We see a country that is healthy, happy, fairly optimistic, resilient and doing quite well, thank you.

Soldiers greet newly arrived immigrants from North America at Ben-Gurion International Airport (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
Soldiers greet newly arrived immigrants from North America at Ben-Gurion International Airport
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
A PSYCHOLOGICAL technique based on “mindfulness” − focusing solely on the emotions and events of the present − asks subjects to stand in front of a full-length mirror, sometimes unclothed, and look closely at themselves. It is much more uncomfortable than it seems.
At the beginning of the New Year, 5776, it is a good time for each of us to look into the mirror and examine ourselves and our deeds. But suppose Israel, the nation, were to do this exercise and stand itself before a mirror. What would it see in comparison with other countries? Here are some results, based in part on a useful “mirror” known as the European Social Survey ‒ a poll that compares life satisfaction in 29 countries, mostly European, but including Israel, Russia and Ukraine. This biennial survey began in 2001 and comprises nearly 300,000 interviews.
The results, all in all, are rather favorable.
We Israelis are fiercely self-critical. But perhaps it is time to recognize how attractive life is in Israel, despite everything.
HAPPINESS: Israelis are happier than Americans. According to the latest UN World Happiness Report, Israelis rated their satisfaction with their lives as 11th in the world, above the United States, at 15th.
Denmark is No. 1. Life there is stable, relaxed, leisurely. In Israel, in contrast, life is dynamic, eventful, challenging. I prefer Israel.
According to the UN, Israel’s happiness score actually rose between 2005-7 and 2012-14, despite the global financial crisis of 2008-12 and two bitter wars in Gaza.
Contrast this with life satisfaction among Israel’s neighbors: Palestinians rank 108th, Egypt 135th, Jordan 85th and Lebanon 103rd. It is entirely possible that hatred of Israel has more to do with this huge gap in life satisfaction than with politics. Lebanon, for instance, has recently seen massive demonstrations over something as banal as non-collection of garbage.
Israel’s neighbors are keenly aware of how good life is in Israel. And the happiness gap is not driven solely by economics. Social factors play a much larger role.
RESILIENCE: Why are Israelis happy when they face wars, rockets, boycotts, unstable government, impossibly expensive housing and cost of living, and Iranian nukes? One answer is resilience.
Tel Aviv University Prof. Zahava Solomon, quoted by the online newspaper Ynet, cites a study comparing Israelis’ reaction to the second intifada, a wave of terror attacks during 2000-2005 that killed 1,137 people, to the American reaction to the 9/11 attacks. The amount of post-traumatic stress disorder was similar in both countries.
But after a month or two, Israelis recovered much faster. Reuven Gal, formerly chief IDF behavioral scientist, has shown this resilience recently in his research.
DEMOCRACY: How important is it to live in a country governed democratically? According to Israelis, very important, despite all the difficulties with our political system. According to the European Social Survey (ESS), Israelis rate the importance of democracy as above 9 on a scale of 1 to 10 − well above France and slightly above Germany. (Russia and Ukraine score lowest.) What aspect of democracy do Israelis rate highest? Social democracy (protection from poverty and income inequality) is tops, well above liberal democracy (equality before the law, media freedom, minority rights, fair elections). This explains, perhaps, the social protest movement that exploded several years ago.
GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION: Israelis are among the biggest fans of government involvement in the well-being of citizens, scoring higher than all but three other countries (one of them is Greece) in support of strong government responsibility.
When asked to rate government performance, Israelis rated their health services highly (higher than all but Belgium, Switzerland and Finland), but rated welfare services for pensioners and jobs for young people much lower.
CORRUPTION: With a growing number of scandals involving Israeli politicians and civil servants, corruption has become a matter of concern. According to Transparency International, Israel ranks 37th in the world in the “perception of [lack of] corruption” (how widespread people believe corruption is), well below the US, which ranks 17th. The world’s least corrupt country is Denmark, followed closely by New Zealand.
In 2003, Israel ranked 21st in the world in lack of corruption. Apparently, the nation has been on a dangerous slippery slope ever since.
POLICE: There has been widespread controversy over Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan’s choice of Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch as the new chief of the Israel Police.
According to the ESS survey, Israelis have a dim view of their police. More than half say police make “fair and impartial decisions” not at all, or not very often, second only to Russia. Based on this result, perhaps appointing an outsider to revamp the police is a wise move.
