Since the financial crash of 2008, a sense of crisis has dominated British society. The economic crisis of the late 2000s was followed in the current decade by austerity, sharply increasing socio-economic inequality, and the political divisions of Brexit. Both in public debate and in private life, this sense of crisis has come to be articulated through the idiom of mental health. In public debate, there have been ongoing debates about mental health crises across a range of institutions, such as, and notably, higher education (1, 2). In private life, popular psychology seems to be a key resource to cope with crisis. For example, between 2012 and 2015, more than 8 million self-help books were sold in the UK each year, at a sales value surpassing £70,000,000 per annum (Nehring and Kerrigan, 2019: 56). These figures just mark the tip of the iceberg, as we encounter popular psychology in a broad array of other forms, from Facebook posts to self-development workshops to magazine advice columns to that talk about Bob the Builder and workplace productivity at your last staff away day (a real-life example).
As I have argued elsewhere (Nehring et al., 2016), popular psychology allows its consumers to make sense of a very wide range of deep personal problems, including professional success, work stress, financial issues, love, sex, intimacy, divorce, and many others. In doing so, it re-articulates distant and intractable social problems as personal issues that may be addressed in practical ways.
In order for popular psychology to be taken seriously, it draws on expert knowledge – psychotherapeutic, medical, religious, and so on. This is why the book covers of all those self-help books that fill row upon row at airport bookshops are dominated by photos of smart-looking people in suits who are identified in big bold letters as doctors or preachers or scientists or something else that seems very impressive. At the same time, though, popular psychology relies on novelty and exoticism to appeal to its readers. In a now classic article, Paul Lichterman (1992) argues that self-help literature is ‘thin culture,’ in that its readers flit from one novel self-help recipe to the next and from one interesting self-help guru to the other, without engaging with any in a particularly deep and lasting way. In popular psychology, there is always the next big thing, be it mindfulness or hygge or the art of decluttering or nunchi.
With a little luck, nunchi might just become the next mindfulness, spawning a decade-defining self-help trend and sparking a lasting media debate (see my recent blog post with Ashley Frawley elsewhere on Social Science Space). Nunchi is advertized in an article in a recent online edition of The Guardian, where it is presented as “the Korean secret to happiness.” Promoting a new self-help book by Korean-American journalist Euny Hong, the article goes on to characterize nunchi as “a traditional Korean concept of situational awareness.” Hong’s use of this term as a starting point for a self-help recipe might make for just the right mix of spiritual authority and exotic appeal. There are overtones of ‘Eastern’ spirituality, while Korea is known to Western readers newly fascinated with its pop culture, and it is at the same time culturally and geographically distant enough to still carry an air of mystery. Packaging her self-help program in one simple word, writing a book around it, and marketing this book via, for example, a national newspaper, Euny Hong is walking the path to success that many other successful self-help entrepreneurs have trodden before her (Nehring et al., 2016).
At the same time, Paul Lichterman’s writing about self-help as thin culture does come to my mind when I read about nunchi. When I held a visiting professorship in South Korea a few years ago, I spent time in a society that was highly developed and fast and competitive and consumerist — and notably unhappy (1, 2, 3). Read against this backdrop, nunchi speaks to the very same hypercompetitive mentality that South Koreans often identify as a source of their unhappiness.
In this sense, Euny Hong would seem to be offering a rather thin interpretation of South Korean culture, geared towards an audience that can be expected to hold relatively little in-depth knowledge about Korea. At the same time, anything more than a quick and thin reading of her work should suggest that nunchi does not offer a solution to the malaise of contemporary capitalism, much in the way that mindfulness and hygge and decluttering your flat have failed to make things profoundly better.