There’s really no question the appeal surrounding Korean dramas, aka K-Dramas. So many people are watching them and if they aren’t watching, they’ve heard of them; look no further than the explosion of offerings on Netflix and other streaming platforms. The K-Drama global phenomenon is real. I’ve even started bringing them into my clinical work. It all started by accident when I referenced K-Dramas in a live college workshop to help students better understand their parents and cultural heritage for the sake of their mental health. I saw an immediate boost in positive well-being and realized I was onto something.
It grew from there and that’s how my YouTube Channel, “Noona’s Noonchi” was born! Noona means older sister in Korean and noonchi is a unique Korean concept that refers to the essential Korean ability to “read the room,” quickly gauging the context of interactions, nuances, and behaviors, and acting accordingly. It is called a Korean superpower. I use noonchi all the time in my work, especially with Koreans and other Asian Pacific Islanders who have difficulty talking about mental health.
Noona’s Noonchi explores deep dives and reactions from K-Dramas from a mental health perspective. The goal is to have good mental health through embracing cultural confidence®, which is my framework for promoting healthy emotionality through the intersectionality of mental health, identity, mindfulness and resilience. Lucky for me, and my followers/patients, these behaviors are portrayed beautifully in K-Dramas!
Toward that end, I would love to share with you my top ten K-Drama choices from the last five years that I feel will change your life for the better! (All available on Netflix)
10. Dear My Friends
You’ll have more empathy and compassion for the aging population, a demographic that tends to be ignored, dismissed, or even neglected because of their age. This K-Drama humanizes their life experiences in dating, separation or divorce, grief and even stages of dementia. Seeing a touching portrayal of how folks in their 60s, 70s and beyond don’t want to be written off can be especially beneficial for those in the “sandwich generation” who could be struggling with understanding their aging parents or even caretaking which can be stressful.
What I really loved about this K-Drama was how we got to see things from their perspective which isn’t common in K-Dramas. Perhaps after watching “Dear My Friends” you’ll get a better sense of why your parents, or your grandparents are obstinate and argue with you over what you think are the “little” things. They want to be heard, validated and supported.
9. When the Camellia Blooms
This one is a great story of resilience. Here, a woman walks a difficult path of self-discovery like a camellia flower, which is said to bloom very slowly. And yes, in the end, she fully blooms having finally found her voice and strength. Dong-baek fights through the stigma of being a single mother raising a son out of wedlock. She owns and runs a bar mostly frequented by men, doesn’t have friends and is bullied by the neighborhood women. The bullying mainly stems from the fact she doesn’t believe herself worthy of defense. However, it is through the love of a man who adores her (what woman doesn’t want this?), that she learns to believe in herself.
This K-Drama is a beautiful example of owning one’s narrative and creating the story you want to tell about yourself. Your identity correlates directly with your mental health and Dong-baek realizes this. There’s a defining moment in episode 19 where we see her in full bloom telling one of the women who used to despise her, “Being happy by my own standards is all I need in life, right?” This, my friends, is what I think is the K-Drama’s key message. In essence, Dong-baek personifies the advice I’d give to everyone: Discover your own strengths and skills and claim them in order to find happiness in who you are.
8. Romance is a Bonus Book
What makes this K-Drama inspiring is the female protagonist, Kang Dani’s return to the workforce after seven years. She is giving those mothers out there hope that they can have a career after taking time off to raise their kids. It can be extremely stressful for women to re-enter the workforce and transition back. Let’s face it, a glass ceiling still exists, or in our case a “bamboo ceiling,” which makes the return to work and re-building a career after time off even more daunting.
We see Dani hit rock bottom where she’s homeless and jobless. She shows that with persistence, diligence and grit, mothers can be successful working women while also remaining proud of the time they stayed home to raise their children! After all, as Dani says in episode 1, she was working as a mother the past seven years. If you’re questioning whether you can transition back to the workforce, watch this K-Drama for inspiration.
Never give up on your dreams! Unfulfilled or ignored dreams are a big regret in life. Based on psychosocial theory, this is especially true in the latter stages of life where depression spikes because folks tend to experience a crisis of “fulfillment.” This K-Drama beautifully depicts a 70-year-old man learning how to dance ballet for the first time. Wow! Shim Deok-chul finally sees his dream come true and not only learns ballet, but performs his favorite piece, ‘Swan Lake.’
He achieves his dream during a late stage in his life while struggling with early signs of Alzheimer’s. The important piece here is the support system surrounding Shim Deok-chul to help him live out his dream. Specifically, Song Kang’s character Lee Chae-rok holds steadfast and pushes him to perform Swan Lake even when he couldn’t remember how to dance. No matter your age, believe that your hopes and dreams can come true!
6. Crash Landing on You
Crash Landing provides comfort and positive emotion which is good for our well-being. The release of feel-good hormones goes into overdrive in this beautiful love story due to the amazing chemistry of Hyun Bin and Son Ye-jin (who are a couple in real life). And it doesn’t hurt that the secondary actors and plotlines are equally interesting. It’s unique to see a glimpse into North Korean life in a K-Drama through an uplifting (although fictional) perspective.
Our brains get positively rewired watching this K-Drama, literally. When watching something as engaging as Crash Landing and seeing the attraction and love between the characters, our brains are releasing dopamine (the addictive hormone) and serotonin increases which produces oxytocin, the bonding and connecting hormone. Therefore, we feel a surge of positivity watching this K-Drama. Scientifically speaking, it’s good for our mental health!
K-Dramas are a great form of escapism which is good for our well-being (in moderation). The love stories are beautifully depicted, plots include historical information and historical fiction, and the male and female protagonists exude both strength and leadership– particularly the women.
5. Mr. Sunshine
This epic, historical K-Drama that blew me away and is another great vehicle for escapism therapy. Yes, it is good for us to escape real life through K-Dramas! As a therapist, I do think K-Dramas help us re-charge, taking us away for some time, giving us a break from dwelling on our stressors.
All in moderation, of course. “Mr. Sunshine” is the first drama I recommend to anyone who asks about K-Dramas because I believe it has all the elements for, simply put, a fabulous K-Drama viewing experience.
- It’s another poignant love story (one of my absolute favorites).
- There are wonderful portrayals of strong female characters.
- Beautiful cinematography and costume designs abound; it’s a cinematic journey!
- Unrelenting action, adventure, romance and multiple plot lines, including the historical portion keeps your interest to the very end.
- The ending (I won’t spoil it) is one to remember.
Basically, you get all the feels watching this K-Drama. It’s an experience to be had.
4. Itaewon Class
A breath of fresh air! This K-Drama includes themes like social justice, cultural and gender identity, as well as racial discrimination which makes this K-Drama current, and honestly progressive. The female protagonist herself is also uniquely different, spicy and feisty I would say, and that’s always cool to see especially in this day and age. In addition, featuring a Black character such as Kim Tony is marvelous to see, especially in our current climate. Park Saeroyi (who doesn’t love Park Seo-joon?) has that grit and resilience that motivates us and makes us want to see his business become a success.
Hope is a great way to sum up the theme of this K-Drama in one word. Despite adverse events in one’s life including trauma and tragedy, no one can take away your hope for the life you want to live! Hope is a word I use a lot when it comes to mental health. This can sustain you even in the hardest of times. Look at how Park Saeroyi hoped for a successful business and hoped he could make his father proud, even in death. Kim Tony hoped he could find his father and have a family. Ma Hyeon-yi hoped she could find her self-confidence in her gender identity and, of course, Jo Yi-seo hoped to help make Dan Bam a huge success. These characters are great teachers by example.
It’s important for your well-being to have passion and purpose in your life. Believe in what you can accomplish, and you’ll get there, navigating the roadblocks that come your way. That’s the mindful message of this K-Drama. I have heard from many people how “Start–Up” validated their experience in entrepreneurship and gave them the motivation to keep going when the going got tough. In fact, I’ve been told this K-Drama even inspired folks try their hand in getting a start-up going!
Of course, “Start-Up” was also a crowd favorite due to its beautifully portrayed characters like the halmoni we all grew to love, and of course my ultimate favorite Han Ji-pyeong (HJP), as well as Nam Dosan and Seo Dalmi. The three main characters make up the “Cinderella” story which is heartwarming and good for the soul. Everyone likes rooting for the “underdog”! Each character achieves the passion and purpose in life that our mental health depends on. Think about what gets you out of bed.
