소확행: Small but certain happiness

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Author: Nathalia Millán Rincón

The values of young people in South Korea have changed compared to those of their parents’ generation. The current generation focuses its efforts on being happier and living a fulfilling life, not so much on making a lot of money. This blog will explain what has driven young people to adopt this new mentality, what Sohwakhaeng (소확행) consists of, and we will close with a recommendation of a Korean film that illustrates the current sentiment that many may be identifying with.

It is well known that, the more demanding a society is, the more pressure young people feel for their future. South Korea is one of the busiest countries in the world, and Seoul particularly suffers from insomnia: many places are open 24 hours, seven days a week (Dang, 2018). Something notorious about the country is the ppalli ppalli (빨리 빨리) culture, which translates as “hurry”, it is considered part of Korea’s brand, and many refer to this characteristic as the secret to meeting goals in the blink of an eye (Kjølstad, 2020). Ppalli ppalli (빨리 빨리) is a lifestyle that originated from South Korea’s desire to recover and reach a level of modernization after the events of World War II and the Korean War, which left them as the 2nd poorest country in the world. 

To achieve such outstanding growth, South Korea had to completely restructure itself. This change involved not only an investment plan, but also a new mindset. Therefore, since the country had been left without capital and devoid of natural resources, the feeling of ‘we have nothing else to lose’ strengthened. So, although the economy was heavily oriented towards exports, the government began by focusing its efforts on investing in education to have a skilled and hard-working workforce (OECD, 2021). This could explain why education, to this day, is considered of paramount importance for Korean society.  Moreover, although the Miracle on the Han River (as the country’s period of rapid economic growth is called) happened, Koreans have failed to get rid of this lifestyle that cares so much about doing everything better and faster.

With such a well-educated population, the country’s competitiveness increased, improving living conditions. However, with a higher education rate of 69% for people aged 25-34 (OECD, 2022), it is difficult to excel among so many candidates, and overqualification is a problem. In addition, more and more people are seeking independence and moving to the capital, but given the high living costs combined with the low number of marriages that has been declining for 11 years (Eun-byel, 2023), it is simply unlikely that Koreans can afford a home. For this reason, SKY (Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University) are considered the only options, and the stress of getting a high score in the Suneung (수능), the College Scholastic Ability Test, begins at a very young age.

Despite the above, the future is uncertain, and a college degree does not guarantee employment. Finding a job is considerably difficult for recent graduates, especially when more and more companies decide not to hold an open recruitment process, arguing that people will be hired when necessary. An overwhelming 73.9% of 330 companies surveyed explained that they prefer experienced people, as they need them to start working immediately. As a result, many part-timers in convenience stores are university graduates, but “Due to the rigidity in Korea’s labor market, it’s not easy for young people who start with unsatisfactory jobs to move to quality jobs later”, said economics professor Kang Sung-jin, who teaches at Korea University (2021). Given this, young Koreans have started to experience bleak feelings about their future, and the generation is now known as 3포/3-Po (the term comes from 포기하다, which means “to give up”), who sacrifice: 1) Relationships with others; 2) Marriage; 3) Starting a family, as the only solution to face economic and social pressure (Rae, 2021).

Illustration 1. Taken from Unsplash (Ping Onganankun, 2018.) [Picture]

A long workday, the desire to climb the corporate ladder, to be the best worker, the best student, the role model, all of these are expected from young people in South Korea, and that is why people long to spend time away from the world, seeking trivial happiness in the form of something small and simple. Danish culture has Hygge, Swedish culture has Lagom, and French culture has Au Calme, what do Koreans have? The current generation is looking for something that is certain and tangible, and from there emerges the trend of Sohwakhaeng (소확행). The concept was introduced by the Japanese author Murakami Haruki in his essay Afternoon in the Islets of Langerhans, in which he talks about life’s small happiness, not necessarily referring to the intensity experienced but rather to an ordinary happiness (Rae, 2021). From getting home and relaxing watching a series, talking with a loved one, to eating freshly baked bread with your hands, all this is part of the little happiness that relieves daily stress. Nevertheless, Sohwakhaeng (소확행) is more often related to food, especially because it occupies a special place in Korean culture, being considered the best medicine and a sign of love; hence, the way of asking ‘how are you’ is ‘have you eaten?’.

