Happiness and Success. A perspective from North Korean defectors.

I was watching this video series, which contains interviews with defectors from North Korea.  These people underwent ordeals similar to the Underground Railroad, except they were leaving mental enslavement and starvation in North Korea, for the uncertainty of freedom, first as illegal immigrants in China, then ultimately to South Korea where they were welcomed with open arms.  What do they day about happiness?

This link takes you to the topic of happiness.  I'll embed the entire video below.

"Even when I was starving in North Korea, I was happy". 

"I actually feel sorry for them [South Koreans].  They lose out on the most important things.  Like happiness, love, relationships etc."

I found it compelling to listen to what they said.  These people went through incredible privation and suffering, both during their lives in North Korea, and in their journey to where they are now, a society that is much more free, successful, technologically advanced, economically vibrant.  They would not go back.  But they note the price, which is that the more successful society is not as happy.

Then I thought about my own life.  I went from a rural  and small town world, where my horizons were very limited, to two doctorates and a corporate life, in search of having a life that was both meaningful, and secure.  Growing up, I wasn't happy, but my family was, and many people around me seemed happy and satisfied with their lives.  I knew I had to leave, and I did.   I never cared about "winning", or about accumulating riches, but I knew that if I fell on hard luck, no one would help me.  In fact, at one point, that happened, and it was my own stubbornness, work ethic, resourcefulness, and bootstraps, that kept me going.  Ultimately, ,career was stopped by cancer.  However, by then, I was able to retire with benefits, and things are as secure as one can expect.  I am fortunate.  Other than the sense of losing meaning - which is somewhat false meaning - I am happier.  None of the corporate dysfunction, back stabbing, credit theft, incessant ambition, lies, demands, and my own daily anger and sometimes, near panic.  I miss many things, the sense of accomplishment, and collegiality - also often false - and the sense of being someone who mattered, but in retrospect, those things exacted a harsh toll.  Now, I have cancer to thank for stopping me, and forcing me to live a simpler life, moving the scale from the sense of day to day corporate oppression, to much more happiness than I had before.

Last year, one of my colleagues, 10 years younger than me, died of a rare and rapidly advancing cancer.  Similar to my own, except in my case, I'm lucky to have a medicine that holds it in check.  She also made the careerist decision, and won, but in the end, did she find happiness?  I don't know.  She won't get a second chance, and neither will I.  (article in Chicago Tribute about mean bosses, who are possibly miserable.  To be honest, I think some of my mean bosses were too sadistic to be miserable)

I would never claim that poverty brings happiness, or that one shouldn't strive for a better life, even if it means sacrificing some happiness along the way.  In fact, I know that often, even usually, poverty is misery.  But it think it's good, sometimes, to think about the choices that we make, the changes that are forced upon us, and the price of security, fortune, and success.

p.s.  the Youtube series for that video, Asian Boss, has interesting insights on North/South Korean life, and on what Koreans think about Americans.  Worth watching.

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Comment by Joan Denoo 23 hours ago

The problem I have with freedom is allowing the other to have freedom of speech, assembly, and thought. I lived among the rich and the poor and each classification have people with freedom of foolishness. 

I grew up working hard and have not stopped until my body slowed me down. The things I didn't like about working for others was I was not able to enjoy the "fruits" of my labor. I was not in on the "profit" end of the endeavors. Working for myself, I took all the risks, did all the menial chores, like emptying the trash and cleaning up the coffee area and paying rent for a space. Working in my home had its advantages and also its miseries. 

I have no idea how I would do in a restricted society, but my expectation is that I would not be able to speak, write, teach, make choices, and think as I do now. I feel somewhat restricted living in a religious Republican community. All the professionals to whom I turn have religion as part of their character. My thoughts made public become my restrictions due to shunning or being the target of hate speech. It seems those who differ cannot discuss differences. After all, they come from a heritage of mennonites, live according to dogma, reject scientific processes, and see the devil in those who do not share their beliefs. Some of the young women continue to wear their cute little bonnets, the men wear suspenders. Oh! yes, stereotyping here! However, I am describing, not judging. 

Comment by Daniel W 23 hours ago

Thank you to each commenter for your insights.

My mother's parents were tenant farmers during the great depression,  In return for a few acres and a dirt floor house, they grew grain and raised a few steers for slaughter.  They did not get the meat.  My impression is that my grandfather was always happy.  My grandmother did not seem happy at all.  Some happiness comes fom within.  I suspect some is learned, some is happenstance.  I think some us cultivated, not by accumulation of things and experiences, but learning the right ways to happiness and sharing it with others.  I suspect that a ratrace career and keeping up with the Joneses does not nurture happiness.  I also suspect that sharing joy, or kindness, or gratitude, does nurture happiness.

Comment by Joan Denoo 23 hours ago

Excellent site, Daniel. I have read and watched only part of it and it deserves a closer look. For right now, the sun and garden call their siren songs!

Comment by Reverend Feldhaus yesterday

I don't strive for "happieness". I want comfort and contentment. To only want to feel joy and reject sadness, anger and other emotions isn't healthy.

Comment by Michael Penn on Thursday

I think I can see it, Daniel. I recall life with my grandparents and kerosene lamps for lighting. Later electric and finally TV with 3 or 4 channels. No fancy cars, clothes, or frills. Plenty of hard work. Lots of beans and potatoes for supper.

Today I watch TV on my computer from all around the world. We have gadgets for everything and also fancy food. My interests are what they always were but technology wants to run away with us.

I like my life but I honestly think I was happier before when it was all so simple.

Comment by Ruth Anthony-Gardner on May 16, 2017 at 2:57pm

I can't comprehend how living in a regimented society might yield greater happiness, love, and "not losing out on relationships." Does having the freedom to choose any haircut make a man sadder than than choosing one from among seven approved styles?

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