JUSTICE: The same skepticism extends to the courts. A small percentage of Israelis ‒ under 40 percent ‒ think all persons have the same chance of being found guilty by the courts, despite their ethnicity or race.
This low score for the courts is second only to that of Portugal.
START-UPS: Entrepreneurship continues to bubble. A report by Dun & Bradstreet in July shows that there are 6,900 companies in Israel’s high-tech sector of which nearly 80 percent are start-ups. Of those, about eight in 10 managed to raise external funding. These companies are very small; only 362 of them employ more than 100 people. High-tech employment, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, stands at 278,000, or about one in every 12 persons employed.
According to the report, the fraction of start-up entrepreneurs who have launched at least two companies was one in four, up from only one in six in 2010. The growing experience of entrepreneurs should improve their success rate. Dun & Bradstreet warns that a shortage of local capital for start-ups is causing many of them to migrate abroad, especially to the US. They recommend that ways should be found to encourage institutional investors (e.g. pension funds, provident funds) to invest in high-tech. They also recommend creating more start-up “ecosystems”, like the cyber center now being built in Beersheba.
RICH AND POOR: Are the rich happier than the poor? The ESS survey suggests that differences in life satisfaction between the lowest 20 percent of income earners and the highest 20 percent are fairly small in Israel, even though it is known that income equality in Israel is among the highest of all OECD nations. Apparently, the rich have their own problems, unrelated to money. Rich-poor differences in happiness are smaller in Israel than, for instance, in Germany, Belgium, Spain and Italy.
OECD BETTER LIFE INDEX: According to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), a group of 34 wealthy countries, life in Israel is good.
More than two-thirds of Israelis aged 15 to 64 have a paid job, despite the claim that many of the ultra-Orthodox do not work, above the OECD average of 65 percent.
Israelis work very hard; one Israeli in six, and one man in every four, works “very long hours.” Israelis love education. For those aged 25-64, 85 percent completed high school, well above the OECD average of 75 percent. But the quality of education needs improvement. The average Israeli high school student scored 474 in literacy, math and science on a standard OECD test, below the OECD average of 497. Girls did far better than boys, scoring 11 points higher.
Israelis are healthy and live long lives.
Life expectancy at birth is 82 years, two full years higher than the OECD average. Women live to 84, compared with 80 for men.
Israeli society is reasonably cohesive.
Some 87 percent of people say they know someone they could rely on in time of need, about the OECD average.
And, overall, Israelis give their satisfaction with their lives an average score of 7.4 on a scale of one to 10, well above the OECD average of 6.6.
ECONOMICS: T here a re m ajor s torm clouds related to the economy. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon called an urgent meeting after second-quarter data showed the Gross Domestic Product rose by a miserable 0.3 percent. Finance Ministry economists also blame the Knesset elections that froze the government budget and brought lower public spending as a result.
A fierce stock market correction that saw stock prices plummet in China and spread to the West, including Tel Aviv, did not help either. When global markets boom, Israel’s economy, driven by high-tech exports, does well. When world markets slump, the impact on the economy is strong and immediate.
The government might do well to implement infrastructure projects, such as rail lines, gas pipelines, solar energy and housing, to make up for slack demand, should the weak economy continue. Despite plentiful sunshine and ubiquitous solar water heaters, Israel gets less than 5 percent of its energy from renewable sources.
Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity explained that space and time can be understood only relative to one another. There is also a “happiness” theory of relativity.
Compared to the chaos around Israel, and in the world, life in Israel is relatively good. Why, then, does so much of the world perceive Israel to be a country rife with wars, terrorism and disaster? Why don’t we have 10 million tourists a year, rather than three million? We find the answer in psychology and the media. Take, for instance, road fatalities.
The media in Israel report daily on horrendous traffic deaths. The perception is that of a “massacre on the roads” ‒ a phrase widely used. Yet road deaths per 100,000 persons in Israel are less than a third of those in the US, a country considered to have safe drivers and good roads.
People’s perceptions relate to “reference points,” concrete examples, usually not representative, which doom-and-gloom media amplify. It is very hard to find positive reports on the daily broadcast news, in any country.
Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, in his play Candide, believed that “all is for the best, in this the best of all possible worlds.”
This is unrealistic. But, as we greet 5776 and gaze into the mirror, we see a country that is healthy, happy, fairly optimistic, resilient and doing quite well, thank you, under the circumstances. For Israel, the present is good and the future is bright. ■ The writer is senior research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at