Ethics @ Work: Israel, the ever-hopeful nation

'Things will be fine' reflects national spirit.

How are we doing as a society? We're always looking for a shortcut to answer this question, but life is complex. Most often we evaluate our performance by per capita GDP - that is, economic production. When this increases, we say there is growth. Another short-cut measure, one I cite often in this column, is a more subjective but still one-dimensional measure - reported life satisfaction. The European Union decided years ago that well-being is a complex, multidimensional concept and began to record a variety of measures of economic and social well-being. While Israel does not conform to EU data-reporting conventions, many similar measures can be inferred from the annual Social Survey, and a recent Central Bureau of Statistics report assembles a fascinating comparison of Israel and Europe. It turns out that the popular Israeli expression "Yihiyeh tov" - "It will be OK" - accurately captures our national character as it emerges from this report. Israelis consistently have the lowest assessment of their present state and the highest assessment of their prospects for the future of all European countries. Here are a few examples: • One question asked respondents if they are satisfied with their income from work. Average dissatisfaction for the entire EU was about 30 percent; the highest was France with 48%. But Israel's rate was higher yet: 49% expressed dissatisfaction with their income. • Respondents were also asked if they felt well. In Europe, about 16% answered in the negative; the highest was Portugal, with 21%. Again Israel led the way with 23% saying they did not feel well. • How do you like your dwelling? About 91% of Europeans are happy with theirs; even Greece, the lowest-ranking country, has a rate of 89%. But Israelis are scraping the bottom at 81%. • And getting to my favorite measure, "life satisfaction," Israel's is one of the lowest in the survey; only two countries in the EU are lower. Now let's look at the future: • About 25% of Europeans think their economic situation will improve; Ireland and the UK are far more optimistic, at about 36%. But Israel is off the charts at 40%. • Forget about money; the best things in life are free. How many people think that their life will improve? In Europe it's about 35%, with the UK again the most optimistic at 48%. But Israel is again scraping the sky at 51%. Some of the difference may be due to demographics. Israel, with its high birth rate, has a very young population compared to Europe. Younger people tend to be more optimistic, and perhaps more restless, than their elders. However, this tendency is tempered, and possibly removed, by the fact that the European survey includes those aged 15 and over, whereas in Israel only those over 20 were interviewed. There are also slight differences in the wording of the questions, which can make responses difficult to compare. However, the overall picture is so internally consistent that I think drawing conclusions is justified. For years I have nurtured a picture of Israelis as a people who are often grumbling, but always hopeful. Now there is scientific evidence for my impression. Yihiyeh tov. Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem Institute of Technology.