WOMAN takes a selfie in a buttercup field near Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, outside the Gaza Strip, last April.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Welcome to Israel: home of car rammings, stabbings, rockets and rock attacks. High poverty rates and stark income disparity.
Political corruption. Drought. Fires. Jewish-Arab tensions; intra-religious tensions; religious-secular tensions; Ashkenazi-Sephardi tensions.
Yet, against all odds, surveys of Israelis consistently find that we are, overall, a happy bunch. To what can we attribute this apparently indigenous sense of contentment? Clearly, it does not correlate with the size of our apartments or bank accounts. Nor, according to these same studies, does it reflect a commensurate degree of satisfaction with the state’s performance.
The newly released 2016 Israel Democracy Index highlights what you might call the “happiness paradox.”
Three quarters of Israelis surveyed – 78% of Jews and over 60% of Arabs – categorized their personal situation as “very good” or “good.” At the same time, when asked to categorize the country’s situation, only 36.5% of those surveyed would use the same favorable terms. The largest segment, 40%, rated the national status quo as “so-so,” while 23% called the state of affairs “very bad” or “bad.” The survey also found depressingly low levels of public trust in political institutions, with the exception of the IDF.
Despite their misgivings about the political system, the vast majority of Israelis (about 70% of Jews and more than half of Arabs) are optimistic about the country’s future. And most respondents (86% of Jews and 55% of Arabs) feel proud to be Israeli. These would be remarkable numbers even for a country not beleaguered and beset by conflict.
If you’re skeptical of the homegrown research, there is plenty of comparative international data to support the conclusion that Israel – with all its troubles and uncertainties, head lice and overpriced gasoline – is a pretty happy place.
For example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) publishes an annual Better Life Index, ranking countries based on citizens’ personal satisfaction levels. This year Israel once again made the top five of the so-called happiest countries, bested only by Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland and Finland.
(Could majestic mountain scenery have something to do with it?) The US, incidentally, isn’t even in the top 10.
The OECD also ranks countries based on 22 variables, including income, education, health and housing.
Israel’s results are a mixed bag, stronger than average in some areas including health and longevity, unemployment and high school graduation rates, weaker than average in others, such as per capita income, standardized test scores and wage equality.
The UN, for its part, conducts similar research on the happiness of member states’ citizens. If we can put any stock in pronouncements from that troubled institution, its 2016 World Happiness Report placed Israel at an impressive eleventh place. (This report is probably the only context in which Israel comes out smelling rosy to the folks at Turtle Bay.) As in the OECD survey, the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland took the top spots on this list, too, followed by Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia. It is also worth noting that Israel’s measure of “happiness inequality” – the range of well-being reported by survey respondents – has decreased since it was least measured in 2012. In other words, there is now a better distribution of happiness among the Israeli population.
So what’s behind this remarkable paradox which is reflected in survey after survey? Israel may not have the magnanimous social welfare program of Denmark or the homogeneous quietude of New Zealand. But what we have, in abundance, is meaning. This country is more than just a place to live. It is, for many of us, the place to live. Israelis are bound to each other, and the land itself, in ways that few nations could understand. We share a history so ancient, yet so alive in the present. We are well-acquainted with the extraordinary. And we have faith – for who could stay sane here without it? These unmeasurables are, I believe, what puts Israel at the top of the happiness charts, and what will hopefully continue to carry us, with spirits high, through whatever challenges lie ahead.
The author is a busy mom, freelance writer and editor and previously worked as a court attorney and magazine editor.
She moved to Jerusalem from New York with her family in 2015.