My Word: Happy to be here

The World Happiness Report is issued by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), and it makes me happy that sometimes even a UN-affiliated body has something nice to say.

 PEOPLE IN downtown Jerusalem walk past flags on sale for Independence Day this week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PEOPLE IN downtown Jerusalem walk past flags on sale for Independence Day this week.

The children’s song “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands” came to mind as I read the World Happiness Report 2022. And I apologize if the ditty is now stuck in your head too. There’s a certain irony to writing this week about Israel’s position in the WHR, which is at an all-time high of ninth out of the 150 countries included in the annual index. It’s almost like the Zen Buddhist riddle contemplating the sound of one hand clapping. 

The report came out in March, but a bit of national pride around Independence Day this week is only fitting. On the other hand – the one making the noise that was not warm applause – I didn’t get around to reading it earlier partly because of the current events, including the wave of deadly Palestinian terror attacks.

If you want to change the tune in your head, you could try “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” although I’m not sure that that’s much better. 

The World Happiness Report is issued by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), and it makes me happy that sometimes even a UN-affiliated body has something nice to say about Israel. 

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the WHR was partly inspired by Bhutan. The tiny Himalayan kingdom for years has been trying to persuade the world of the importance of measuring GNH, Gross National Happiness, rather than the GNP, Gross National Product (although Bhutan’s non-Buddhist minorities find joy and freedom elusive.) 

The WHR, which is available in full online, is based on people’s own assessment of their happiness, as well as economic and social data using variables such as GDP, healthy life expectancy, social support, generosity, freedom to make life choices and perceived absence of corruption.

 Israeli flag (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Israeli flag (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Israel’s ranking this year jumped three spots to place it finally in the Top Ten. Finland was ranked the world’s happiest country for the fifth year running, ahead of Denmark which continues to occupy second place, Iceland in third place, Switzerland in fourth, followed by the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Israel, in the ninth spot, is sandwiched under Sweden and Norway but above New Zealand and Austria.

Israel’s position is enviable even for Germany, Canada, the US and UK (14th, 15th, 16th and 17th respectively). Canada owes its citizens an apology, however, having dropped dramatically from the fifth spot in the first report, 10 years ago.

Afghanistan remained at the bottom of the scale with Lebanon just above it. The neighbors’ grass is definitely not greener when it comes to this particular part of the global village. Apart from Lebanon with its crumbling economy teetering on the edge of another civil war, the Palestinian Authority is in the 122nd place, Egypt also got a low rating at 129, and Jordan a miserable 134th.

The report was completed before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the misery it created there. As it was, Russia ranked in 80th place and Ukraine was in 98th, not particularly happy to begin with. The impact of Russia’s brutal war will probably be reflected in many countries in next year’s findings.

The report’s six authors take happiness seriously. In their introduction, they note: “The World Happiness Report 2022 reveals a bright light in dark times. The pandemic brought not only pain and suffering but also an increase in social support and benevolence. As we battle the ills of disease and war, it is essential to remember the universal desire for happiness and the capacity of individuals to rally to each other’s support in times of great need.”

“We found during 2021 remarkable worldwide growth in all three acts of kindness monitored in the Gallup World Poll. Helping strangers, volunteering, and donations in 2021 were strongly up in every part of the world, reaching levels almost 25% above their pre-pandemic prevalence,” said co-author John Helliwell, professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia. 

“This surge of benevolence, which was especially great for the helping of strangers, provides powerful evidence that people respond to help others in need, creating in the process more happiness for the beneficiaries, good examples for others to follow, and better lives for themselves.”

The latest report used new computational methods measuring happiness content through social media data, examining “emotional responses to current and social events in keywords and written language.”

Among other things, the very detailed report studied different attitudes in different age groups, showing, for example, that among the young life satisfaction has fallen while it has risen for the over-60s. 

Israel’s high placing stems in large part from longevity and social togetherness. Perfect strangers love to help in emergencies. Of course, we have no shortage of those. Perhaps our longevity is due to the fact that it’s hard to die of boredom here. Still, it is comforting to know that people come together not only in wars (like last May’s rockets from Gaza) and terror attacks, or disasters like the tragedy at last year’s Lag Ba’Omer celebrations when 45 people were killed in a crush on Mount Meron, but also “routine emergencies.” 

The boost in Israel’s ranking was also helped by its response to the COVID crisis with a rapid rollout of vaccinations using its excellent health funds system.

Jeffrey Sachs, President of SDSN and Director of the Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Development, another co-author of the report, said: “The lesson of the World Happiness Report over the years is that social support, generosity to one another, and honesty in government are crucial for well-being. World leaders should take heed. Politics should be directed as the great sages long ago insisted: to the well-being of the people, not the power of the rulers.” 

I was reminded of the principle in Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers): “Eizehu ashir? Hasameah b’helko”: “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.”

As someone whose mood is definitely affected by the weather, I’ve always thought that the fact that Israel is blessed with Mediterranean blue skies and sunshine for so much of the year contributes significantly to my happiness. (And I was happy to blame last week’s sandstorm on Jordan.) But that’s obviously not enough, otherwise how can you account for Finland and other northern European countries ranking so high while neighboring Lebanon is at almost rock-bottom? 

Ahead of Independence Day this week, figures were released pertaining to Israel’s population which now stands at some 9,506,000: 73.9% Jews, 21.1% Arab and 5% in a category covering others. That means a lot more people speak Hebrew as their mother tongue than speak Finnish or Danish, for example, let alone Icelandic which is spoken by about 314,000 people. There’s something very satisfying in that, too.

The population was boosted by the arrival of some 38,000 new immigrants and the births of approximately 191,000 babies born during the year, also joyous figures. 

Statistically, it’s difficult to figure out why Israelis spend so much time complaining – unless it’s because we enjoy it. And, of course, there is a lot to be said for living in a country where we’re free to argue about everything.

Perhaps it would be better to sing either that annual Independence Day hit “Rak B’yisrael,” “Only in Israel,” or the perennial Naomi Shemer favorite “Anashim tovim” with its chorus: 

“Good people along the road,Very good people.Good people know the way,And with them we can march ahead.”

This year’s report shows yet again that even though the milk occasionally sours in the heat and the honey makes a sticky mess, Israel is still a paradise, comparatively speaking. And I think I’ll end on that happy note.