country, seeking out interesting stories and fresh perspectives.

However, as Sharlyn continued engaging with these young people, she realised that many faced significant obstacles in communicating their thoughts and ideas. Undeterred, Sharlyn set out to find ways to help these teenagers break down the barriers that were holding them back.

They don't know how to talk. They feel disengaged in their conversation. I realised there's a disconnect between what we think is helping them and what they're actually experiencing,” Sharlyn told us about her moment of realisation. Sharlyn was confident in her ability to help the young people she met because of her extensive background in groundwork. So, she made the first of many efforts to connect with them, extending her hand and offering to listen.

At first, she took a straightforward approach. "You can just talk to me if you have any issues or struggles," she would say, her friendly and open personality putting them at ease. Sharlyn's presence was like that of a "mama bear," she said with a chuckle, as it allowed youngsters to feel comfortable opening up about their anxieties, aspirations, and concerns. Sharlyn believes there is a lot more she can do. Her heart beats for a long-term strategy, a solution capable of resolving these teenagers' issues. 

black and white printed textile

The Optimism of The Will

Sharlyn, intent on making a positive change, devised a novel approach she calls the ABC Framework. It aims to inspire students, and give them the tools they need to succeed in life, by concentrating on education, leadership, and mental health, activating their minds, and helping them “conquer their lives.” In doing so, she realised that social and emotional learning ought to be the overarching concept underpinning all facets of growth. 

Despite her deep desire to provide mental health support to struggling teenagers, her lack of official certification as a psychologist or counsellor prevented her from doing so directly. Rather than viewing this obstacle as a roadblock, Sharlyn saw it as an opportunity to build something unique.

Drawing upon her extensive experience working with young people, Sharlyn began to recognise a disturbing trend: many of the students she encountered were grappling with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. This realisation led her to ask a crucial question: what was causing these problems in the first place? It was clear that depression and anxiety didn't just appear out of nowhere; something was happening to trigger these issues.

“Most people don't know how to regulate their emotions and thoughts, or they don't even want to think about their thoughts at all. They isolate those things and then suddenly grapple with depression when things are worse. I also notice that socially and emotionally, these things are connected to mental well-being. This is how happywords.co came about,” Sharlyn talks about the seeds of ideas for her organisation. 

Then, the Covid-19 pandemic happened. Yet, Sharlyn was determined.

“The pandemic was a huge challenge because my original plan involved in-person workshops and events. With social distancing measures and lockdowns in place, I had to pivot quickly to a digital model. This meant building a robust digital presence that could effectively reach and engage our target audience,” she explained the turn of events. 

Sharlyn taught herself how to build happy.words' very own website, and devoted a considerable amount of time to reading. She utilised this time to strengthen the website's foundation, to ensure that it was not a haphazard undertaking. Knowing that there must be a starting point, Sharlyn says, “don’t despise the small beginnings.” 

Today, happywords.co is still going strong, giving people a reason to smile and stay hopeful.

Words are more powerful than punches

Sharlyn firmly believes that the power of words is comparable to the force of a series of unrelenting blows. She adheres to the maxim, "words can either build people up or tear others down." To combat the potentially hurtful forces created by our words, Sharlyn leans on the following quote, "the words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing," which she came across in a book and has since internalised, resonates deeply with her.

For Sharlyn, social and emotional learning revolves around the power of words, which can be either constructive or destructive. In a disappointed voice, she expressed her disapproval towards individuals who are insensitive with their language, as they fail to comprehend the impact their words can have on others. Rather than discouraging others, Sharlyn advocates for encouragement, which she describes as "putting courage into others".

Sharlyn strongly advises her students against making hurtful or negative comments. However, she emphasises the importance of expressing positive remarks whenever possible since such opportunities are often overlooked or missed.

Making real human connections

In today's society, the definition of true friendship has undergone a radical transformation. Sharlyn is somewhat skeptical of the validity of an online or virtual friendship. For her, a true friend is someone present in times of need, as opposed to merely someone who likes social media posts.

“On the surface, it seems like we are connected. But we are the most isolated we've ever been because what is the actual bonding moment when we are messaging? We are just exchanging information,” she emphasised, citing modern communication's lack of human connection. 

Sharlyn sees this as the beginning of serious problems much later, this has really affected many of our youth because they're always on their phones, and [growing up] in a circumstance [where] many things are superficial for them. And they think that is their norm. It's dangerous when their social capital comes from the internet. It either inflates or deflates their ego completely.”

The combination of social capital issues from the internet (such as TikTok or Facebook) and a lack of dependable friends would generate multiple emotional and mental issues, resulting in a great deal of emotional distress among youngsters. Thus, parental roles play a significant role in these equations, but it can be challenging. 

Sharlyn emphasises that parents' inability to relate to their children's concerns frequently results in family discord. Despite parents' efforts to inquire about and comprehend their children's issues, the reliance on texting and lack of meaningful communication hinder opportunities for family bonding, especially between parents and children. 

“Parents must regulate their own social and emotional health and well-being too. If the parents are unaware of their thought processes, they will also project the irregularities on the child,” Sharlyn stressed. 

As a result, children may perceive that their parents lack empathy for their feelings and compare their parents to their peers, who are perceived as more understanding and gentle.

Thus, creating a divide between parents and children, despite parents' genuine concerns for their children's well-being. To bridge this gap, parents and children must come into the conversation with the intention of communicating and being receptive to each other's thoughts and ideas, or else the conversation will not be fruitful.

Building a happier generation

Speaking of her personal experiences in one of the workshops conducted in Sarawak, Sharlyn described how she created a safe space for her students to discuss their struggles by discussing their relationship choices and values. It was the first time these students had someone to talk to about their problems. 

“We were talking about our choices and values in relationships, which can be with yourself, mom, dad, or whomever. But towards the end, because we created a safe space for sharing, they [students] started to share with me the struggles they had with their family, in school, and more,” Sharlyn said.  

Sharlyn also highlighted the power of words and encouragement. She recalled a girl who was unsure about her readiness for the working world, but after Sharlyn listened to her struggles and helped her recognise her negative thought patterns, she was able to feel more confident and empowered. 

After completing her final year project, this student was one of only two in her class to secure a full-time job with Petronas.

“It was incredibly rewarding to see how she’s grown as a person,” Sharlyn proudly says of the growth and success of the student, who has continued to stay in touch and seek mentorship from her.

group of people beside coffee table

With a vision for the future in mind, Sharlyn's challenge lies in balancing the demands of her social work with personal pursuits.

Read more about Sharlyn's inspiring journey and unique approach to finding balance here.