In March 2011, the suicide of four students at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science Technology (KAIST) was reported in the headlines of major Korean mass media, making people wonder why such talented students chose death. Many professionals pointed out “continued stress from a competitive academic atmosphere followed by low self-esteem and depression” as the cause. Stress, depression, and low self-esteem; all these negative emotions are not just the problems of the late KAIST students. According to a study conducted by the Ministry of Health & Welfare in 2011, suicide accounts for 44.6 percent of the death of people in 20s, signifying that the youths in our time are not that much happy to continue their lives.
Suppose someone asks you this: Are you happy? or What is your definition of happiness? What would be your answer?
* Principal of happiness is a serial reporting by Ewha Voice reporters in Korea and in the United States of America.
To delve into the current situation of the level of happiness among Korean university students, the Ewha Voice and the Ewha Weekly conducted a survey of 599 university students from Ewha Womans University, Hanyang University, Korea University, Sogang University, Sungkyunkwan University, and Yonsei University from Oct. 19 to 20. The survey questionnaire was provided by the Korean Psychology Association, asking whether the subject was satisfied with various aspects of their life, including individual, relationships, and the community to which they belong. It also asked the degree of positive or negative feelings the subject had felt during recent month, and problems they face in their individual, social, or other aspects of their life.
According to the survey results, the total average of Happiness Index was 60.09 out of 100. The Happiness Index of Ewha was ranked at 58.65, whereas Hanyang University was 60.78, Korea University was 60.54, Sogang University was 59.54, Sungkyunkwan University was 59.07, and 61.93 for Yonsei University.
The most noticeable trend found in the Happiness Index was that happiness appeared to decrease as students became seniors. Except for Sungkyunkwan University, the Happiness Index of students in their senior year or years above decreased.
“It seems the stress senior students get from seeking for a job is the reason for this downturn trend,” said an official at the Korean Psychology Association.
The biggest problem that university students face in their lives was academics concerns, followed by concerns for diet, and economic stability.
Continuous discussions on ways to enhance students’ happiness in process
Among many ways to improve the level of happiness of university students, installing positive psychology classes or running a workshop on happiness providing ways to think more positive or setting meaningful goals are among the solutions that a school could adopt.
“Taking a positive psychology class could be one of the solutions for university students who want to know more about happiness,” said professor Suh Eun-kook (Yonsei University), who teaches “Positive Psychology” class. “But it is not the absolute answer, as happiness is earned by various causes and circumstances.”
You can be happy through “efforts”
The Director of the Korea Counseling Center, professor Kim In-ja (Sogang University) believes that running a positive psychology course as an elective course or a regular workshop could be a good way to “teach” students how to be happy through finding their goals. Professor Kim is an honorary professor at Sogang University who has taught counseling and education courses for almost 40 years and is the founder of Yongmoon Graduate School of Counseling Psychology.
“From what I have experienced, it seems Koreans do not know how to be happy,” professor Kim said.
It is by fact that the suicide rate of Korea is the highest among OECD countries with 44.6 percent of deaths among 20s. Professor Kim sharply criticized the fierce competition, especially in the education sector, and the competition’s adverse effect in deteriorating students’ self-image.
“From a very young age, Korean students often become enslaved by their grades. They are taught to be rich and powerful through the process of entering a prestigious university,” professor Kim said. “But even if they enter a top-ranked school, more fierce competition awaits them in employment sector. In this process, students gradually ‘lose themselves.’”
Professor Kim also quoted the a world-renowned scholar in positive psychology, professor Ed Diener (University of Illinois)’s opinion: A fiercely competitive education system, consumption of luxuries, comparing oneself with others, and complaints toward one’s work as the most dominant reasons that disturb Koreans’ happiness. Professor Kim said that it could be applied to Korean university students as well.
“I once counseled the father whose daughter had to study another year to get into a college,” professor Kim said. “They were wealthy but she was suffering from diarrhea every day as she felt so sorry for not entering college at the right time.”
Professor Kim states that money, power, or higher education do not necessarilly lead to “happy lives.”
“According to a study, a surprising number of lawyers in America tend to abandon their jobs even if they make a lot of money since they cannot stand being against their conscience to defend their guilty client, like O.J. Simpson.”
Professor Kim emphasized that happiness does not come from material well-being or a comfortable environment ,but one’s will to earn it.
Pursuit of happiness in Ewha
Under the same roof of Ewha, students study, work, and laugh together as well as instill values of one another. As one distinctive group, do Ewha students have somewhat similar or entirely different perceptions of happiness? To further understand the meaning of happiness, Ewha students with different nationalities opened their own personal experiences and their individual perceptions of what happiness is.
Talking with several Ewha students, it could be seen that each individual defines and pursues happiness differently, yet there are some common points. Some of the students interviewed tend to find happiness in appreciating the small things in life.
“Happiness is how well my life treats me. Since happiness is the level of satisfaction of my life, it does not wholly depend on success, money or social status nor requires anything special,” Seo Min-ah (Economics, 2) said. “Today I came home from Daegu, just had a delicious meal cooked by my mother, and I am snuggling in warm blankets and being a couch potato to take a little time off after the tense midterm exam period. This very moment fits well with the word happiness for me.”
Others also encounter happiness in triumphant, the joy of “I did it.”
“I am happy when I achieve something, whether it is an academic or personal goal,” Lee Bo-mi (Sociology, 1) said. “A couple weeks ago, I passed the Chinese Proficiency Test, which I longed for and put lots of effort into. I had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to go to Chinese class and studied for hours a day. Because it was not easy, I felt rewarded and truly happy at the end.”
Despite students’ differences in their languages, and cultures, domestic Ewha students and foreign students alike perceive happiness in similar ways. How they seek happiness, however, differed. In the case of Constance Williams (Liberal Arts, 1), from the United Kingdom, happiness is “being thankful for what you have and having joy in the simplest way.” She seeks happiness by spending time with her close mates. Recalling a past memory in which she felt happiness, she remembers a time when she secretly snuck out of the house in the middle of the night to hang out with her friends.
“Though knowing that such an act would drive my parents crazy once they found out, I still wanted to be with my friends, who I can share the most exhilarating things together,” Williams said. “I feel usually this emotion called happiness when I am having a laugh and a blast of fun with my friends, whom I care for the most.”
As for Chris Ahn (Social Science, 1) from Thailand, she finds happiness through her tendency to feel motivated and optimistic.
“No one can reach absolute happiness in life, but one can try to achieve the maximum by simply smiling. Happiness can be achieved if you truly love doing what you do and living life to your fullest,” Ahn said.
* Reporter : Yang Su-bin & Lee Hea-won & Moon Bo-ra