Why are Koreans so unhappy?The word of the year must be “happiness.” In bookstores, to start with, 26 of the books published since June have dealt with the topic of happiness, according to the bookseller Kyobo. Some say a sound mind and body brings happiness; others urge laughter, even if it’s faked. Some say there is a specific gene in your body that controls happiness. Others say you can learn to be happy by attending cultural lectures or reading certain books ― theirs.
Turn on the radio, your television set, and there’s more talk about being happy. It seems the whole country is desperate to become happy. Korea has always ranked low on global surveys of happiness. Koreans, clearly, do not think of themselves as the happiest people in the world.
But what about the happiness index among rich and the socially respected Koreans? Shouldn’t that have a slightly different outcome? A team of JoongAng Ilbo reporters selected 100 Korean CEOs as samples of “highly placed figures” to find out.
The result: The CEOs were not very happy either. Their happiness index was lower than that of Forbes’ top 400 richest people in the world; the average Swede is happier than the average Korean CEO.
But their index was still higher than that of ordinary Koreans. Hwang Sang-min, a psychology professor at Yonsei University, explained that the result shows that Korean society implicitly believes that to be successful is also to be happy.
According to the Satisfaction with Life Scale, a short, five-item indexed poll designed to measure global cognitive judgments of one’s lives, the CEOs interviewed averaged 73 points. Ordinary Koreans, at least the 835 people we asked, scored an average of 51.
Koreans were less happy as they got older, in contrast with people in most other countries.
The highly educated, however, were a bit happier. College graduates received 55 on the index, high school graduates 48 and middle school graduates 44.
Residents of Jeju Island were happier, scoring 58, and those in Gangwon province came in second, with 56. Seoul was far behind at 51, as were the other major cities.
Women and men scored the same: 51.
Aside from the scaled test, interviewees were also asked, “What do you think is the most important factor in having a happy life?”
Both CEOs and non-CEOs placed health and happy homes at the top of the list. Over 88 percent of the CEOs listed their personal health, and 73 percent included a good family life (respondents were allowed to choose more than one answer). Among the ordinary Koreans, 83 percent said health, and 73 percent said a happy family.
Following the two criteria, CEOs named fame as the most important value, with wealth and social status following. The non-CEOs said they considered wealth to be most important, following by friendship, hobbies and fame.
Success, failure, and a good slice of pizza
He used to run a small export company that manufactured pizza-making goods for international franchises such as Pizza Hut. In 1983, however, he went to the head of PepsiCo International, the owner of Pizza Hut, and asked for the domestic business rights to run a Pizza Hut here. The following year, the first Korean Pizza Hut opened.
The next decade went smoothly. The pizza business did well and the chain expanded to 52 stores under his management. But a legal dispute over the Pizza Hut trademark hit him in 1994. He lost his business rights, though he was compensated with 30 billion won ($31 million). Hey, he was rich, right?
“That was when I started to be afraid of being too close to people. I felt as if everyone was after my money,” Mr. Shin said. “So I thought, what the heck, and wasted money drinking and playing golf.”
Six months later, he came back to his senses.
“One morning, I woke up and I realized that for the last six months, all I did was think about with who and how I should spend my day,” he said. “If that lifestyle continued, I would have easily went on to take drugs as well.”
He got ready to start a new business, not knowing that it would only lead to failure. He launched a Korean branch of “Kenny Rogers Roasters” ― the restaurant started by American country singer ― in Korea. But the Asian financial crisis hit in the late 1990s, and the head office in the United States withheld its promise to invest in the Korean company. He went bankrupt.
He said things were so bad he contemplated suicide. He climbed to the top floor of a building near Gangnam station and stepped forward to jump.
He stopped at the last step.
“It suddenly hit me that this was all very unfair,” he said. “I had once worked really hard to come all this way. If I died like this, I would only do my competitors good.”
So he climbed back down from the building and went back to work, at the age of 50.
He went back into the pizza business and opened a franchise, Sungshinje Pizza, where he still works. Even today, he bakes pizzas himself and tours his way around his chain of shops every day.
He has also started studying Italian. Three hours a day and three times a week, he attends Italian classes with students as young as his grandsons to master the foreign language. “Happiness you ask me? You can never get that from money,” he said. “But you can get money from happiness.”
Mr. Sung's Secrets to Happiness:
1) Enjoy having a public transportation card fully charged and ready to go. It’s a sign that you’re still healthy and have the freedom to go where you want and do what you want.
2) Being out of debt is far more important than making money.
3) Never stay angry for long. True revenge is making a successful comeback and living happily.
4) “My family was really poor when I was young. One day, my father told me to stop complaining and said, 'Hey, the only thing our family doesn’t have is money.' That's when I realized: My father was cool.”
Good housewife, great ‘happiness designer’
Known as the “happiness designer,” the 58-year-old is a popular lecturer, regularly invited on television shows and to giant lecture halls to tell people they can be happy. It helps that she’s funny, but what seems to convince the public is that she knows all about hardship ― she’s been through it, she says.
In her mid-30s, her husband’s business collapsed. For 16 years, she had been a “good housewife,” but knew nothing about making money. Then she applied for a position set aside for women at the Hyundai Group. There were 1,330 applicants, but she got the job as the new copywriter for a communications affiliate of Hyundai.
The job wasn’t easy for a 38-year-old married woman. Her boss openly begged her to leave.
“But I knew the solution lied in being sincere and true,” she said. “I was sincere to even to the worst people, and that changed people.”
She was funny, smart and honest. Being one of the oldest rank-and-file workers in the group, her colleagues often came to her for advice, and she said she listened carefully to their problems. She worked hard, and quickly rose to become the top copywriter.
During the Asian financial crisis, she quit her job, although the company tried to talk her out of it (her boss, apparently, had changed his mind). At the time, she was the director of a public relations department.
“If I quit, the company could hire three young workers,” she explained.
At 52, she started writing self-help books. Her books, including “Happiness, How Much Is It?” “Break the Stereotype” and “Women Who Can Laugh Win,” became bestsellers. She often dyed her hair flourescent green or red, to show audiences that stereotypes about age can be wrong. These days, radio and lecture appearances consume her schedule.
“When I feel stressed, I cheer myself up by shouting out anything strong that comes to mind,” she said. “Then I keep telling myself that I am happy, very happy.”
“Then miraculously, I feel happy all over again,” she said and smiled. “It doesn’t take much of an effort to become happy. Really!”
Ms. Choi’s Secrets to Happiness
1) Instead of saying “because of,” say “thanks to.” If someone harasses you, think, “thanks to her, I can become more mature.”
2) Dump your car. Walk all the time and stay healthy.
3) Successful women laugh hardily and often.
4) Remind yourself that you can be good at remembering good things, but also bad at remembering bad things.
by Lee Na-ree, Hong Joo-yun