It must be said that Sohwakhaeng (소확행) is sometimes associated with YOLO (You Only Live Once), and although they look like two sides of the same coin, they are actually different. On one hand, when talking about YOLO (You Only Live Once), this involves impulsive actions with the argument of ‘living in the moment’, and is commonly related to travel, events, extreme sports, or anything else that breaks the status quo of an ordinary day. Contrary to this, Sohwakhaeng (소확행) is about a mindset shift, of enjoying what sometimes is already part of the routine, like buying a coffee before going to work, or feeling at ease with the current life without pursuing a luxurious one. “Be anyone”, says K-pop singer, Lee Hyo-ri, who decides to lead a calm and makeup-free life despite being a celebrity, at her home in Jeju, where she shows the comfort that routines bring, something money cannot buy, and people relieved their tiredness and felt at ease when watching her in Hyori’s Bed & Breakfast (Park, 2018).

Illustration 2. Made by Millán, N. (2023). [Collage]

Young people are hungry for healing, in search of physical and mental well-being, the absence of anxiety, and satisfaction with life. This is why, if you are feeling stressed, discontent, and/or lost, it is the right time for you to give Little Forest (2018) a try. It is a film that caused great furor despite its low production budget. The movie tells the story of Hye-won, a young woman who went to Seoul to work as a teacher, but returns to her hometown after experiencing the hustle and bustle of city life and being disappointed with herself. Hye-won’s main argument is that she is hungry, as instant food did not fill her up, implying that she felt that she did not have time to live, only waiting for payment day over and over again. Upon returning, her wounds and the emptiness she feels begin to heal thanks to her childhood friends, cooking, and the landscape. Little Forest (2018) is a movie that is full of innovative recipes and calm vibes, showing a reality so ordinary that it feels welcoming. Something that is interesting is the fact that background music rarely makes a presence, ironically setting the mood for the viewers. Thanks to the contrast between a fast-paced life and a slow lifestyle, Little Forest (2018) perfectly embodies the essence of Sohwakhaeng (소확행).

Illustration 3. Taken from KOFIC (2018). [Picture]

In short, the perspective of young Koreans has certainly taken a turn compared to that of past generations. This blog has covered many topics, from the various economic and cultural factors that imply a current problem, to the sacrifices that the generation has decided to take in order to survive the high expectations and the giant pressure to continue improving. Despite this, people have found a small but certain escape from their problems: to change their mindset once again, so that they can enjoy the daily pleasures of life. Many may be sharing these feelings, so I hope this blog helps you find a new way of living. And for you, what is your small but certain happiness?

Reading pair: Marisol Montiel

Reviewed by: Luisa Quintero


Dang, J. (July 27, 2018). Trending in Korea: Sohwakhaeng (Small but Certain Happiness). 10 MAGAZINE: https://10mag.com/sohwakhaeng-small-but-certain-happiness/

Eun-byel, I. (March 16, 2023). Number of marriages in Korea hits new low. The Korea Herald: https://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20230316000657

Kjølstad, K. N. (November 27, 2020). The “Ppalli ppalli” Culture: Is the Love for Fast Pace Dying? Embassy of the Republic of Korea to Norway: https://overseas.mofa.go.kr/no-en/brd/m_21237/view.do?seq=103

Korea JoongAng Daily. (June 20, 2021). To get a job, some graduates consider donning hardhats. Korea JoongAng Daily: https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2021/06/20/business/economy/job-employment-unemployment/20210620180101008.html

OECD. (October 25, 2021). Sustaining the Miracle on the Han River. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development : https://www.oecd.org/country/korea/thematic-focus/sustaining-the-miracle-on-the-han-river-103653fa/#

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