The Korea Herald


[Eye Interview] 'If you live to 100, you might as well be happy,' says 88-year-old bestselling essayist

Korean bestseller on finding fulfilling life to hit bookshelves around the world in 16 languages

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : May 4, 2024 - 16:01

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Rhee Kun-hoo poses for photos during an interview with The Korea Herald, in Seoul, in April. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald) Rhee Kun-hoo poses for photos during an interview with The Korea Herald, in Seoul, in April. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

People are now living longer, well up to the age of 100. Many things have changed compared to 100 years ago, but the pursuit of happiness remains a constant thread.

Rhee Kun-hoo was in his 70s and retired from a prestigious career in psychiatry when he took up writing. Born in 1935, the 88-year-old lived in a pastoral society in his youth, survived the Korean War (1950-1953), witnessed turbulent events in Korean history and even served time in prison for opposing the country’s totalitarian government. He dedicated himself to fixing Korea's fledgling mental health system and was the first to introduce an open-ward system in psychiatric facilities in the country. He also raised four kids.

Despite nearing his nineties, Rhee said that life still surprises him. For one thing, his 2018 bestselling essay is now set to hit bookshelves in 16 countries in 16 languages, including an English edition which will be released in May.

When asked how it felt to meet readers globally, Rhee said, “I don’t know if there are similar proverbs elsewhere, but there is a proverb in Korea: ‘Praise makes even the whale dance.’ I feel like I am a whale now,” in an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul in April.

“People like it when they receive compliments. I feel like I'm dancing even at this age. It feels good.”

The second surprise, he explained, is how the international publication came from a "truly serendipitous encounter." Rhee and the Korean-English translator Suphil Lee Park's mother had been writing to each other for some time after a member of Park's family with a neurodiverse condition required regular help from mental health facilities. The two met when Rhee went to Boston to give a lecture.

Rhee said, "As a Korean saying goes, it's like ‘Even a petty rock that meets the toe of your shoe is a work of fate.'"

The English editions of The English editions of "If You Live To 100, You Might As Well Be Happy," by Rhee Kun-hoo, translated by Suphil Lee Park (Ebury, Union Square & Co.)

Secret to happily ever after

In the book, Rhee writes about the often overlooked value of aging and shares his wisdom and philosophy for achieving a fulfilling life, exploring forgiveness, how to persevere (but also know when to quit), facing insecurities and opening oneself to the simple joys available every day.

Since the book became a bestseller in Korea, one of the most common questions Rhee gets is, "How do you manage to have so much fun?"

“And my answer is always the same: ‘When did I ever say I had fun? I said I want to have fun,’” he laughed.

“There are depressing things that make you sad and unhappy, so you try to stay happy. That's how you live on. What other people misunderstand is that they think I just smile all the time and live happily.”

In fact, one could say that Rhee has experienced some hard times. He is currently battling eight diseases, including chronic illness and visual impairment. His left eye started going blind 20 years ago after an accident in Nepal, and he began to lose sight in his right eye five years ago.

Some eight years ago, he slipped while walking downstairs and hit his head. He had thought that was the end for him, but thankfully, he recovered after a month of hospitalization. Still, he is always aware that death is looming.

“Now, I am biologically close to the terminal point of my life.”

But he doesn’t always want to think about that, he said. To keep such thoughts at bay, Rhee maintains a busy schedule: He goes to the office at 10 a.m. every day, works at the office until 4 p.m., and gives scheduled talks on YouTube three times weekly, although he is currently on hold for new updates because his YouTube partner is taking a break. He also has four lectures and book talks scheduled for May.

“When a really happy guest comes on the show, I forget about death for a moment, get a little excited and talk for a long time. Then the joy lasts for a few days. As soon as it subsides, the thought comes to my mind again.”

Yet, for Rhee, there's a certain satisfaction in combating anxiety. And that’s the fun part, according to Rhee.

“Happiness is not something grand. Aren't you happy when you do what you want to do? But people are creating this mirage by making happiness too grandiose. Happiness is when something small that you want comes true.”

Even the simple act of waking up each day sparks joy.

"When I open my eyes, the first thought that comes to me is gratitude. And I think about what I am going to do when I go out today. It still thrills me to think about that."


"If You Live To 100, You Might As Well Be Happy"

written by Rhee Kun-hoo, translated by Suphil Lee Park

Ebury, May 2024 (UK)

Union Square & Co., May 2024 (US)