“In 2006, we first used the word ‘happiness’ to communicate the idea that the quality of people’s lives mattered just as much as their material standard of living. So the launch of the Happy Planet Index really became the milestone moment when I committed my work to the over-arching theme of happiness.”

“Happiness comes from relationships, activity and generosity. Those don’t cost money, but they all take time. We get income by selling our time and then we store up money that we can spend. But there are people who are rushing frantically around in the short time on this planet; earning money and then finding ways to spend it – and never really stopping to actually enjoy the journey.”

These are the words spoken by Nic Marks, a happiness and wellbeing researcher. He is most famously known for his work on the Happy Planet Index, which was the first global measure of sustainable wellbeing. He is also the Founder of Happiness Works, a platform that enables businesses to understand and measure the happiness of their employees at work.

Nic’s words on happiness and the rush to earn money ring particularly true for people in South Korea. On average, Koreans work over 52 hours per week – despite the fact that the law only allows 52 hours. Although this is the second longest working day out of all the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, South Korea is suffering lower levels of income.

High unemployment and poor working conditions has led many Koreans to feel hopelessness, with young and old people both referring to their country as “Hell Joseon” or “Hell Korea”.

According to a number of reports, South Korea is increasingly suffering – not only from income inequality, but also from happiness inequality. In response, Hankyoreh News Media hosted the 2016 Asia Future Forum on 25 November, under the theme “Beyond GDP: The Pursuit of Happiness for All”.

Nic was a panel member at the event, where he shared his insights on the topic:

“By having a new relationship between money and time, we would solve the sustainability problem because we would only spend our time in our affection, our love and our interests. They are the root to happiness and that is not nearly as materialistic.”

Why isn’t South Korea achieving true happiness?

Nic acknowledged the growth of South Korea in the last few decades had been “miraculous” and described it as the “archetypal Asian Tiger economy”. However, he also questioned why the economic growth had not delivered happiness.

“International data comparing Korea’s subjective wellbeing to other nations suggests that it is lower than would be expected for its levels of GDP. This is a challenging finding for policy makers in Korea as it suggests that ‘more economic growth’ is not the answer.”

Nic pointed out that materialism is a “corrosive force” when it comes to wellbeing – equivalent to job insecurity, short-term or zero-hour contracts, and a poor work-life balance. He said that since “materialism is quite strong” in South Korea, this could explain why people in South Korea were not reaching their optimum level of happiness.

Happiness at the work place

Nic explained that in a typical working life, an individual spends roughly 100,000 hours at work, making it a crucial part of life in the 21st century. He urged companies to take measures to change the work culture that hinders happiness.

“Businesses are small enough to experiment and create positive changes, whilst also having the resources to implement changes – they are powerful and can be empowering.”

Since the early 1990s, Nic has been interested in new ways of thinking about society’s success. He began incorporating his findings into public policy in 2001, when he joined the Centre for Wellbeing at the New Economics Foundation in London, United Kingdom. Here, Nic and his team produced reports such as the World Happiness Report, Five Ways to Wellbeing and National Accounts of Welling. This won them the Betterment of Humankind Award in 2008.

Happiness and the environment

Despite scepticism, there are ways for the happiness agenda to be legitimately broadened to incorporate corporate social responsibility and sustainability. Nic explained that people prefer to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

Consequentially, he developed the Happy Planet Index (HPI) as a long term measure of nations’ progress towards the goal of sustainable wellbeing. He was interested in creating a transparent index around which a diverse group of stakeholders could unite. HPI encapsulates the idea that “good lives don’t have to cost the earth”.

“I designed the HPI to capture the fundamental tension between creating good lives now and ensuring resources are protected for future generations to led good lives too.”

The Happy Planet Index

Noting that there is still more work to be done, Nic emphasised the HPI is not a measure for everything because happiness is very subjective and standards may differ for different people. For this reason, HPI might only have limited effects on national averages, even though it includes sets of values that are morally objectionable. Yet there are things people care about such as human rights, treatment of minorities, biodiversity and pollution.

“Ultimately we took the view that the principle should be that the ‘consumer pays’. Then nations which consume the most will have the full ecological cost of that consumption included in their index.”

Costa Rica surprised the world in 2016 by coming out on top in the HPI. However, when you closely examine the country, it becomes clear why they are deemed the happiest country in the world. Apart from having one of the most developed welfare systems outside Scandinavia, with clean water and adult literacy almost universal, the country’s army was abolished in 1949 and money freed up to be spent on social programmes.

“It is a beautiful country with rich, protected, natural capital,” Nic explained. “There is clearly much we can learn from Costa Rica, and that is before we consider its environmental credentials: 99% of electricity is from renewable resources (mainly hydro), there is a carbon tax on emissions, and deforestation has been dramatically reversed in the last 20 years.”

South Korea’s GDP problem

In South Korea, GDP remains the dominant measure of a nation’s success – and their “power”.

Nic noted that when so much attention is placed on growing the economy, other social indicators such as mental health, stress, family cohesion, social trust, happiness and work-life balance are not considered. He explained this was damaging as these factors are the “essence of the human experience”.

“This obsession with GDP created a very biased – and limited – view of society and subsequently created skewed policy.”

Nic concluded: “We are under the notion that we have time, but it seems to me it’s the other way around: time has us. The world continues and time flows and we have limited time on this planet. It’s how we use our time that becomes an interesting question.”

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