Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has. – Shimon ben Zoma (2nd century CE)
As the new year approaches, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics released its annual report. It contained the astonishing detail that 89% of Israelis – including Jews, Arabs, and other minorities – say they are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their lives.
This is the case despite the fact that everyone believes that we are on the verge of what promises to be a bloody war with Iran and its proxies, and that despite the vaunted success of the Israeli economy, some 31% of Israelis have trouble “finishing the month” – their income fails to cover their expenses. It is the case despite the high cost of living, especially the cost of housing, and despite the fact that of all 37 OECD countries, Israel has the largest share (19.5%) of her population earning less than 50% of the median income. Most Israelis aren’t rich, many are poor, and the amount of money (public and private) allocated to the social safety net is comparatively small.
But this isn’t a fluke. The 2018 World Happiness Report (WHR) came out in March, and like the last few years Israel was in 11th place out of 117 countries (the US came in 18th). The ratings are based on survey respondents’ subjective evaluation of how happy they are.
Israelis prove they are happy in other ways, too. The fertility rate of 3.1 children per woman is by far the highest in the OECD. The number of Israelis that left the country for a year or more was the lowest since 1990. I’ve often heard that Israelis take out their considerable frustrations on each other when driving, but surprisingly the rate of injuries or deaths per million from road accidents is among the lowest in the developed world.
So what is the explanation?
Obviously, there are some things that are necessary, though not sufficient, for a happy population. Israel has a decent, relatively inexpensive health care system. The educational system is generally acceptable, although not outstanding, based on test results. Unemployment is low. There is poverty, but not starvation. But none of this stands out among developed nations.
The answer lies in the social structure, the relationships between people and their families, and the individual’s feeling about his or her place in the world.
The WHR evaluates six factors: per capita GDP, healthy life expectancy, social support, generosity, freedom to make life choices, and perception of corruption. Then it attempts to correlate them to the reported perception of happiness. In some cases (e.g., Singapore and Hong Kong), the correlation between the six factors and reported happiness is high; in others, like Israel and some Latin American countries, there is a larger “residual” component of happiness: in other words, people are happier than one would expect, given their circumstances. Something else explains why people in those countries are happy.
The WHR discusses the special case of Latin America, noting that “…high happiness in Latin America is neither an anomaly nor an oddity. It is explained by the abundance of family warmth and other supportive social relationships” which counterbalance to some extent the negative influence of low income and high rates of crime and corruption. Their data suggests that Latin American cultures emphasize close and long relationships between immediate and extended family members and close friends, while civic and political connections are relatively weak. This is also the case in more traditional Jewish and Arab cultures here in Israel.
But there’s more to it. Despite the perception that Israelis are a rude, pushy bunch, there is actually a large degree of consideration for others in everyday life, especially if someone perceives that another person, even a stranger, is in trouble. Alongside the real phenomenon of Palestinian terrorism, there are also cases of Jews and Arabs helping one another. Possibly there can even be an excess of empathy, as when the government is forced by public pressure to exchange hundreds or a thousand murderous terrorists for one or two hostages.
Rogel Alpher, the post-Zionist Ha’aretz staffer whose specialty seems to be supercilious bleating about how Israel doesn’t live up to his moral standards and atheist sensibility, has argued that the happiness of Israelis comes from their being in engaged in a long-term war. It’s having a common enemy that gives us a warm feeling about our country, he says.
In addition to this being enormously offensive to victims of terrorism, his argument doesn’t account for the happiness reported by Arab citizens of Israel, which was somewhat less than that of Jews, but still remarkably high. Perhaps some of the Arabs have looked over their shoulders at Gaza and the Palestinian Authority (not to mention Syria) and decided, although they would never admit it, that there could be worse things than living a Jewish state. The fact is that Israel, over all, is a good place to live for Jews, and even for Arabs.
Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that the pressures of the conflict drive us – at least within the Jewish and Arab cultures – closer together, even while it separates the cultures from each other.
Ben Zoma might have said that happiness is closely related to gratitude to Hashem. The bitter post-Zionists like Alpher and his Ha’aretz colleagues practically ooze ingratitude, to Hashem for giving the Jewish people another chance at the Land of Israel, and to those who gave their lives so that we could realize this gift. No wonder they are so unhappy!