Happy is as happy does

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Happy is as happy does

Lee Jong-wha
The author is a professor of economics at Korea University and president of the Korean Economic Association.

How happy are you? According to a survey, Korean people do not generally feel happy in their daily lives. Gallup asked survey participants about happiness in their daily lives. A score of 10 represented the happiest feeling and zero was the unhappiest. According to the survey, the average score of Korean respondents over the past three years was 5.9, which was relatively low compared to other countries.

The United Nations used the Gallup poll in its 2022 World Happiness Report in which Korea ranked 59th among 146 countries. It was nowhere near Finland, which topped the list with a score of 7.8, and also far from Taiwan (6.5), which ranked 26th, the highest in Asia. According to the survey, the Korean people’s sense of happiness has not increased at all over the past 10 years.

The UN happiness report also discussed other indicators about each country. Participants were asked to give yes or no answers for emotions they experienced the previous day — laughter, enjoyment, learning or doing something interesting — to gauge their positive emotions. Those individuals who answered yes were rated as happy persons. Among the Korean participants, 58 percent answered yes. Korea was far lower in the index. It was ranked 117th on the list.

Can a government make people happy? What should be the government’s priority for their happiness? It might be able to find a way if it understands how happiness is decided.

Many studies analyzing the key determining factors for happiness show that per capita income is an important factor. It’s said that money cannot buy happiness, but income and happiness are closely connected. High income earners are generally happy. Income is linked to stable employment and affects consumption, leisure, housing, marriage and education of children.

The government’s priority, therefore, should be a growth policy that can continuously increase the people’s incomes while stabilizing asset prices, promote wealth accumulation by the middle class and expand welfare for the vulnerable population.

Happiness is also affected by various psychological, physical, social and cultural factors. Individuals with higher life expectancies tend to feel happy. Even if you earn a high income, you often feel unhappy if you are unhealthy or have been involved in an accident.

Korean people have high life expectancies, but they are exposed to a collectivist culture and severe competition. They are seriously stressed and there are many depressed people. The suicide rate is high. As Korean society ages, the number of chronically ill people has gone up. The government must pay special attention to the people’s physical and psychological health.

Freedom to make life choices, social support, generosity and corruption are also variables of happiness. Korea is far lower in rankings for those variables compared to other advanced countries.

The freedom to make life choices was measured by asking, “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?” In terms of the number of people who gave a positive answer, Korea was ranked 112th.

Social support was measured by asking, “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help whenever you need them?” In terms of the number of people who gave positive answers, Korea was ranked 85th on the list.

Compared to world’s happiest country, Finland, Korea was behind in three factors — freedom to make life choices, social support, and absence of corruption. The difference in the three factors between Korea and Finland explain more than half of the gap.

To make the Korean people happier, social and cultural factors need improvements. Suppression, controls and discrimination must be abolished and unnecessary regulations enforced by the government must be removed. Members of society must trust and cooperate with one another and show generosity. Fairness in law and order must be strengthened, and abuse of power and corruption by public servants and the privileged must be stopped.

A new administration will launch soon. The state must help the people realize happier lives. People want to have stable jobs, accumulate wealth, and live long. They want to have freedom in their choices. They dream of a community without corruption and with generosity. Over the past years, public trust in the government has eroded. For the next five years, all powers — not just the administrative branch, but also the legislative and judicial branches — must serve the people. The leaders of society must set examples. We hope Korea will become a truly advanced country, where the people will have laughter, enjoyment and interesting events in their lives.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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