Thursday, April 4, 2013



by Allison Kaplan Sommer

Why are Israelis so damn happy?
It's thanks to both the wars and the weather, and those Friday night dinners that keep us from feeling lonely.

Happy Israelis at the Boombamela beach festival. Photo by Limor Edrey

It’s happened again. An international survey has been published showing that Israelis are, compared to their counterparts in other Western countries, very happy and content people. That information confounds everyone, not least Israelis themselves.

How in the world can it be, we ask ourselves, that citizens of a tiny embattled nation, surrounded by enemies, targeted by boycotts, officially and unofficially loathed by a major portion of the world, with compulsory army service, where regularly scheduled wars and “operations” take place at least once every few years, where complaining about the "situation" is a national pastime, can feel so fine and dandy? It makes no sense.

It’s reached the point where even the stories reporting the news of these polls suggest that the Israelis taking the survey must be lying. The latest survey, as relayed in Tuesday's report, Haaretz suggested as much, and the journalists writing the piece sounded utterly confounded:

“Israelis are among the most content people in the Western world, even though the country doesn’t measure up by many of the criteria in a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. ... It’s not clear why Israelis are so happy, despite a relatively poor showing on measures such as housing, income, job security, community support and education. It could be that what makes the average Norwegian happy doesn’t do the trick in Israel. Or maybe Israelis try to appear happy even when they’re not and respond to pollsters accordingly.”

While I understand the writer’s skepticism, I really don’t think people are lying to the pollsters. It just can’t be that the same results, survey after survey, among different organizations with different sample groups, time after time, are fraudulent. Nobody can lie that consistently. I think we are just going to have to make peace with the crazy fact that for the most part, Israelis are comparatively happy campers. We just have to figure out why.

A few years ago, I discussed the topic with the leading world expert on happiness, Dr. Tal Ben Shahar, who famously taught the most popular course at Harvard on positive psychology, earning the nickname “Professor Happiness” and who, despite his tremendous success in the United States, moved back to Israel with his family because he was, well, happier living here.

His explanations for the Israeli happiness factor are helpful in understanding the situation. Ben Shahar believes that the top predictor of happiness is spending time with people we care about and who care about us. With Israel being so geographically small, there is little that stands between Israelis and their close friends and family. Friday night dinners with extended family are a matter of course, even for the young and hip. And in the typical Israeli community, there are a lot of people who care about us - if anything, who care too much. Friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, the guy who runs the corner store, often feel too close, too "in our face," and we often wish everyone would butt out of our business, but, apparently, it's a good thing in the long run; human connection is human connection, even when it’s extremely annoying. At least this contact prevents utter isolation, which seems to be a leading cause of unhappiness.

Another Shahar-ism is that “happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning.” Even when Israelis run low on pleasure, they are never, ever short of meaning. We overdose on meaning. The national narrative means that simply living in the state of Israel and making it through any given day is meaningful. Certainly, those who believe they are helping to realize the Zionist dream believe their lives here, even the most humdrum, hold great meaning. Even more so for those who are religious and believe that their existence here is part of an active larger plan. And even on the hardest of the hard left, those who live in Israel and have not left in disgust for London, Berlin, or New York, and remain here to fight against injustice and for a better, more humane state, may feel frustrated in many ways, but still, in their fight there is certainly meaning.

Beyond Ben Shahar’s theories, there is also what I call the ‘goat’ factor. I base it on the old Jewish tale of a man upset with his family’s crowded and miserable living conditions who asks a rabbi what to do, and is told to move a goat into his home for a week. At the end of the week, he was told to sell the goat. Suddenly, he told his rabbi, his home felt so big, so clean, so spacious! He was thrilled - and happy.

We’ve got a lot of goats around here in this country: wars, missiles, terror, strife and life-and-death crisis on a regular basis. Stressful as it is, the strife also offers perspective and the ability not to "sweat the small stuff" that we face in life, and increases appreciation for a normal, boring life. Israelis don’t wish each other a fun, exciting, thrilling weekend as they leave at the end of a work week; they wish each other a "quiet" weekend. Quiet is enough to keep us satisfied.

For even more perspective, we only have to look at our neighbors. Let’s face it: everyone looks at the house next door to size up their own situation. Things may be far from perfect here, but with what's going on in Syria and Egypt right now, things feel safe and stable in Israel. Logically, of course, having neighbors in turmoil should make us more worried - and it does. But it also makes us feel lucky.

Finally, I may be writing this too close to a two-week stay in a bitterly cold overcast European city, but there’s something about beautiful weather that can keep one’s spirits up. Looking at the OECD survey, Israelis can only envy the folks in Norway and Sweden their cushy economic situation and rich package of social benefits from the state. However, day after frosty, gray, chilly day, financial security doesn’t necessarily keep your soul warm.

So, even when the national news might be scary and depressing, we might be barely covering the mortgage or the rent, and have no idea what we will do in our retirement, a morning lingering over coffee in a sunshine-splashed café, preferably with good friends, can certainly cheer you up. I know this sounds superficial, but I do have evidence: note that the six OECD countries with the lowest suicide rates - Spain, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Turkey and Greece all happen to include regions with consistently beautiful weather and gorgeous coastlines.

Perhaps happiness can be as simple as a day at the beach.

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