Faced with the well-documented problems of being a country in the Middle East surrounded by enemies, it is somewhat mystifying to find Israel ranked No. 9 out of 100 countries included in the UN’s annual report on national happiness. And add to this the amount of complaining that goes on in the general population about everything from the cost of living to traffic on the roads to the fifth election in four years.
Indeed, the announcement that there was to be yet another election in Israel was greeted by the man on the street either with indifference or despair. Clearly, the mythical man on the street was not working in the media, which jumped for joy at the news, nor a politician looking to protect a livelihood, nor a hardcore supporter of the current opposition wanting to swap places with the caretaker government.
The man on the street is the ordinary voter who, according to my admittedly limited sampling, believes another election is not going to change anything. And change is what is most in demand. What it seems is meant by this is not a change of who is in charge of what, but a change in the system that leaves the ordinary citizen without a representative who will listen to and do something about his or her concerns.
Therefore, the mystery about the apparently widespread happiness of Israelis deepens when one of the criteria of the Happiness Index is “good governance,” this being one of the major causes of bitter complaints. It is clearly necessary to look elsewhere for an explanation of why Israel should be one of only two non-European countries [the other is New Zealand at No. 10] in the top 10 happiest places on earth.
The importance of national happiness
The whole idea of including a nation’s happiness alongside other criteria was first introduced by President Thomas Jefferson in 1776 in the Declaration of Independence: “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” remain integral to the American ideal ethic to this day.
Centuries later, in 1972, the king of Bhutan coined the phrase, “Gross National Happiness,” later becoming known as Bhutan’s GNH Index. The king considered it more important than any index of economic success.
The Bhutan Index was based on nine measurements including health, education, psychological well-being and living standards. The concept of broadening the criteria for measuring a nation’s success was eventually adopted by the UN in drawing up a new set of economic criteria based on sustainability and well-being, using four main elements: good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation.
Following the UN’s decision to adopt these new criteria, it established the Sustainable Developments Solutions Network [SDSN] to carry out an annual survey of 1,000 people in at least 100 countries to assess the degree of happiness with their lives. The survey would be based mainly on the self-assessment of the interviewees, but would also include Gross Domestic Product per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption. Each person interviewed would be asked to consider a ladder of 10 steps where 10 would be the highest, and to say where on the ladder they saw themselves.
Finland has been top of the leader board for many years, followed by Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Sweden, Norway, then Israel and New Zealand. The USA came in 16th in 2022 and the United Kingdom 17th. Unsurprisingly, the low position of most African countries shows a clear corelation between poverty and unhappiness.
And now we come to why Israel is up there with all those Nordic countries. The answer may be found among the questions put to those interviewed by the SDSN. They were as follows:
- If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends who can help?
- Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the freedom you have to choose what you do with your life?
- Have you donated to a charity in the last month?
It is my impression that most Israelis would be justified in answering “yes” to the first two questions and maybe to all three, thus putting themselves near the top of that ladder. Complaints about governance, the cost of living and whatever else – justified as they may be – are rightly put into perspective by the qualities of life, social support, freedom and generosity, embraced by Bhutan’s Index of Happiness. At the end of the day, we Israelis are quite good at recognizing what really matters to us. And nobody would want to deprive Israelis of the happiness derived from complaining. ■
The writer is an author and former head of the British Desk at the Jerusalem Foundation.