By now everyone in Israel has read the results of the study published earlier this month that showed Israelis ranked among the happiest people among the Western nations, despite an extensive laundry list of problems in their country.If constant war or threat of war makes people happy, then people in Iraq and Lebanon must be ecstatic!
Israel ranked low in terms of income, housing, education and security for example—all things we would typical associate with contentment. As an Asian-American who hails from San Francisco, I could add a few of my own complaints to the list: lack of ethnic food, the outrageous cost of imported goods, the raging summer heat, the marginalization of minorities and refugees, and the famous Israeli frankness that has me constantly fielding questions about why I pay so much for my apartment and my (ever so subtle) fluctuation in weight (Up or down? Eating cakes or working out?), chief among them.
So then why—if they probably can't find a job or afford the apartment that they live in—are Israelis so damn happy?
War has quite a bit to do with it. The fact is that Israel has been in a perpetual state of war—or under the threat of war—since David Ben-Gurion declared independence in May 1948, the only Western country in the world in which this is the case.
Even during periods of "peace," there still seems to exist, at a minimum, a potential intifada brewing in the West Bank, or chemical weapons making their way into the hands of Hezbollah, or rockets being lobbed into the country from Gaza.
And this has created a fascinating psychological paradox, one that has been studied extensively by Professor Zahava Solomon of Tel Aviv University. On one hand, as she told me in a recent phone interview, the culture of conflict has made Israelis constantly aware of their potential demise; on the other it has made them virtually fearless. Think about it. How would you act if you woke up every morning thinking that this day could be your last? Or at least took a moment to imagine how you would be eulogized at your funeral? (An exercise that Stephen Covey recommended in his wildly popular “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” although admittedly “live in a war zone” did not make the list.)
The point is this: you'd enjoy the day you had. And if you continued to survive until the next morning, this daily exercise might develop into a mantra for how you lived your life. And you might bother to take that beach day, or spend more time with your family. You might grow a pair and launch that startup you've been thinking about (Boom: Silicon Wadi) or stop a beautiful woman on the street and insist that she have lunch with you, or park on the sidewalk if there was no other parking within a five-block radius. You might climb a mountain, or go scuba diving or backpack in South America for a year. All things that Israelis do in droves, and that, in my opinion, probably lead to a more fulfilling existence.
Ms. Wen and her TAU professor) is completely clueless.
Haaretz was even more flummoxed:
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.
Yeah, they are just pretending to be happy to pollsters!
The answer is not such a mystery, and it sheds more light that you might expect.
Happiness comes from many sources, but a critical one is a sense of belonging.
Israelis don't just think of themselves as citizens of a state, of a random set of people with nothing in common except an accident of where they were born. They think of themselves as a family. (This mostly applies to Jews, but not exclusively.)
This is why they can be rude to each other - because there is a knowledge that, just like in your family underneath that rudeness is love. That's why bumping into someone in the store is a lot less likely to escalate into a gunfight. You can yell and threaten and curse - but deep down you know that you are all one people.
There is a second criteria for happiness, especially obvious in the workplace. It is that one must has a sense of accomplishment, of doing something important, and of fulfilling one's responsibility.
Here, again, Israeli Jews share that idea. Just by living in Israel they are making a statement to the world that they are in their home. By sharing the burden of serving in the IDF they know they are defending their people from those who want to kill them. They aren't just anonymous citizens of a state. Everyone is important, because everyone depends on each other.
This is why Ms. Wen doesn't get it. She lives in Israel but only as an outside observer, not as an Israeli. She cannot fathom the sense of fulfillment that comes from these twin senses of belonging and of accomplishment at fulfilling your responsibilities towards those you love.
Ha'aretz, the TAU professor and many of those who live in the Tel Aviv "bubble" are also clueless - because to them Israel is just an abstraction, a land to be analyzed and criticized but not one to be viscerally involved with. To them, the emotional ties of Jews to the land of their forefathers is a silly superstitious myth - and they cannot fathom how it is the source of Israeli happiness and contentment.
This survey, unwittingly, reveals more about Israel's critics than it does about the subjects of the survey itself.