Koreans aren’t very Happy: Unextraordinary New Findings

The Seoul commute. Photo: The Korea Times

After years of reports and articles suggesting that South Koreans aren’t particularly happy, despite rising incomes, a new study conducted by the Department of Stating the Unbelievably Fucking Obvious (DSUFO) at the LG Economic Research Institute, has found that South Koreans just aren’t very happy, despite rising incomes.

Citing the DSUFO findings, a recent, typically gibberish-laden article in the Korea Times entitled Koreans not so happy despite rising income, has reported yet again that, well, you know what I mean. While the average income almost doubled in the decade to 2012 (to $22,708), so did the proportion of Koreans who are satisfied with their lives. Unfortunately this statistic serves only to point out just how unhappy the nation was in 2002, because the new and improved number of satisfied Koreans remains a largely unsatisfied 33 percent.

The article states, among other things, that people satisfied with their lives are much happier than the people who are not, according to the DSUFO. This stunning revelation appears to correspond with other new information suggesting that Koreans’ life-satisfaction levels are somehow related to whether they have a good jobs with high salaries. Wow.

Worryingly, although Koreans now have more money and more leisure time (given the relatively recent introduction of the five-day work week), the number of people claiming the ability to enjoy leisure activities has noticeably declined, from 64 percent in 2000 to only 39 percent in 2011, for reasons of increased economic burden.

Modern Koreans each face the challenges of economic burden in typically collectivist fashion. As is universally understood the key to a successful life is money and status, and the key to money and status is education. The long grueling march to success and unhappiness begins therefore at around the age of four, when millions of carefree Korean children are informed that their childhood is over. It is now time to study… only study.

Korean middle school students Photo: Dark Roasted Blend
Korean middle school students take a five minute break.
Photo: Dark Roasted Blend

The issue of the students’ happiness (or lack thereof) is perhaps somewhat alleviated by a perception that they have no time to focus on such frivolities. Their young lives are consumed by endless pressure to get good grades, followed by entrance into a prestigious university, then a chaebol job with a high salary before attracting a beautiful wife/wealthy husband. The newly wedded couple will then have one child and work 60-hour weeks for the next 25 years to pay for his/her 16-hour/day study habit.

Suspicions have mounted in recent years however that some young Koreans are becoming aware that their lives really do suck, as evidenced by the nation’s horrific youth suicide rate, and multiple Gallup polls suggesting that Korea’s youngest adults are also the most pissed off.

On a serious note (not that issues such as suicide are anything other than serious) the Koreans are far from stupid. They are all too aware of the hyper-competitive social structure they have collectively constructed and are now trapped within. Most of my K-friends in Seoul have told me quietly that their system is flawed and, in the long term, unsustainable. They also feel that, as Koreans, they are obliged to perpetuate it. In a land where moving socially and economically forward are seemingly the only benchmarks of success (being comfortable equals staying the same equals stagnation equals going backward), they simply cannot stop. If you pause to rest, another will take your place. In addition to all this, other external pressures (such as their Northern cousins’ weekly promise to turn Seoul into a nuclear sea of fire – something most people don’t have to worry about) must be cumulatively a little draining.

So, to my wonderful, complex, perpetually exhausted Korean friends… I hope this 설날 finds you well, and that the new year brings some contentment and happiness to you all. Peace.


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