[VIEWPOINT]Our economy outranks our happinessA new year has begun with lots of well-wishes, such as “be richly blessed” or “become rich.” The New Year’s addresses made by major leaders told us to be ready for the stabilization of the real estate market, the recovery of the economy and the revisiting of hope and happiness. But many opinion polls have indicated quite the opposite. Although our economic situation has gotten better and our politics more democratic, fewer people have responded that they were happy. Why? Can we ever become happy again?
Among the numerous tables in Korean newspapers, two are particularly hated by readers. One is the current real estate price table, which is posted every week, and the other is the college placement standard table of the College Scholastic Ability Test, which appears every season for the college entrance exam.
Nonetheless, newspapers do not leave out these tables because they are the most frequently read, although many readers pretend not to. According to the size of their condominiums, people are divided into classes, and their attachment to academic cliques leads to overheated private educations. In a society where such competition is prevalent, people cannot help but be preoccupied with housing prices and scores for the college placement standards.
In its annual conference five years ago, the American Economic Association made two conclusions about the correlation between money and happiness. One denied the common belief that money cannot buy happiness. It was reported to the contrary that money and happiness are closely related, and that people in the high-income brackets of more than $90,000 per year are twice as happy as those in the low-income brackets of less than $20,000 per year. This conclusion proved that individuals’ happiness grows in proportion to their wealth and income.
But what is noteworthy is the second conclusion: that happiness is inversely related to others’ wealth and their own desires. However much their income increases, people become unhappy when others’ income increases more than theirs. And because their desires increase along with their income, they do not always become happier.
Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics and a professor of psychology at Princeton University, pointed out, “Happiness should be understood as a more subjective and relative concept.”
For example, he claimed that happiness does not just depend on economic power, but should also include subjective factors such as health, education and family situation. He also said acknowledgement should be given to the fact that relative concepts, such as better houses, better cars or better clothes, have a far greater impact on happiness than merely having good houses, good cars or good clothes.
According to the theory of behavioral economics, our society ― in which people cling to real estate prices and College Scholastic Ability Test scores ― is not healthy. Only the very few that have won the competition and have climbed to the top of the pyramid will feel happy. This may be why our happiness level ranks far behind our economic level. In the “happiness map” made by a British university based on a combination of factors, including health (average life span), wealth (per capita national income), and education (the ability to get higher education), South Korea ranked 102nd in the world. In the happiness index released by Britain in 2005, our country ranked 40th among the 70 countries surveyed. This indicates that our society is not happy, and is falling far behind Bhutan, a small Himalayan Mountain kingdom with a per-capita income of less than $1,400, which ranked eighth.
How can we then become happy? In its cover story titled, “Happiness and the Economy,” the British magazine The Economist admitted that it is not easy to find happiness in competition-driven capitalism. Even so, the magazine recommends ways to induce happiness: “Respect diverse values. In the United States, there are more than 3,000 halls of fame, including those for popular singers and cooks.” In other words, people can become happy with social recognition alone, regardless of their material achievements. The magazine also introduced a logger in Cincinnati in the United States, who proudly claimed to be an “environmental worker.” That was to say that happiness could be attained through positive thinking.
Any society will have housing price lists and college placement standards. But a society in which happiness is measured only by those standards cannot help but become unhappy. The Economist added, “Capitalism can make a society rich and free. But we wonder whether it makes you happy.” We will become happier if we choose a good leader. But our society may become even happier if we acknowledge various values and change to respect them.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho