My Word: If you’re happy and you know it...

“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”

By
September 12, 2013 21:47
ISRAELIS SHOP at a Jerusalem supermarket. Overall, we’re happy with our lot.

ISRAELIS SHOP at a Jerusalem supermarket. 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

It’s the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War; 20 years since the Oslo Accords were signed (and blew up in our faces); 12 years since 9/11; and possibly the countdown to the next regional conflagration; but all I can think of is that annoying kids’ song: “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”

I blame the UN for almost all of the above, including the ditty that has me clapping my hands and stamping my feet with a mixture of joy and frustration. It’s only slightly better than the “Don’t worry, be happy” song that came to mind 12 months ago.

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For it is that time of year again. The time when the UN issues data to show that actually the world is a happier place, despite the very obvious failings of the mega-organization to do its job and prevent wars and tragedies.

On the bright side, this is about the most favorable report on Israel originating in the UN that you’re likely to find. Although for peace of mind and peace and quiet you’re better off living in the Scandinavian countries that top the chart, Israel’s rating has risen from the 14th slot last year to a highly respectable 11th spot on this year’s list – one place beneath Australia and two places above New Zealand, with Costa Rica surprisingly sandwiched between the Sabras and the Kiwis.

The World Happiness Report was co-edited by John Helliwell, professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia; Richard Layard, from the London School of Economics; and Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

The study was sponsored by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and much of the data comes from the Gallup World Poll on six key variables that are possible indicators of people’s evaluation of their lives and levels of satisfaction: per capita GDP, life expectancy, social support, perceptions of corruption, prevalence of generosity, and freedom to make life choices.

As the authors point out: “The word ‘happiness’ is not used lightly. Happiness is an aspiration of every human being.”

The problem, as they note, lies in the different meanings of the word “happiness,” as an emotion (are you happy?) and as an evaluation (are you happy with your life as a whole?).

I once heard a psychologist explain that while Olympic gold medalists are the happiest about their success, it is the bronze medalists – not the silver – who have the second- highest feeling of satisfaction and achievement. Apparently that’s because it’s human nature for us to compare our situation.

Hence, those awarded silver medals feel they have lost, compared to the golden champions, but those given a bronze medal are happy to have any medallion around their necks compared to the vast majority of athletes who have to go home trying to convince themselves that it’s participating that counts.

Not for the first time, I think Australia’s situation is more enviable than our own. A position in the top 10 is definitely worth aiming for. But the 11th slot is not bad at all, particularly given that our nearest neighbors are not New Zealanders separated by a vast amount of ocean but Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians – most of whom would be happy to see us floundering in the Mediterranean, if they weren’t so busy killing each other at the moment.

Out of the 156 countries included in the survey Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden took the top five spots, with Canada dropping to sixth place (and probably politely apologizing for it).

The US came in 17th and the UK 22nd.

Egypt (130) and Greece (70) had the biggest overall drops in recent years, the former due to the political turmoil which has it teetering on the edge of civil war and the latter because of the financial crisis that at one point threatened to bring down the entire European economy. Other neighbors of ours didn’t have much to sing and dance about either: Syria was 148th; Iran, 115th; and the Palestinian territories, 113th.

Our neighbors’ grass is not greener – except in the increasing number of places where it is covered by Islamist green flags.

University of Haifa professor and celebrity psychiatrist Yoram Yovell set out some of the reasons for our collective good mood in his TV series How to be Happy in Six Lessons, and they do not include gloating at the misfortunes of others.

Asked by Yediot Aharonot’s Moshe Ronen this week: “Why are we so happy?” Yovell answered: “Two reasons: Because there’s a feeling of meaning to our lives here and because we are together. We have a strong feeling of family and community.”

I can identify on both counts.

That is why the overwhelmingly depressing recollections from the Yom Kippur War that appeared in all the country’s media for the 40th anniversary (you could almost forget that ultimately we won, otherwise we wouldn’t still be here) actually showed us at our strongest. In wars and terror campaigns (like those that surrounded the Oslo peace process) there is a definite feeling of togetherness.

It’s part of what our enemies just don’t get. What doesn’t kill us makes us collectively stronger.

Another sign of unity is the special atmosphere that descends on the country around religious holidays in general and Yom Kippur in particular.

Different Jewish communities might mark it in different ways, but nearly all Israelis mark it somehow, whether it’s through prayer, fasting and not wearing leather shoes, or staying at home while the children race through the empty streets on bicycles.

One survey this week showed that 73 percent of the Jewish population intended to fast on Yom Kippur. Just the fact that there is almost no traffic – not because of a law (which would probably have the opposite effect), but through convention – is one of those only-in-Israel experiences. Only the Jewish state closes down for Yom Kippur.

Ahead of the holiday a commentator noted that Jerusalem was full of “Slihot tours” – while the religious were in synagogues saying the penitential prayers, the non-religious were soaking up the atmosphere with trips around the Orthodox neighborhoods and at the Western Wall area.

Even the music playing on the radio ahead of the holiday is uniquely “us” – spiritual songs and songs from the Yom Kippur War are classics, part of the culture here.

In Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) it is written: “Eizehu ashir? Hasame’ah b’helko”: “Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has.”

Millennia ago the sages realized that obsessing about keeping up with the Cohens is bad for our health and well-being. This does not, of course, mean we can’t aspire to grow spiritually richer and more satisfied. I’d be very happy for our situation as a country to improve in the Jewish year just started (watch out Australia, we want a place in the top 10).

Incidentally, a poll taken for The Jerusalem Post’s Hebrew-language sister publication Sof Hashavua ahead of the Jewish New Year found that 74% of Israelis considered themselves happy with life and 71% were optimistic that their personal situation would improve in 5774.

We have a lot to be thankful for already.

We have survived war, we’ve survived the peace process, and we’re still here – together.

We deserve to give ourselves a round of applause, not just clap our hands with joy.

May this year be one of true peace, prosperity and happiness to all.

The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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