“What makes our life successful, and can we be happy once we achieve that success?”

Justine (Joohyun) Park

These two questions were both the starting point for Justine Park’s PhD study, and questions she had pondered about her own life.

When she was a high school student in South Korea, she and other students were expected to demonstrate high academic performance, postponing current happiness for expected future happiness by staying at school from the early morning until late at night studying.

“Koreans have a very narrow idea of success; that there is a very set ‘success path’, which involves getting good grades, going to a good university, getting a respectable job with a high salary and then working long hours to rise through the company,” Justine says.

“However, the idea that this will bring them happiness often proves to be a mirage. My generation sometimes refer to ourselves as the ‘N-po sedae’ – meaning the ‘give up everything generation’ – because of the costs of living, housing and tuition, combined with expectations of total dedication to study and then to work have forced many people in my generation to give up interpersonal and romantic relationships, marriage and home ownership to live up to society’s expectations. It’s really worrying because Korea has one of the world’s highest suicide rates and Korean students experience the lowest happiness among OECD countries.”

Feeling the intensely competitive lifestyle might be rooted in a common understanding of success, Justine raised a further question: “How do the perspectives of success differ between people in Korea and in New Zealand?”

In 2017, Justine recruited 3,714 Koreans and Pakeha from across New Zealand and Korea using an online survey. She examined what they valued for a successful life, their sense of ethnic identity, measures of well-being, as well as perceptions of how their family and friends expect them to achieve success goals (subjective norms) and whether they felt these things were actually achievable in the future (success achievability).

The results showed that Pakeha demonstrated the greatest sense of well-being, followed by Koreans in New Zealand, with Koreans in Korea having the lowest level of well-being. She found that Koreans in Korea and New Zealand both put a higher value and expectation on achieving extrinsic goals, such as money or physical appearance, compared to Pakeha. The two Korean groups also experienced higher expectations to accomplish extrinsic goals from their parents/family than the Pakeha group.

“Interestingly, when Pakeha respondents are expected to pursue extrinsic goals by their parents or partner, their sense of well-being doesn’t seem to be negatively affected. However, for Koreans in both countries, valuing extrinsic goals and experiencing social expectation to pursue extrinsic goals have negative effects on their well-being.”

There was also a clear positive link between valuing intrinsic goals such as family connections or personal development and well-being in all groups. Achievability of goals and subjective norms around intrinsic goals also predicted a higher level of well-being across all groups.

“Sometimes we forget the significant value of relationships with others and self-realisation. Having a connection with your own ethnic identity is important as well. Some Korean parents in New Zealand do not help their children to learn about Korean culture, instead making an effort to help them fit in to New Zealand. It is important for Koreans as an ethnic minority in New Zealand to value not only their identity as New Zealanders but also their Korean ethnic identity for increasing their well-being.”

Justine’s PhD journey is meaningful in her academic and personal life, and she hopes to continue her research with the University of Auckland, expanding it across more age groups and to encompass more ethnicities such as Maori and Chinese.

“Happiness seems to come from having the freedom to find my own success path, instead of following the expected path. After reaching the conclusion that meaningful relationships with others are significant in having success in my life, I now try to spend more time with my family and friends. I am so thankful that I could have these opportunities to think about my ethnicity, my standards of success, and happiness during my PhD study.”

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