Israel is a happy place. Or at least that was confirmed by the 2016 World Happiness Report which was released last week by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations. Out of 156 countries on the planet, Israel ranked 11th, ahead of the United States, all of our Middle Eastern Neighbors and even Germany and Brazil, despite their World Cup dominance.
This conclusion appears paradoxical. After all, the external threats and internal challenges facing Israel are immense. We are surrounded by intractable foes who actively pursue our destruction. One enemy openly threatens another holocaust while denying the Holocaust just 70 years ago that killed 6 million of our people and left Eastern Europe mostly Judenrein. Domestically, we are in the midst of a renewed wave of premeditated terror attacks in cities throughout the country. Our electoral system is chaotic and barely representative leading to governments that are weakly cobbled coalitions with a shelf life less than a box of cereal. Rising real estate prices and stagnating wages make home ownership a virtual impossibility for the next generation. And economically, there is a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, where one in three children are below the poverty line.
On the face of it, it is not apparent that Israel should rank so highly. But that’s the thing about Israel. Logic does not always apply.
“In order to find happiness,” writes Professor Tal Ben-Shahar in his book Happiness, “we need to find both meaning and pleasure – to have both a sense of purpose and the experience of positive emotions.” And perhaps that is at the core of happiness in Israel. A country founded and forged with a deep sense of purpose mixed with a fatalistic sense of carpe diem. In fact, the pursuit of happiness is enmeshed within the Israeli psyche.
As I reflect upon life in Israel and my fellow compatriots, the following top ten (although by no means exclusive) compelling thoughts may explain the apparent paradox of Israel’s myriad issues and yet its ultimate happiness:
- Choosing life – Israelis choose and cherish life either as a biblical or moral imperative. As a matter of religious doctrine and cultural policy, we sanctify life over religion. Our Talmud and our teachers exhort that saving a life is paramount to all other considerations.
- Hope and Eternal Optimism – How many other people, exiled and dispersed among the nations, have miraculously returned to reclaim their ancient homeland? Founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion once said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” Our national anthem is aptly named “The Hope.” And this undying optimistic belief in positive outcomes not only defines the two thousand year dream of a return to Zion but also what enables our people to believe that there will one day be peace with our neighbors.
- Living in the moment – No matter how bleak or dreary things may appear, Israelis know how to enjoy themselves. For example, Israelis are perhaps the most traveled people on the planet. Take a cruise or visit a tourist destination and you will invariably hear or see signs in Hebrew. Despite the security situation, the cafes in Israel are full. As wages stagnate, consumer spending only increases, often at the expense of saving for tomorrow. In general, Israelis don’t have the luxuries of comfort zones. And while I would trade this for some physical security, it is precisely the lack of security which ironically can enable greater happiness. Security breeds comfort. Comfort breeds complacency. Complacency breeds the fear of losing that comfort. In an insecure and unstable environment, Israelis are enjoying and living for today.
- We are not alone – In life, how many really close friends does one have? In an increasingly polarized world, where many seek to delegitimize and isolate Israel, we take heart in our close friends and allies. Beyond normal tourism, groups from around the globe regularly visit, pray for and advocate for Israel. Whether it is Christian pilgrimage delegations or Church prayer breakfasts, Jewish community emergency missions and fundraising drives, critical US government assistance both financial and at the UN, there are many who stand with us. As nearly twenty thousand people converge over the next few days in Washington DC at the AIPAC Policy conference, the world’s largest and most significant gathering of Jewish and political leaders, we in Israel are uplifted.
- Our culture and systems match our temperament – In Israel, a long-term plan is two weeks from today. For societies to be fulfilled, it requires an alignment between the systems and the societal temperament. For example, Switzerland, achieved a number two on the happiness rankings. Go figure. But upon greater observation, there is a clear match between the formal and structured systems of Swiss society and the temperament of its people. In Israel, it is the lack of formality, lack of process, and the uninhibited manner of communication which actually frees the Israeli and allows for creative expression. In America, they say “think outside of the box.” In Israel, there is no box. People are not shackled to form. The minimal focus on process, the relative absence of rigid systems, and limited long term planning yields lower expectations which in turn leads to less disappointment. And because there is less of an expectation of earning higher wages, people are more likely to pursue what they genuinely enjoy.
- We stand together when it counts – We can argue and fight amongst ourselves like the best of them but when push comes to shove, our country proves time and again that its citizens will not be abandoned. Whether held hostage by Palestinian terrorists in Entebbe, Uganda, trapped in an avalanche in the Himalayas or wounded in this week’s terror attack in Turkey, Israelis know that our country will spare no expense to find its citizens and bring them home.
- An over-participatory hyperactive Democracy – In Israel, it is not that your voice won’t be heard. It is just more likely to be drowned out by the cacophonous chorus of everyone else yelling at the same time. Prime Minister Golda Meir once quipped to President Nixon, “you are the President of 150 million Americans; whereas I am the Prime Minister of six million prime ministers.” That sense of hyper involvement and hyper awareness regarding current events as measured by number of talk shows per capita, voter participation, informal friendly “parliament” gatherings on Friday afternoons across the country, etc. produces a perception of palpable possibilities and progress.
- A healthy dose of Chutzpah – A staple in Israel, Chutzpah, like Chummus at every meal, pervades Israeli society. It can border and even come across as entitlement but Israelis will state their opinion, even if unsolicited, and will unabashedly get things off their chest. You do not need to wonder where you stand or worry what will be said behind your back. Chutzpah breaks down barriers and (when not over-offending) often enables accomplishment and progress which leads to happiness. We just need a little less of it on the roads.
- Love us or hate us, you are not indifferent about us. While sometimes shining a painful spotlight on our country, the world takes a keen interest in what transpires here. Despite the distorted reporting in the media, in the last 10 years, less than 8,000 people have been killed domestically in Israel and as a result of the Palestinian-Israel conflict versus over 400,000 people who have been slaughtered in the bloody war in Syria resulting in millions of displaced refugees. And yet, the world focuses on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Despite global human rights tragedies, the UN Human Rights Commission has passed more resolutions against Israel than against all other countries combined. So how exactly does this engender national happiness? Oscar Wilde once said, “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” In a world that casually glosses over horrific tragedies, Israel and what happens here matters.
- A giving society is a happy society – the generosity of spirit embodied by Israeli society can be encapsulated in a line falsely attributed to Winston Churchill, “We make a living by what we get but we make a life by what we give.” While Israelis are not known for their financial philanthropic gifts, Israel is physicians from the Medical corps of the IDF treating Syrian refugees over the border. Israel is Mashav training thousands of agriculturists from under developed nations to raise crops in their barren fields. Israel is Israid sending relief teams to Haiti or Nepal. Israel is Innovation Africa bringing Israeli solar and water technologies to rural African villages. Israel is Save a Child’s heart flying thousands of children from Gaza or Iraq to Israel for life-saving heart surgeries. Israel is people helping other people and somehow straddling the delicate balance between selfishness and unselfishness. But it does so in the extremes. This country gives and takes with a full heart. Just watch this brief video: http://www.israelvideonetwork.com/supermans-got-nothing-on-israel/
So, yes, we are happy. Life here is not without its whopping share of challenges. But these are our challenges. And this is our destiny.
In Israel, we will keep giving and we will continue to live life to the fullest. And there is no paradox in that. Because that is who we are. And just maybe, we can find a way to engender a similar sense of optimism and hope among our neighboring countries. Only then will we be able to be ranked number one.