“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is a song written by Eric Idle, a member of the British comedy troupe Monty Python. The song was first featured in the 1979 Python film Life of Brian, and is often sung by crowds at English football games – especially when their underdog teams are being clobbered by big-bucks rivals, like Manchester City.
The song goes: “Some things in life are bad... They can really make you mad... Always look on the bright side of life... Always look on the light side of life.”
I thought of this song while reflecting on the wrenching two years we’ve been through since the first case of corona was diagnosed in Israel on February 21, 2020.
What have we learned from these 676 bleak days?
In Israel, we have had 1.37 million corona cases, 8,242 deaths, five waves, lockdowns, closed schools, work-at-home, demonstrations, anti-vaxers, 5.88 million people fully vaccinated (63.8% of the population) – and 5.4 million COVID deaths worldwide.
Have we learned anything?
Maybe, this: Look on the bright side. There is a firm scientific foundation for the sweeping benefits that optimism bestows on our mental and physical health. And in general, improbably, we Israelis are optimists, despite everything.
According to the Times of Israel, Hebrew University researchers Prof. Jeremy Jacobs and Dr. Yoram Maaravi “followed some 1,200 elderly Jerusalemites who were born in 1920 or 1921 … and analyzed their health, ability to function, economic well-being, social skills, anxiety level, integrity, and optimism over some 30 years.” They published their results in the Journal of Gerontology Series A last February.
Using data collected since the 1990s, the researchers said they found a direct link between a positive outlook and a longer life. “Participants age 85-90 with a high optimism score had a 20% higher rate of survival over those who were less optimistic, and in the 90-plus age bracket that number rose to 25%.”
Their findings showed that optimism has an impact on life expectancy. Other studies have shown that it improves our immune systems, reduces risk factors like high blood pressure and cardiac issues, and maybe even prevents cancer.
But what if you’re a born pessimist? What if you always believe the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train?
“Optimism doesn’t have to be viewed as a trait we’re born with, but one that we can develop,” Maaravi said. “It’s important to think of ways to increase optimism because it’s clearer than ever that it can help people at all stages of their lives.”
At the beginning of the biblical book of Shemot, Moses’ mother, Yocheved, chooses to give birth to Moses despite the risks and dangers and in defiance of Pharaoh’s decree. Perhaps because of her optimism, we are Jews today and not Egyptians.
I was born in 1942 in the darkest days of World War II, when the Nazis were sweeping over Europe. My parents were optimists. Thanks, Mom and Dad.
Some 170,260 babies were born in Israel in 2020, down only slightly from 2021, despite the pandemic – and in 2021, the birth rate dipped just a bit, from 19.8 per thousand to 19.5, among the highest in the OECD. Optimism reigns.
At the end of 2020, the global market research company Ipsos surveyed a thousand people in each of 31 countries, including Israel. The survey questions related to past, present and future perceptions. Israelis emerged as among the most optimistic.
- Some 82% believed 2021 would be a better year than 2020 (it was).
- Only 5% – the lowest percentage of all 31 countries – believed “aliens will visit the Earth” or “humans will become extinct”; and just 9% felt “an asteroid will hit the Earth.”
- Only one Israeli in five felt “robots will look like, think and speak like humans,” lowest of all countries.
- Only 23% of Israelis “feel lonely most of the time.”
- Over half of Israelis said, “I will make a new friend in my neighborhood.”
- Only about a quarter of all Israelis said “major stock markets will crash,” compared with 59% of Russians; the S&P 500 stock index rose 26% in 2021. The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange boomed too (see below).
- Nearly seven Israelis in 10 believed a vaccine for corona “will be widely available” (it was).
This survey is no fluke. Overall, Israel continuously scores near the top in global happiness and optimism indexes.
Six years ago, in September 2015, journalist Ben Caspit reported on a Maariv survey that measured optimism among Israelis in three areas: Personal finances, personal safety, and the country’s defense.
“Despite Israel being the only state in the world whose existence is still not a foregone conclusion, being constantly questioned and having its entire population under the continuous threat of hundreds or thousands of rockets and missiles,” Caspit wrote, “Israelis... come in way ahead [in optimism] of peaceful European states and powers like the United States and Russia.
“This is a well-known Israeli paradox that makes the tiny country, surrounded by enemies and in a constant state of war, a type of paradise tinged with hell. If you ask the average Israeli, he or she will tell you that they are afraid of threats to the country’s security, stressed by economic pressures, on edge because of constant tensions — and that’s why they’re happy. Yes, that’s the way it is.
“Israelis are convinced that the future augurs well, even as the Middle East is crashing down around them with explosive force, terrorist organizations are massing along the fences of the only truly democratic state in the region, Iran is getting an international license to establish a new Persian empire stretching from Tehran to Beirut, and the campaign of delegitimization against Israel continues full steam ahead around the world. There is good reason why Israelis often end a conversation or a meeting with the expression ‘things will be good.’ Indeed, they seem to believe so.”
