[Column] Why aren’t Koreans happy?

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[Column] Why aren’t Koreans happy?

Kwon Jun-soo

The author is the professor of psychiatry at Seoul National University Hospital.

How happy are the Korean people in 2023? The present reality is disastrous. Korea has the highest suicide rate among OECD member countries. In fact, suicide is the top cause of death among people between the ages of 12 and 39. With a birth rate of 0.8 and merely 200,000 newborns a year, fertility has reached a seriously low level, not to mention a rapidly aging population and a rise in loneliness among our seniors. Young Koreans are giving up on dating, getting married and having children.

In a U.N.-sponsored World Happiness Index released last year, Korea ranked 59th among 146 countries. Ratings for social support, tolerance for others, and a positive perception of the country were particularly low. This seems to reflect a dark side of Korean society, which lacks tolerance.

No doubt Korea has attained surprising economic development. Despite the challenging three years of the pandemic, Korea is expected to remain in the top ten GDPs in the world.

But why is the happiness level of individual Koreans so low? Scholars point out that happiness is related to the economic state. Conventional theory says that personal happiness increases in proportion to incomes, but once incomes reach a certain level, happiness does not automatically grow. Once household incomes reach 82 million won ($66,504) a year, happiness does not increase because of the heightened financial status. This shows that happiness does not grow continuously just because incomes are growing.

Recent research by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania points in the opposite direction. Let’s look at results by researcher Matthew Killingsworth, who studies human happiness and the correlation between money and well-being. He collected and analyzed 1,725,994 pieces of data from 33,391 people between the ages of 18 and 65 living in the U.S. about their feelings on daily life. The results show that money does influence personal happiness, and the more money you have, the happier you are.

This study contradicts previous research results that claimed that once incomes reach a certain level, additional income does not make you happier. In other words, the more money you have, you feel less financially vulnerable in daily life and have a heightened sense that you can live your life as you wish. People seem to appreciate having more options in life when they are financially well-off. If so, it is a question why the individual happiness of Koreans is so low compared to their economic status.

Most Koreans think they are unhappy. Whether they are rich or poor, they feel dissatisfaction and unhappiness in their positions. There may be various causes, such as an overly competitive social atmosphere, comparison with others that has become easier because of social media, and economic helplessness. Nowadays, social discord from extreme polarization, hostility to other groups and extreme hatred are major underminings of happiness in life.

Jang Dayk, an evolutionary anthropologist and professor at Gachon University, pointed to that phenomenon in his book “Radius of Empathy.” He attributed it to the problem of “excess of selective empathy” for those on their own side, which aggravates social discord and polarization of ideologies, genders and classes in Korean society. The professor argued that it is necessary to expand the radius of empathy beyond groups people belong and to other groups to resolve polarization, extreme hatred and discrimination.

Lately, lonely deaths are another issue. This is not only a problem for the elderly, as there are nearly 10 million single-person households. Covid-19 caused disconnection and isolation in human interactions as people feel a relative sense of deprivation and loneliness from infinite competition. More than half of the people in Seoul said they feel lonely in their daily lives, with 64.8% of those in their 50s and 37.8% of those in their 30s feeling the same way. The UK is trying to solve the problem at the national level by appointing a “minister for loneliness” and Japan established a new government department to take measures against solitude and isolation in February 2021.

Resolving social issues and discord to enhance personal happiness is not a job only for the people. A nation has a duty to make people happy, and a considerable part should be realized through politics. The state must faithfully perform its role to make a society of principles and fairness. Only then can Korea achieve a happiness level matching its economic power. When per capita income reaches $40,000, people become interested in the quality of life along with an exponential growth in the demand for mental health. After Korea’s per capita income exceeded $35,000 in 2021, it will reach $40,000 pretty soon. I hope everyone will be a bit happier this year.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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