Here and There: Happiness

"I feel a freedom, a sense of belonging, a deep involvement with all that happens here – something I did not feel when living in the Diaspora."

A woman plays in a water fountain in Jerusalem (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A woman plays in a water fountain in Jerusalem
Happiness ‘Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.”
While this quote refers to a state of mind, I – having just returned from a holiday to different destinations – can identify with the disproportionate number of Israelis who love to travel. It never ceases to amaze me that, sadly, wherever a trauma occurs in the world, in whichever far-flung place it happens to be, there are always Israelis visiting, doing their post-army trip, or perhaps giving of themselves to the less fortunate beings who live an unhappy existence.
The above quote is from American author Margaret Lee Runbeck (1905- 1956). Back in the 1950s, she recorded a piece for a radio show in which she described her trip to India to teach literacy by writing short novels for those who had just learned to read. She told of how she had gone to give and had returned home much richer because of what she had received – not a material gift, but a spiritual one. For her, this experience emphasized the significance of meeting our neighbors face to face, to find the real person behind one who is a stranger and perhaps even an enemy. Runbeck went on to say that governments could not achieve such positive results as individuals meeting and getting to know one another personally.
I WAS reminded of this when, a few years ago, I was involved with the Model United Nations project here in Israel – an international educational simulation in which the participants include students at the middle school, high school and college/university levels.
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Here it is organized by and takes place at the American School based in Even Yehuda. The idea is for the young participants to emulate the ambassadors who represent their countries at the United Nations. Each one has to take on the mantle of the country he or she represents – to research the policy of that country so he or she can present its position, just as the genuine ambassador to the UN does. It is a wonderful exercise in debate and public speaking.
However, while this is admirable in itself, there is something that takes place prior to the MUN day: The Israeli and Palestinian participants are brought together for a few days of “getting to know one another.” I wanted to learn how this happening evolved and what it meant to these individual youngsters.
I spoke separately with an Israeli and a Palestinian student, asking what the past few days of getting to know each other had meant to them. The answer was uniform: “I came to confront the enemy, and I found the person.”
Runbeck’s definition of happiness could be a factor in the findings of the UN’s annual Global Report on Happiness.
The report has its origins in a project by the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, which set out to measure Gross National Happiness in the 1970s. Its prime minister Jigme Thinley persuaded the UN to adopt a 2011 resolution inviting member nations to measure their happiness in order to improve public policies. The 2015 result, based on a sample of 2,000 to 3,000 citizens interviewed in 158 countries, found that our little country, Israel, ranks No. 11 in the world – higher than the United States’ position of No. 15 and that of the United Kingdom, which is in 21st place. It is equally interesting to note that Israel immediately follows Australia (No. 10), which many consider today’s “goldene medina.”
SO HOW come Israel, which is surrounded by enemies, and where the cost of living is comparatively higher and wages are lower than in most OECD countries, produces a happy population? Findings show that Israelis are among the most content people in the Western world.
Could a contributing factor be that Israel has an unprecedented number of NGOs with volunteers who contribute meaningfully to civil society? In ESRA, for example, we hold a Volunteer Award event once every two years, honoring our outstanding volunteers who give so much in support of those who need our help most. Without exception, all of the volunteers talk about how much more they receive than give. What can be more rewarding than the smile of a child whose happiness is the result of a volunteer’s commitment? A few years ago, I participated in an Anglo-Israel colloquium, which brought together an equal number of British and Israeli experts on the subject of “Wealth and Happiness.” Economists and psychologists discussed how these elements contributed to a feeling of well-being in our society. Happiness could be defined as a sense of fulfillment after having met one’s goals or on completion of a challenging task.
Perhaps the road itself is not always a happy one, but the end result is one of happiness.
There can be no doubt that an occupation (whether professional or voluntary) that gives one satisfaction contributes greatly to personal happiness. For many reaching retirement age, volunteering can fill a large gap and can often prove to be more personally rewarding than the “nine-to-five” job that hitherto was their daily occupation.
A FURTHER factor affecting Israel’s position on the “happiness scale” is its healthcare, which contributes to an average life expectancy of 82 for Israeli men and of 84 for women. Being senior citizens ourselves, my husband and I are in a good position to judge the efficiency and support that the health service offers. We consider ourselves exceedingly fortunate to be living here and have nothing but praise for the system. It certainly compares favorably with the National Health Service in the UK, where expensive treatment allotted to patients sometimes depends on their age.
How about the young generation? One thing I have learned is how they value each day and know how to make the most of their leisure time. When we first moved here, what struck us was the number of young people going off to enjoy themselves at the precise time when we were returning home from an evening out. Somehow the energy flows. When our 22-year-old London- based grandson – on a visit here – met up with our 21-year-old Israeli grandson, the Sabra asked how club life in Tel Aviv compared with the club life there. The response was: “Israelis know how to enjoy themselves and seem to have more fun.”
There is no doubt that the 18-year-old entering the Israel Defense Forces has a far more challenging ride than his peers in other countries. When one goes into battle, it is real and must contribute greatly to the concept of valuing life, of making the most of every moment.
WHAT MAKES me happy? I feel a freedom, a sense of belonging, a deep involvement with all that happens here – something I did not feel when living in the Diaspora. I consider myself fortunate to wake up each morning and know that I am one of a large group of citizens – volunteers – who together can make a difference in the lives of others.
What is more – put simply – it’s okay to be Jewish here. I even feel safe here – yes, in spite of what surrounds us. Perhaps it is illogical, but this is my reality. Happiness is indeed a manner of traveling. Wishing you happy travels – and remember, face the challenges and opportunities. One never regrets what one does, but rather what one does not do.
The writer is chairwoman of ESRA, and has been active in public affairs and status-of-women issues.