KIHASA in the News

On Setting up Budget System that Promotes National Happiness

  • Media Date : 2021-09-08
  • News Media : The Digital Times
  • Hits 125

Translated from an article of the Digital Times, September 8, 2021


On National Happiness Budget System

Kim Seonga, Associate Research Fellow, KIHASA

In July 2021, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) upgraded Korea’s status to a developed country from a developing country. It was the first time for a developing country to be upgraded as such by the UN body since its establishment in 1964. After the end of the Korean War, Korea’s GDP has soared by about 31,000 times, and as of 2021, it is ranked the 10th largest economy in the world. However, Korea’s collective happiness level in 2021, as measured by the World Happiness Report, which compares the happiness levels of around 150 countries, stood at 5.845 points out of 10, putting the country at the 62nd place. On the list of OECD countries, Korea ranked nearly at the bottm, followed only by Greece, which suffered an economic crisis at the end of 2009, and Turkey, which is in civil war.

Koreans have strived to achieve economic prosperity because it has been regarded as a necessary condition for a happy life. Though you cannot buy happiness, it hardly comes with material deprivation. Still, it is hard to say Koreans are as happy as they are affluent materially.

Among OECD member countries, Korea has a notoriously high proportion of workers who work long hours. Korea has of late reduced its workweek from 68 hours to 52 hours, but the OECD standard is 50 hours; even if Koreans comply with the new workweek guideline, they are long-hour workers.

There are serious inequalities in Korea. With words such as ‘Hell Joseon’ or ‘N Give-Up Generation’ in decline, words such as ‘gap’ or ‘inequality’ have become widespread in the media. People have begun to want more, comparing themselves with those who have what they do not. Gaps and inequalities make people thirst for fairness.

As we pursue happiness, we should ask not how happy we are but what happiness is. Happiness is, of course, meaningful in and of itself. According to the World Happiness Report 2021, the happiest country is Finland scoring 7.842 points as compared to Korea scoring 5.845 points. We should definitely think over why we got such a low score. However, focusing on scoring one more point on the scale would not work for today’s Koreans; they pursue a different kind of happiness than in the past.

To begin with, what they want is not to be in the top 1 percent on the standard-of-living scale, but to be able to independently explore and choose the way of life they want to live. Some may want to live in a luxurious apartment in Gangnam, but others may dream of living in a country house; some may aspire to have PhD or master’s degree, but others prefer to start their career development right after college. Everyone should be able to design their life independently and without discrimination, and realize their potential.

At the root of accepting the diversity of life are a mature sense of citizenship, a sense of solidarity, and a sense of community. The Olympics are over. It was a global festival postponed by a year due to the pandemic. What impressed me was that we weren’t as obsessed as in the past with the number of gold medals our athletes won. Instead, we cheered and sympathized with our athletes for their sweat of hard work. Regardless of their medal colors or whether they were competing in unpopular events, we heartily cheered for them.

The spread of Covid-19 was a huge shock to all of us. But there were people who were even more shocked. The prolonged social distancing rules and the resulting contactless life have forced many a self-employed person to lose income or work. Some have even totally given up hope as there seems to be no end to this. The already bad living conditions for vulnerable people have become worse. In terms of raising the country’s collective happiness, it is important to help happy people become happier. But it is way more important to help unhappy people become happy. This is the fairness we should work towards.

In Bhutan, gross national happiness is a national goal. In Italy, public policies that focus on raising people’s quality of life have a priority in the national budget. New Zealand has introduced a wellbeing budget system, allocating government resources to programs that improve the happiness of vulnerable populations in the mid-to long-term. These countries recognize that economic prosperity is a means to increasing people’s happiness and set their policy directions accordingly.

The happiness budget system will make public policy aim at national happiness as its target and repeat this process year by year. It is high time we thought about introducing a happiness budget system that supports policies and alleviates inequality so that everyone can enjoy a happy life without discrimination.

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