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Perspectives on Contemporary Korea 2018

Religion, Politics and Happiness in Korea Conference

Oct 26-27, 2018 | University of Michigan

Weiser Hall, 10th Fl (500 Church St. Ann Arbor, MI)


  • Juhn Ahn (Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Michigan)
  • Nojin Kwak (Department of Communication Studies, University of Michigan)

The preamble to Korea’s founding constitution of 1948 made the solemn promise to provide freedom, happiness, and the steady improvement of the quality of life for all citizens. This promise proved to be difficult to keep under decades of authoritarian rule and rapid industrialization. As part of Korea’s effort to successfully transition to democracy, the revised constitution of 1987 tried to grant fresh life and legal weight to this promise in its new tenth article, which underscored human worth and dignity and defined the pursuit of happiness as a fundamental and inviolable human right.

But this renewed commitment to happiness has yet to pay dividends. Korea currently has the highest suicide rate among OECD member countries and, contrary to the global trend, this rate has not shown significant signs of decline. Korea has also consistently received relatively low rankings in the Better Life Index published by the OECD since 2011 and the World Happiness Report published by the United Nations Sustainable Solutions Network since 2012. Both studies rely in part on information gathered in the Gallup World Poll, which uses the Cantril Ladder to measure subjective wellbeing. According to this poll, Koreans themselves give the quality of their lives a rather low evaluation that places Korea just above the world average.

Under these conditions, new happiness-related words such as welbing (“wellbeing”), hilling (“healing”), yollo (“you only live once”), and worabel (“work-life balance”) have come to function as keywords of Korean society. According to Trend Korea 2018 published by the Consumer Trend Analysis Center of the Research Institute of Human Ecology at Seoul National University, the “worabel generation” will exert the greatest influence on Korean society and economy in 2018. Not coincidentally, predictions like these are being made as scholars argue for the importance of the humanities in addressing the happiness crisis and the government and policy makers continue to make various efforts to transform Korea into a robust welfare state. Some concrete examples of these efforts include the “humanities crisis” declaration of 2006 and the creation of Humanities Korea (HK) in 2007, the launch of Hannara Party’s “Common People’s Happiness Promotion Headquarters” (Sŏmin haengbok ch’ujin ponbu) in 2009, the beginning of the Korean-style welfare model debate in 2013, the establishment of the “Seoul-style happiness index” in 2015, and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport’s ongoing Happiness Village projects.

Should the difficult task of defining and ensuring happiness be entrusted to the state and the law? Or would it make more sense to entrust this task to religious institutions, practices, and traditions that have continued to function as the source of enduring values? Can religion offer sustainable solutions to the happiness crisis in Korea as it claims to be able to do, or is it a part of the problem? The conference welcomes papers from any discipline that examine how religion may have shaped the discourse on happiness in Korea and how efforts to thwart the crisis of happiness may have shaped and redefined religion in Korea and can address some of the driving questions above and more specific phenomenon listed below (but not limited to these).

  • Are the various debates about happiness related to the transformation of the religious landscape in Korea?
  • Why are “secular” studies such as the Better Life Index and the World Happiness Report cited more frequently in Korea than other related studies such as Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index and the World Values Survey (started in 1981), which played an important role in first promoting the investigation of the relationship between changing values, religion, politics, and the quality of life?
  • What can we expect from the rise of the so-called worabel generation, especially with regards to the fate of religion, politics, and happiness in Korea?
  • Is happiness universal and rooted in Enlightenment principles such as individualism, freedom, and progress, or is happiness in Korea inflected heavily by the nation’s unique culture, religions, and history?

This conference, Religion, Politics and Happiness in Korea, aims to bring scholars from various fields and disciplines together to explore these and other questions. “Korean Religion and Happiness” is the eighth annual conference on contemporary Korea sponsored by the Nam Center for Korean Studies at the University of Michigan. Previous conferences in the series have examined the phenomenon of Hallyu in the age of social media, transgressive practices in Korean society, the politics of sports, cultural products of the Yushin era, new communication technologies, economic and demographic changes in families, and large social changes in present-day Korea.