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Who’s pursuing happiness?

Sept 10,2018
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Jeong Jae-seung
The author is a bio and brain engineering professor and the dean of Moon Soul Graduate School of Future Strategy at KAIST.

The brain of a happy person experiences far more diverse phenomena than a brain that is temporarily happy. Firstly, the central reward system secretes dopamine and creates pleasure. While you enjoy dinner with your loved one, the brain has a feast of dopamine. Pleasure and joy are the most important elements of happiness.

However, happiness goes beyond pleasure. Serotonin enhances satisfaction in life, helping us not become depressed and look at life positively and making us active. Endorphins help us endure pain and also contribute to happiness. Endorphins that come out with sweat after a hard workout serve as a painkiller to get over moments of difficulty.

Oxytocin also has a role. While you enjoy a comfortable and peaceful time with loved ones, oxytocin reminds you of the meaning of relationships. Making decisions and controlling situations without intervention certainly helps happiness, but it is hard to reach happiness without meaningful relationships. Happiness requires both alone time and healthy relationships with others.

Humans are complex and happiness is a more complicated concept than joy or stability. For the past decade, neuroscientists have been working to scientifically dissect and analyze the abstract concept of happiness. Their goal is to systematically approach happiness, the most important objective of human life.

The existence of the state is also supposed to be for the happiness of the citizens. We believe that having a nation, rather than living as a community, contributes to the wellbeing and happiness of people.

For a long time, the prime goal of using the state budget was economic growth. People believed that material abundance would bring happiness. The Republic of Korea is a country that rose above poverty quickly. As illustrated in Easterlin’s Paradox, material abundance does not guarantee happiness. When GDP is low, an income increase will bring more happiness. But once you reach a certain level, economic growth no longer guarantees happiness.

Also, Korea is one of the most miserable countries among nations with a similar GDP level. Economic growth has been achieved in a way that hurts happiness. Workers should be social beings with a work-life balance. Health, family and friendship have been swept up in the excessive workload. So once one leaves the umbrella of the workplace, he or she is not equipped with the abilities to deal with reality. People grow old and can think of no alternative other than starting a fried chicken joint or a convenience store.

For example, even as the economy grows, the process intensifies disparity and inequality and hinders economic growth. Social discord aggravates, hatred and anger toward others amplifies and social assets like trust are ruined. How the economy grows is important, and the standard and goal should be happiness. The economy should grow and policies should be implemented to make people happy.

Why have Koreans neglected the obvious premise that happiness is the priority over economic growth? John Hayes, the chief marketing officer at American Express, said that people tend to overestimate the measurable and underestimate the unmeasurable. Economic growth can be measured in GDP and inspires a strong sense of goal.

GDP was first calculated as an extension of the national income account in the 1930s and it is calculated based on added value or the final product from the production activities of all economic entities, including households, companies and government, at market price. However, it does not reflect important indicators like a pleasant environment, creative education, health or democracy that contribute to our happiness. So these precious values have been sacrificed for economic growth.

A happiness index, such as gross national happiness, is not a unique attempt by a small country like Bhutan but a concept highlighted in Europe as well. French President Nicolas Sarkozy worked to develop a new indicator that properly measures both economic growth and social development with help from renowned economists Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi.

They co-authored “Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up,” which offers countless examples of GDP growth at the cost of people’s welfare, such as developing countries that allow mining rights without proper regulations at a low price and the consequent environmental damages.

If Koreans enjoy leisure, develop knowledge and try to enhance productivity instead of consuming goods, the current GDP calculation would perceive it as an act unhelpful for growth.

GDP-driven economic growth has a risk of making our lives unhappy and unsustainable. Material abundance is not a goal to achieve at the cost of people’s happiness and the sustainability of the state. We must not be foolish and miss this important value just because it cannot be measured. Neuroscientists are taking the first step toward dissecting happiness.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Sunday, Sept. 8-9, Page 35