Credit: Our World in Data and ChangHwan Kim.
A common narrative about South Korea is that its people are miserable because of long work hours, cutthroat competition and materialistic culture. Some data seems to back up this claim. According to the 2023 World Happiness Report by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a non-profit launched by the United Nations, South Korea ranked 57th out of 137 countries, coming in fourth from the bottom among OECD nations.
Professor ChangHwan Kim of the University of Kansas, however, casts doubt on what the World Happiness Report’s findings indicate. According to the annual World Values Survey, Kim points out, nearly 90% of South Koreans say they are “rather happy” or “very happy” - a higher percentage than Norway or Canada. What distinguishes South Korea is the response to the question: “When asked in a survey, what percentage of people do you think would say they are rather happy or very happy?” Norwegians and Canadians estimated that around 60% of their compatriots would respond in the affirmative. The figure for South Koreans was around 25%.
In other words, there is a vast gulf between South Koreans’ perception of their own happiness and their perception of other people’s happiness, to a degree virtually unseen in any other country. Kim notes: “South Koreans’ dissatisfaction is not directed toward their own lives, but toward society. This social dissatisfaction has a positive effect of improving systematic issues.”