Keeping the flame of optimism burning

Science helps explain Israelis’ anomalous optimism; Hanukkah shows how to preserve it

Israeli youth celebrate on Jerusalem day 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli youth celebrate on Jerusalem day 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a column last year titled “Israelis’ anomalous optimism,” I discussed the surprising fact that Israelis consistently score high on surveys of wellbeing despite many problems that would seem inimical to wellbeing. According to the Gallup polling company, for instance, peace and stability usually correlate strongly with feelings of wellbeing, but Israel ranks high in wellbeing despite lack of peace and an unstable neighborhood. Similarly, high scores on Gallup’s Negative Experience Index, which measures whether respondents experienced physical pain, worry, sadness, stress or anger over the past day, often correlate with lower wellbeing, yet Israel ranks high in wellbeing despite also ranking high in negative experiences.
At the time, I posited that this anomaly stems from Israelis’ commitment to something bigger than themselves, for which “they are willing to pay in the coin of pain, worry, sadness, stress, anger and lack of peace” – the grand project of building, developing and improving the first sovereign Jewish state in 2,000 years. It now turns out that there’s scientific evidence for this thesis.
In an article in The Atlantic in August, which I discovered last week thanks to my colleague Jonathan Rosenblum, author Emily Esfahani Smith describes a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that examined whether and how wellbeing is expressed at the genetic level. First, researchers Barbara Fredrickson and Steve Cole interviewed participants to assess their levels of happiness and meaning, defined respectively as “feeling good” and “an orientation to something bigger than the self.” Happiness was measured by questions like “How often did you feel happy,” “How often did you feel interested in life” and “How often did you feel satisfied,” and meaning by questions like “How often did you feel that your life has a sense of direction or meaning to it,” “How often did you feel that you had something to contribute to society” and “How often did you feel that you belonged to a community/social group.”
Next, they examined the participants’ genes. Cole had previously found that loneliness, grief and various other types of adversity produce increased activity in proinflammatory genes (which prepare the body to fight bacterial infections, but can lead to serious illness if activated chronically) and decreased activity in genes involved in fighting viruses. The researchers therefore expected to find the opposite pattern in people who scored high in either happiness or meaning.
Yet that turned out to be true only for people who scored high in meaning. People with high happiness but low meaning, in contrast, had gene expression patterns identical to those of people suffering chronic adversity. In other words, at the genetic level, mere hedonistic pleasure is indistinguishable from adversity. But “an orientation to something bigger than the self” corresponds directly with wellbeing.
This obviously doesn’t mean more mundane issues are irrelevant. “Struggling to make ends meet,” for instance, is one of the problems that can trigger a negative gene expression pattern. Hence bread-and-butter issues like the increasing unaffordability of housing will inevitably take a toll on Israeli wellbeing if left unaddressed.
But such mundane issues can also affect Israelis’ sense of meaning, because a Jewish state isn’t just a state where Jews happen to live; it’s a state where Jewish ideals of what constitutes a good society can be given tangible form. People can and do disagree about what this means in practice. But when too many Israelis feel these ideals have been betrayed – by governmental corruption, yawning gaps between rich and poor, inadequate schools and more – that can undermine their belief in the value and/or viability of the statehood enterprise.
Ironically, Israel’s manifold successes to date are precisely what make this problem especially acute today. As Jerusalem city councilwoman Rachel Azaria perceptively noted in October, previous generations built the state and ensured its military and economic viability; that freed the current generation to focus on the necessary next step: creating “a societal structure” appropriate to a Jewish state.
This also helps explain why Gallup’s latest wellbeing poll showed a sharp 11-point drop in the proportion of Israelis who define themselves as “thriving,” from 65% in 2011 to 54% in 2012. The 2012 figure still tops more than half the countries of Western Europe. But the 2011 figure was exceptionally high because the poll was taken shortly after that summer’s social protests, which Israelis optimistically believed would produce swift progress in addressing long-neglected societal ills. Given these problems’ complexity, that expectation was never realistic. Hence by 2012, the inevitable backlash of despondency had set in: Israelis were much less confident than they had been a year earlier of their ability to boost the statehood project in which they’ve invested so heavily to the necessary next level – a country that not only provides physical security and a refuge for Jews worldwide, but also reflects Jewish values.
Hanukkah, which we celebrate this week, is the perfect moment to rededicate ourselves to this goal in a more sober, clear-eyed fashion. South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein once offered a lovely explanation for why Jewish tradition commemorates not the holiday’s seemingly greater miracle – the Maccabees’ defeat of the mighty Greek empire and restoration of Jewish sovereignty – but a comparatively minor one: A quantity of oil thought sufficient for only one day enabled the newly rekindled Temple menorah to burn for eight. Our emphasis, Goldstein explained, must always be not on what we’re against, but on what we’re for – not merely on defeating our enemies, necessary though that obviously is, but on using this victory “to light the flames of Torah values,” as symbolized by the menorah.
The modern Jewish state unfortunately still has no lack of enemies. But it has won enough security that we can and must begin focusing on the next step – turning our state into a true “light unto the nations” by imbuing it with Jewish values and content, with justice and charity and righteousness, in every walk of life. That won’t happen overnight; it’s a job that will take generations. But if we can make even modest progress, Israel will continue scoring anomalously high on global wellbeing indexes for many years to come.