Caspit cited a poll by Haaretz that revealed that “the more religious you are, the happier you are.” Nearly eight in 10 haredi Orthodox Jews are happy, three in four National-Religious, but only six in 10 secular Israelis. “Being happy is far easier under the auspices of God,” Caspit notes wryly. Incidentally, among non-Jews, the Druze community leads – 86% are happy.
For the most part, I believe that Israelis’ optimism has withstood the frontal two-year assault of corona, wave upon wave. This even applies to democratic governance.
Israelis headed to the polls on March 23 for the fourth time in two years, facing a seemingly broken political system that could not generate a decisive majority or even a government budget. Yet by August, according to the Israel Democracy Institute, nearly half of all Israelis were “optimistic” or “very optimistic” about democracy, exceeding those who were “pessimistic” or “moderately pessimistic.” Now, that’s resilience.
As a senior citizen – very senior – I am encouraged that nearly all polls show seniors are more optimistic than the middle-aged, despite a great many reasons that justify pessimism among the elderly.
Yet, there are dark clouds. I am deeply concerned about the youth of Israel and the world.
The Macro Center for Political Economics has studied attitudes of Israeli youth every six years, since 1998. The latest study, done in 2016, reveals that “the level of optimism regarding the future of the country has shown a sharp drop among teenagers and young Jews.”
Unlike adults, Israeli youth appeared to share the general pessimism of youths abroad. A Pew Research survey of 17 countries showed two-thirds of Americans believe today’s children will be financially worse off as adults than their parents – a view the youths themselves share. Canada, Japan, France, Italy, Spain and Belgium were equally or more pessimistic.
In 2018, pre-pandemic, a Gates Foundation survey found that more than nine in 10 teenagers in Kenya, Mexico, China, Nigeria and India reported feeling positive about their future. But perhaps no longer.
The pandemic may be partly to blame for youth pessimism, along with the climate crisis. The British newspaper The Guardian reported that British young people “have a gloomy and newly pessimistic outlook on the future. This is not consistent with pre-COVID times, which usually finds young people optimistic about their own future.”
What has changed?
The answer may lie in the work of psychologist Albert Bandura, who focused on the key role of self-efficacy – individuals’ belief in their capacity to achieve desired results through their own efforts. Self-efficacy is related to resilience – the ability to bounce back from adversity.
The pandemic has dealt a powerful blow to young people’s belief in their own agency. A tiny virus, not even truly alive, has seemingly shut down their hopes and truncated their futures. Dysfunctional corrupt political systems have thrown more fuel on the fires of youth pessimism.
A recent study of British youth by Christine Huebner and Dena Arya, of the UK’s Nottingham Trent University, is illuminating.
“For the past 20 years,” they wrote, “young people have consistently been found to be optimistic about the future – no matter how harsh the economic climate, how bad the labor market conditions, or how high the [global] uncertainty.”
The reason for the optimism: Agency. In the past, “young people widely believed in their own abilities to navigate whatever life throws at them... and appreciated uncertainty as a window of opportunity... but COVID-19 seems to have dealt a sudden blow to young people’s belief in their own agency. Surveys attest that young people have a newly pessimistic outlook on the future... they are anxious and increasingly concerned about their mental health.”
For young Israelis, is there a bright side? I believe there is. First, army service. Our young people emerge from IDF service as more confident, efficacious, strong adults, after being tested and challenged. I know – it happened to me, belatedly, at age 25.
Second, hi-tech. For our young people who study science and engineering, a bright start-up future beckons; they read about start-up successes daily, that fly in the face of the pandemic.
It is regrettable that far too narrow a slice of Israeli youth can access hi-tech. Far more must be done, and is being done, to widen the circle of young Israelis who study math, science and engineering, especially in Israel’s periphery.
The year 2021 has been a banner year for Israel’s hi-tech industry. Tel Aviv’s Stock Exchange boomed, with a record 97 new companies listing, many from hi-tech, raising 26 billion shekels ($8.1 billion).
Dan Perry reports in The Jerusalem Post that over $100 billion flowed into Israel this year through start-ups, driving the dollar-shekel rate down to NIS 3.17, the strongest dollar-shekel rate since August 1, 1996.
Thirty-three Israeli firms joined the exclusive ‘unicorn’ club (start-ups valued at $1 billion or more) in 2021. Israeli firms raised $25 billion from venture capital firms, equal to that in India, 100 times more populous. Startling innovations emerged in cybersecurity, biotech, financial technology, food technology, medical devices, and defense.
For bleak Israeli youths who seek the bright side, hi-tech beckons like a shining city on the hill. It is a beacon of light for the young that many other countries’ youth lack.
Benjamin Franklin once said wisely, “While we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens inside us.”
For the past two years, life has thrown thick mud at our windows and sent a dump truck full of grief and grieving to our doorsteps.
We can’t erase what the world has thrown at us – and is still throwing. But we can try to control how we process it in our minds. Perhaps that is part of the bright side. ■
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion, and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com