Korea was abuzz over the weekend about the results of a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in spring about what makes life "meaningful, fulfilling or satisfying" in 17 developed economies.
The findings came out on Nov. 18, and the answers from Korea were startling. It was the only country where "material well-being" was given as the top source of life's meaning. In fourteen other countries the first choice was family.
Predictably, the news prompted much handwringing across Korea's ideological spectrum as proof of the country's decay, but for different reasons. "Korea is the only country like this," wrote musician and prominent cultural critic Sohn Yisang on Facebook, implying that too many Koreans are focused on "don 돈" (money), as he translated "material well-being".
The conservative daily Chosun Ilbo blamed policymakers in the current center-left government for turning Koreans this way: "in the last few years this country's citizens went through experiences that shook the very foundation of how happiness is understood."
The paper obviously wants to argue that the out-of-control price of real estate has made "people who can't afford to buy an apartment even by scraping together everything they've got...unhappy because they hear how other people are getting manifold richer through stock or apartment or cryptocurrency purchases."
I don't really see a clear connection between what the Chosun Ilbo is saying and the Pew survey, but whichever way one interprets this survey result, there is an agreement: the choice of material well-being as the top source of meaning in life speaks to a problem in Korea.
But what problem exactly?
If one reads the entire report, the picture is complicated.
In Korea only 19 percent of Korean respondents name material well-being as the source of meaning in life. It's enough to make it the number-one reason for existence in this country, but certainly not by a wide margin (the number two is health at 17 percent).
Just based on the percentage of respondents saying material well-being gives meaning to their lives, Spain is more than twice as materialistic as Korea, with 42 percent (the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium follow at 33, 29 and 25 percent respectively). But in these four European countries many provide more than one answer to the question on what makes life meaningful so material well-being is pushed down to the position of the second- or third-most common answer.
(Interestingly, in Asian countries respondents were far more likely to mention only one source of meaning in life, with Koreans most likely to do so at 62 percent.)
A more fascinating aspect of the survey has to do with the Korean answers about other things that may offer satisfaction or meaning in life, and here the reality in the country is simply grim.
Very few Koreans find meaning in friends and community members (three percent), hobbies (three percent), nature (two percent), romantic partners (one percent), religion (one percent), retirement (one percent), learning (one percent), service (one percent), pets (zero percent) and travel and new experiences (zero percent).
In all these categories Korea comes in at or nearly at the very bottom of the ranking.
Besides material well-being (19 percent), the things that are more likely to give Koreans meaning in life are health (17 percent), family (16 percent), general satisfaction (12 percent), society (8 percent), personal freedom (8 percent) and work (6 percent).
But even then these higher levels of interest are far below the median, except in the category of general satisfaction, where Korea has the second-highest portion of respondents (12 percent) saying they are satisfied with life, after Germany at 17 percent (at the other end of the spectrum only two percent of Americans say they are satisfied with life, and one percent in Greece).
And in the category of family, Korea comes in second last, despite scoring 16 percent.
(Defying the stereotype of family-oriented Asians, the four Asian countries in this survey—Japan, Singapore, Korea and Taiwan—are also the least likely to draw existential meaning from family and children).
The attitude toward family in Korea is set to become more negative over time: among Korean respondents in the 18-to-29 age bracket only three percent (and six percent in the plus-65 bracket for that matter) say they see family to be a source of meaning. This mirrors the rapidly increasing share of single-person households (now at 40.1 percent) in Korea.
Overall, the results indicate that Koreans are not so dissatisfied with life in a global scheme of developed economies (just because so many others are less satisfied). When it comes to leading a meaningful life, though, many Koreans are adrift, with only material well-being or health to make them see any raison d'être. And even health, as a concern about one's physical body, is no less a private material concern than money.
How have Koreans come to see so little meaning in life other than through their material conditions? The explanation of the Chosun Ilbo and its rightwing allies is far-fetched: the high price of housing in the last few years is a serious concern, but it's too recent a phenomenon to have suddenly engendered a major cultural shift.
A more plausible interpretation comes from chairwoman Hong Yunhui of the disability rights organization Muui. "Korea's social welfare budget is equal to 12 percent of the national GDP, far below the average among twenty OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) member countries, which is 20 percent," she opined on Nov. 23.
"In a society that makes families assume the responsibility for misfortunes and difficulties beyond the control of individuals, it's only natural that what gives the greatest meaning in life isn't family but material."
I know Hong personally, and I know that she has had to move to a different part of Seoul recently because the high school in her old neighborhood wouldn't install an elevator (her daughter, soon to graduate from middle school, rides a wheelchair).
From that perspective, it makes sense that material well-being is a precondition to a modicum of happiness. Hong couldn't have moved just like that for her daughter if she hadn't been able to afford it.
Similarly, many Korean seniors—my parents included—fund retirement with personal savings in a country known for the highest rate of elderly poverty in the OECD at 43.4 percent. Given the situation it's understandable that so many Koreans value material well-being, since the government cannot be relied on when money is short.
Still, the question Pew asked wasn't "what is a precondition to happiness" but "what makes life meaningful", and the answers from Korea are dispiriting. In comparison to the populations of the other 16 countries, Koreans are less likely to find meaning of life in anything. There is no enthusiasm for much, and when it can be mustered at all, it's about money and personal well-being.
What the Pew survey shows isn's that Koreans are far more materialistic than their counterparts in other developed economies. It's that Korea suffers from an absence of existential purpose.
Many of its people say they have nothing to live for, and that's the country's biggest problem.