The Better Life Index – also known as the Happiness Report – was recently released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, rating the highest life satisfaction scores of 36 countries.
The list starts out pretty much as expected, with Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and Finland – countries that are relatively prosperous, not involved in wars, and shielded from constant global scrutiny – taking the top spots. But that Israel is ranked fifth in the Happiness Report has mystified many people. How can a country that has lived in a constant state of war since its inception, that has an almost-nuclear Iran threatening to wipe them off the map, that has Arab neighbors firing rockets into its cities on a regular basis, that has been vilified and boycotted by many countries, and that has internal friction between segments of its population, be so happy?
And lest you think that this is a unique, one-time ranking, think again. Israel has for many years ranked highly in similar Gallup, Forbes and UN polls.
Let me share with you a number of reasons, in no particular order, that have been proposed to explain the source of Israel’s happiness.
One possible explanation is that Israel’s demographics are strong: while many countries’ populations are declining, Israel’s population is robustly expanding. This sense of continuity and growth is a compelling motive to elicit a national sense of happiness and stability.
Celebrating Yom Yerushalayim. Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90
An inspiring answer is that, despite becoming westernized, Israel’s definition of happiness is deeply rooted in the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of the Jewish people’s role as an “ohr lagoyim,” a light unto the nations. Living a meaningful existence – realizing that you have value and that you can add value – is an understandable justification for happiness.
Another reason – or, some may argue, an extension of the last explanation - is that Israelis are happy living in an enlightened society that leads the world, on a per capita basis, in scientific publications, museums, and new book publishing - and boasts an inordinate number of Nobel Prize winners.
Robert Aumann receives 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics. Photo: Reuters/Haaretz
A practical answer focuses on Israel’s economic success, spurred by its extremely successful high-tech industry and its advances in many other important fields. This sense of financial well-being understandably helps create a national culture of contentment and self-confidence.
An insightful explanation touches upon the religious nature of the Jewish people in Israel. Despite only 20% calling themselves “religious,” 57% of the Jewish population consider themselves religiously connected, and over two-thirds of the Jewish population believe in G-d. This appreciation of a Higher Being endows people with a sense of purpose and infuses meaning in their lives.
Another poignant reason focuses on many Jews’ sense of attachment to the physical land of Israel. This approach resonates not only in the “religious nationalist” camps but across the demographic spectrum. The experience of living in the land of our patriarchs and matriarchs creates a comforting and encouraging sense of being part of the chain of Jewish destiny.
An uplifting answer focuses on the unprecedented amount of Torah that is being learned in Israel and the religious growth occurring here. There are literally thousands of Judaic classes offered for people of all ages and skill levels. The sheer number of people learning Torah is astounding, and the high level of study is remarkable. For religious people, this is a source of tremendous pride and joy. Interestingly, many secular Israelis also derive satisfaction knowing that Jews are keeping their grandparents’ traditions alive.
IAF jets flying over the desert. Photo: www.idfblog.com
An interesting explanation for the country’s high morale and sense of security is that its army has consistently proven itself - spanning multiple wars, intifadas (Arab uprisings) and terror attacks - as a reliable and unswerving protector of the Jewish people.
One final reason is proposed by Dr. Joshua Lipsitz, professor of Psychology at Ben Gurion University. He maintains that most Israelis are more interconnected – they know each other and are concerned about each other’s welfare – than citizens of other countries. Thus, the sense of loneliness and alienation that people in large population centers often experience is less common in Israel. Although one may sometimes prefer to be left alone than to answer to multiple Yiddishe Mamas intruding on their goings-on, the general feeling of being connected to others is a source of happiness and contentment.
The happiness that pervades Israel is not borne of naiveté nor established in denial of the challenges confronting the nation. Rather, it is based on an understanding that life in Israel, despite its real and difficult hardships, is enriched with meaning and a sense of purpose and destiny.
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home (www.myisraelhome.com), a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.