2. Move to Heaven
Who knew that stories surrounding trauma cleaners and death could leave you more energetic about life than ever? That’s exactly how “Move to Heaven” gets you. Watching this K-Drama encourages you to reflect on your life and your loved ones; grief surrounding death and takes you down a journey of introspection. Being in mental health, I know many people are fearful of death and that’s understandable. However, after you see “Move to Heaven”, I believe you will have a changed perspective and renewed outlook on your life! You’ll be motivated to live your life to its fullest and appreciate the people you have in your life. This is mindfulness practice at its core, a real brain changer.
Yes, there are such professionals who are trauma cleaners (as we see here), which is a very specialized field of cleaning, decontaminating, and removing materials at a trauma scene. “Move to Heaven” isn’t about the trauma scenes, though. It centers on the gripping stories behind the people who died and the life lessons that we end up learning because of their deaths. It stands out as one of the most truly moving and original K-Dramas I’ve ever seen!
Lastly, I have two K-Dramas tied at #1 that will change your life for the better!
1. My Mister
You’ll want to strive to be the best person you can be after watching this K-Drama. You can see how one small thing that someone did for another, changed the trajectory of their life for the better! I tell my clients that one small, positive change is really all I ask for. That could make a world of difference in bringing you happiness and joy, which is what your mental health needs. Forbes K-Drama writer Joan MacDonald told me, “’My Mister’ starts out grim, but by the end, you feel better about yourself and other people.” Truth.
What a poignant life lesson “My Mister” shows us when one small act of kindness has a ripple effect that brings meaningful transformation in a young girl’s life. Kim Ji-an, wow, she has the worst hand in life and is basically miserable until our ajussi, Park Dong-hoon asks her to join the work team for dinner. The rest is history. Goodness, gentleness and generosity are the virtues laid out for us in “My Mister”. I believe you will feel yourself transforming watching this K-Drama because you realize the good in people. The jeong (Korean word for affection and connection) is so strong, you feel it running through your veins, giving you an emotional transfusion of warmth and love. Watching “My Mister” gives your mental health the boost it needs. This, my friends, is therapy.
1. Reply 1988
Here is an epic journey of community, love, family, friendship, hope, resilience, empathy, compassion, self-growth, et al that everyone should experience for the sake of their emotional, psychological and social well-being. In short, “Reply 1988” makes such an amazing impact by sharing life lessons that you can carry with you forever. I assign this K-Drama as therapy homework for my clients because each episode has examples that are enriching and invaluable toward helping you improve your mental health.
I guarantee that you will gain insight into Asian family dynamics, which in turn can help you improve communication and manage conflict more effectively. Community will be more meaningful than ever to you, which is why you may find yourself re-evaluating the meaning of friendships in your life. I also think you’ll find yourself examining whether certain relationships you have are toxic. Watch how each of the main characters, who grew up together, as well as the mothers of these characters interact and express their emotions with one another. As a therapist, I can vouch that they do a great job of sharing what needs to be shared. Better yet, their friendships remain stronger than ever.
Intergenerational patterns and stressors surrounding academics, finances and family expectations are also laid out in such a way that you see both sides of the story, which we don’t get to experience in real life unless someone tells you directly. This dual perspective can be hard to come by in our Korean culture because of cultural norms. “Reply 1988” also shows you how to deal with depression (this is in the later episodes when it comes to menopause) in a way that I feel is an accurate/ realistic portrayal, and not always the case when it comes to on-screen storytelling.
I’ll stop there for now because I hope you get the picture. “Reply 1988” can change your life. This, coming from a clinician and Asian mental health expert who uses it in her clinical work to help folks improve their mental health.
Jeanie Y. Chang, LMFT, CMHIMP, CCTP is a global speaker, bestselling author, DEI consultant, and AAPI mental health expert. She is the host of the YouTube channel, “Noona’s Noonchi” and podcast by the same name where she does deep dives into Korean dramas from a mental health perspective. Jeanie is founder of Your Change Provider, PLLC® and creator of the trademarked mental health curriculum, Cultural Confidence®.