South Korea focuses on happiness | Inquirer Opinion
Social Climate

South Korea focuses on happiness

/ 12:44 AM September 03, 2016

The government of South Korea, with the country’s gross domestic product now at almost US$26,000 per person—graduating from a recipient to a donor of development aid—has decided, under President Park Geun-hye, to shift its focus toward obtaining happiness for all its people.

This was the message of Seung Jong Lee, professor of public administration at Seoul National University (SNU), in his lecture “Governance innovation under ‘beyond-GDP’ movement,” which opened the annual conference of the International Society for Quality of Life Studies (ISQOLS), at SNU last week.


“Overall, national growth in the past did not secure a virtuous cycle of happiness of the people,” said Dr. Lee. “Despite national economic growth, anxiety about the future because of growth stagnation and social polarization makes individuals feel unhappy.”

Dr. Lee, coauthor of the book “National Happiness and Government 3.0: Comprehension and Application,” said that South Korea’s annual economic growth rate, which averaged over 5 percent prior to 2010, had been below 3 percent since 2012.  Although South Korea’s GDP per person ranks 28th in the world, its Happiness Index is 97th out of 148 nations, he said (2012 Gallup World Poll).


Meanwhile, the proportion of income received by the top 1 percent rose from 7.2 percent in 1995 to 16.6 percent in 2011—i.e., their average income went from seven times to over 16 times that of the average South Korean.

The Gini coefficient of inequality rose from .251 in 1995 to .289 in 2010. (A Gini of .30 means that the top 10 percent have an average income about seven times that of the bottom 10 percent; it’s much worse in the Philippines where the Gini is .45.)

South Koreans subjectively rate their socioeconomic status as: 62.3 percent working class, 29.6 percent middle class, 5.9 percent lower class, and 1.6 percent upper class (Kyunghang Newspaper & Hyundai Research). Dr. Lee is clearly disappointed that only a minority see themselves as middle class.

Since 2013, the Republic of Korea has set down national happiness as the core of its national policy. The government innovation program “Government 3.0” aims to bring about a land “where everybody is happy.” It calls for the government to operate under a new paradigm that actively discloses and shares public information, achieves communication and cooperation by removing dividers between departments, provides tailored services to citizens, and supports job creation and a creative economy.

The four strategies of the South Korean national happiness program are: “on-demand” (i.e., age-appropriate) employment and welfare; creative education, aimed at dreamers and the talented; national security from crime and disasters, with a comfortable and sustainable environment; and social integration, with balanced development of regions and decentralization of power.

Government 3.0 is a tool still in its early stages, with the achievements not yet clearly visible. I imagine that South Korea will adopt its own system of measuring happiness—probably not as a single number, but as a set of various dimensions of it—in due time.

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Park Geun-hye, daughter of Park Chung-hee (president, 1963-79), is no stranger to adversity. At 22, upon the assassination of her mother Yuk Young-soo, she had to transform herself from First Daughter to First Lady. Five years later her father was likewise assassinated. She entered politics in 1998, and became representative of her district for five terms. At an election rally in 2006, she suffered a slash on the face when a man attacked her with a knife.

In the November 2012 presidential election, she was the first to obtain a majority of the popular vote since direct elections were restored in 1987. On Feb. 25, 2013, upon inauguration as the first woman president of South Korea, she declared “A New Era of Hope,” in which her five-year term would focus on economic revival, happiness for the people, cultural enrichment, and laying the groundwork for a peaceful unification of the peninsula.

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The 2016 World Happiness Report has South Korea with a “ladder-score” average of 5.835 for 2013-15. The Philippine average is 5.279. A ladder goes from the worst possible (scored zero) to the best possible (scored 10) life that the survey respondent can imagine. Each country’s ladder starts from its people’s worst fears, and rises to their best hopes.

To me, being between rungs 6 and 5 is decent for both South Korea and the Philippines. Their ranks (58th and 82nd, respectively, out of 157 countries) are immaterial, since a people’s progress over time is what matters, not their status versus others at a point in time. For instance, Filipinos feeling very/fairly satisfied with life grew from 66 percent a decade ago to 86 percent by 2015; this was presented in “What good governance can do: evidence from the third decade of Social Weather Reporting in the Philippines” by Linda Luz Guerrero and myself.

Other SWS presentations (see were: “Quality of life of the elderly in the Philippines in the last decade” by G.S. Sabio and L.L. Guerrero; “Representative online panel surveys in the Philippines: the SWS-TV5-Voyager Approach” by G. Sandoval, J.R. Alampay, and K.A. Blanco; “Analyzing response rate and approaches to minimizing non-response in the probability-based online panel survey in the Philippines” by  L.R. Laroza; “Self-reported well-being of typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) victims and their hope in a full recovery” by C.M. Entoma; and “Patterns of unhappiness among jobless Filipinos” by A.J. Zaide.

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TAGS: happiness, Park Geun-hye, Seung Jong Lee, South Korea, World Happiness Report
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