Things Israel can learn from UAE: Appoint a happiness minister

Israel has what to learn from the UAE, particularly the desirability of integrating people’s happiness into government policy decisions.

A United Arab Emirates (UAE) flag waves alongside an Israeli flag (photo credit: REUTERS/CHRISTOPHER PIKE)
A United Arab Emirates (UAE) flag waves alongside an Israeli flag
(photo credit: REUTERS/CHRISTOPHER PIKE)
Given that the United Arab Emirates has a minister of state for happiness and well-being, Abu Dhabi’s sudden decision in August to normalize ties with Israel probably should not have come as that much of a surprise.
Why not? Because a minister for happiness bespeaks of a government that is concerned for the happiness, well-being and quality of life of its citizens. And love Israel or hate it, there is no denying that the country has what to offer others in terms of quality of life and well-being.
Likewise, according to Anat Fanti, a PhD candidate at Bar-Ilan University’s graduate program in science, technology and society, who is writing her thesis on how happiness has become a policy goal, Israel has what to learn from the UAE, particularly the desirability of integrating people’s happiness into government policy decisions.
Anat Fanti, a PhD candidate at Bar-Ilan University’s graduate program in science, technology and society (Credit: Daniela Contini)Anat Fanti, a PhD candidate at Bar-Ilan University’s graduate program in science, technology and society (Credit: Daniela Contini)
And making happiness a factor in government decisions is one of the tasks of the UAE’s happiness minister, Ohood bint Khalfan Al Roumi. The idea is that if the government is going to build homes, build them in places that will make people happy; if it is going to promote job development, look toward those jobs that bring satisfaction. Let people’s happiness be a key element in making government choices.
Trying to measure happiness and providing those metrics as tools to decision-makers is gaining traction in the scientific community. One good example of this is the annual World Happiness Survey, which ranks 156 countries according to their happiness.
The UK was ranked 19th in the 2017 survey, and in January 2018, it appointed a “Minister for Loneliness” (as opposed to the UAE’s “Minister for Happiness”) to try and ease what was increasingly seen as a public health scourge in Britain. In 2020, the UK jumped to 13th in the happiness rankings, one spot ahead of Israel.
Israel surprised many, including Fanti, when it ranked 11th in the 2018 survey. It has dropped to 14th in the latest 2020 survey, but 14 out of 156 is still very respectful. It is also counterintuitive to those looking in from the outside who see the country only through the prism of conflict and security challenges.
The UAE is the highest-ranking Arab country on the list, following Israel by some seven spots in 21st place.
If the survey is taken this year as well, it is likely that COVID-19 will have taken a bite out of the sense of satisfaction many in Israel feel with their lives. But it will probably do the same throughout the world, so the country’s overall ranking will likely remain about the same.
“I was in shock when I first saw this; I thought the measure must be skewed,” Fanti said of Israel’s high ranking. “But if you understand what is measured, and how they measure it and what is folded into it, then you can understand why we are at such a high level.”
The metrics are a mix of the objective and the subjective. The objective includes measurements like GDP and life expectancy; the subjective measures include life satisfaction and perception of corruption in one’s country.
And yes, Fanti said, whether or not you feel that the country is corrupt – and that decisions are not being made for the benefit of the public – is “cardinal” to personal happiness.
In the World Happiness Surveys, Israel consistently scores high on the life satisfaction question, with Fanti explaining that this has to do with a sense of purpose and meaning that many people have living here, coupled with being close to loved ones and friends.
“The satisfaction of life question is an evaluative one: How do you evaluate your life? But they also ask questions about emotions,” she said. “The emotion question is how you experience your life. They can ask a question like, ‘Last week, did you experience sadness, anger or other negative emotions. And then they ask if you experienced joy, hope and a variety of positive emotions. They then give you a ratio.”
Not surprisingly, Fanti said, the negative emotions in Israel are usually higher than the positive ones. But this is more than balanced out by a feeling of purpose and meaning in life.
“In the sense of purpose, we are very high,” she said. “We are also very high in negative emotions.” And that would help explain how Israel is perceived in these studies as a very “happy” country, even though anyone who lives here knows about the constant complaining – all which goes to show that one can complain and still feel that life has meaning.
While Fanti said that COVID-19 has “turned everything upside down,” her sense is that Israelis remain very hopeful.
“People are very much engaged in the worries of their everyday life – what to do with the children, Zoom education, how to take care of parents,” she said. “But we are very resilient and very hopeful. If you ask people, I think they will say they currently have a lot of negative feelings. But then if you ask if they are hopeful, I think they will say they are. This is a strong feature of Israelis.”
Because Israelis have experienced “so many wars and so much terrorism and hardship and economic ups and downs, we are very resilient, which makes us more hopeful,” she said. “There is no part in my head that thinks we are not going to get over this. I am in despair and feel helpless many times, but I have no doubt we will overcome this.”
Even though the discipline of measuring happiness is relatively new, the idea that happiness is one of man’s basic rights goes back at least as far as the US Declaration of Independence, which states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Being happy, Fanti said, is seen by many as a basic right: “Not in the sense of I’m joyful and whistling, but in the sense that I have what I need. My basic needs are met, I have social contact, I know whom to trust, and I know the government works for me.”
That last part, about knowing the government works for the individual, is one of the reasons why Fanti said the Scandinavian countries – though not bathed in mood-uplifting sunshine – consistently rank as the happiest countries in the world (Finland has been No. 1 for the last three years running).
“They trust the government,” she said. “They also pay a huge amount in taxes, but they feel that they are getting things back. We pay a lot in taxes, but we don’t feel we are getting enough back.”
But still, we do have that sense of purpose.