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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Happiness Is….?

It’s been a rough week for Israel with several terrorist attacks – similar to many such in the past. All the more reason to ask a seemingly perplexing question: why does Israel continually score very high in the World Happiness Index – this year in 9th place among all the world’s countries!

Obviously, there is no one “complete” answer to this, but looking at another global index provides a first clue: public social expenditures as a percentage of GDP. When one compares the top 10 and then the top 20 in both lists it becomes clear that a significant part of national happiness is connected to the social service safety net provided. Of the world’s 10 most happy countries, 6 rank among the top 20 in social services; and among the top 20 happiest nations, 11 are in the social services top 20.

This is not altogether surprising, because before anyone can truly relax in life, they have to feel that if their personal financial situation takes a turn for the worse, they will still be able to carry on a relatively normal life. This insight was first put forward in social science by the noted Psychologist Arthur Maslow back in the 1940s in what became to be known as “Maslow’s Pyramid” (or “Hierarchy”). He posited five levels of human needs to be filled, each based on the prior general need that has been taken care of: 1- Physiological (food, water, clothing, sleep, and shelter); 2- Safety and Security; 3- Love and Belonging; 4- Social Esteem & Status; 5- Self-Actualization (self-expression, realization of one’s potential).

So where does Israel fit into this scheme? In the international Social Services as a % of GDP, in only 29th place! Does this contradict Maslow’s theory? Not necessarily, but one has to look between the lines to find Israel’s “secret social sauce”. For example, perhaps private charitable giving (time and money) supplements Israel’s social service system? Yes and no: Israel ranks 34th among the 126 countries surveyed – not bad at all, but hardly outstanding. How about violent crime? Terrorist attacks make headlines, but daily violent crime can be more insidious to mental health. Here too Israel is ”OK” but nothing special: 65th place out of over 190 countries for least violent crime.

If in the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, Israel is good but not great by international standards, perhaps the third level can provide a clue. And indeed, despite no hard statistics to come by (how would you measure “social status” and personal esteem”?), anyone living in Israel knows the feeling of “connectedness.”

Some examples and factors: Because Israel is a geographically small country with most of its population living with an hour ‘s drive of each other (Greater Gush Dan area), social interaction with family friends is very high. Most Israelis (religious and secular alike) have a Friday night (erev Shabbat) dinner with family or close friends – every week, like clockwork. Compare that to America’s Thanksgiving and/or Christmas once/twice yearly family get-together. Israelis also tend to have a several strong social circles: family, former army “buddies”, workplace colleagues, and yes – even neighbors! A common scene around the country is the Friday or Sunday morning “Parliament” where week after week several late-adult friends sit in a coffee shop “fixing the world’s problems”. That’s Maslow’s “Love” in various guises and degrees – and to a large extent, the fourth level “Social Esteem” too.

What about “Self-Actualization” – the highest level of life satisfaction? Here too, Israel shines. First, Israelis don’t hold back in their inter-personal or social communication i.e., self-expression: “dugri” talk still reigns – straight to the point (no P.C. in Israel!). Second, the Israeli economy is very dynamic – Israelis’ ability to start a company or join a “startup” has become legendary, the main driving force in what has become one of the world’s economic wonders.

Finally, there’s one more aspect that should be taken into account – again with no possibility of “statistical backup”: personal pride and satisfaction in being part of significant nation-building. Anyone living in Israel more than a decade or two realizes the huge leaps and bounds it has made through its seven-plus decades – and given the country’s relative small population size, all Israelis feel that they still have something to contribute. In short, one should never underestimate the psychological power of significantly contributing to something “far larger than each of us personally”.

Israel, then, might well be an interesting case where Maslow’s last three levels influence the first two — and not vice versa as he thought. The best evidence for that is life expectancy, where Israel ranks… you guessed it: again 9th!!  Clearly, feeling good about satisfying friendships, close-knit family, and professional opportunity can increase life expectancy even when the security situation is “iffy”.

The bottom line: despite all of the country’s trials and tribulations, we can now fill in the four dots in the title of this blogpost: Happiness Israel!

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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