Learning from Israel’s happiness ranking

I watch (the news), therefore I am (saddened, scared, exhausted).

Lately, it feels like no matter where you look, humanity is letting people down. For every heartwarming news segment about a police officer purchasing winter boots for a homeless man on the street, there are ten stories of kidnapping and murder and chemical warfare. For every endearing YouTube video, there’s the comments section, where the world’s bottom feeders come to spew hatred and bitterness. For every child’s birthday party, there is a child preparing to go into the hospital for a bone marrow transplant.

I miss the innocence and bliss from the ignorance we experience as children.

I, personally, was so ignorant that on my first visit to Israel, when I saw a teenager smoking a cigarette, I was sure he was about to be arrested. To my eight-year old eyes, smoking was possibly the worst thing a person under 18 could do, and definitely illegal in the Holy Land.

I miss eight-year old me.

The one who thought that there was a guarantee that religious Jews abide by a higher code of honor and values.
The one who looked on in admiration at her elementary school function’s guest of honor and keynote speaker and thought, “Wow, I wonder if Anthony Weiner will be the first Jewish president.”
The one who didn’t know about the horrible tension that exists between secular Jews and Haredi Jews in Israel, or how terribly maligned Israel is in the media and how little its brilliance and humanity gets any kind of press.

Aside from having to learn what things like mortgages and building funds actually mean, growing up appears to mean understanding that the world has a lot of bad in it, on a grand scale – warfare, genocide and school shootings – and on a smaller, more personal scale – longtime friends losing their struggle against the inner demons that plague them, learning about the illegal misconduct and sexual harassment by a noted philanthropist and leader from the Jewish community of my childhood.

Of course, there is good in the world, and there is beauty. I only have to look at my children to remember that. But I find myself simultaneously grateful and jealous of their carefree oblivion, where everything in the world is rife with possibilities and magic and cupcakes.

Yes, growing up seems like enduring, first, a series of discoveries about the world’s injustices, and second, becoming less and less surprised by it. Becoming so inured to gross behavior that no amount of half-naked twerking or sexting scandals surprises you anymore. Realizing that, all too often, last names or bank accounts open doors where hard work and dedication should instead. Seeing babies get sick, or women losing babies or struggling to have them to begin with. Turning on the news and not being fazed by this fire or that gang shootout, the molester next door or a new scandal by some man of the people.

I’ve been pretty despondent lately. But maybe I can learn a thing or two from Israel itself, which was just ranked the 11th-happiest country in the world, up three rankings from last year. This, despite the considerable Jew vs. Jew tensions that have rocked the nation this past year, and a potential Syrian war with Israel being thrust in the middle, yet again, of an extremely volatile situation it didn’t start.

How are Israelis able to maintain such satisfaction and joy in the face of such hardship? The study says it’s factors like real GDP per capita, perceived freedom to make life choices, and freedom from corruption. Those factors probably come into play, but I think it’s really the fact that Israelis simply know how to live in the moment.

I’ve read about the findings of Professor Zahava Solomon of Tel Aviv University, her theory that Israel’s “culture of conflict” has acclimated its citizens to the constant chance of potential demise. This realization, she argues, has forced them to become fearless, better able to simply enjoy the moment. Israelis are accustomed to bad things all the time, and so when bad things happen, they are able to go on, and happily. They are forced to make every day meaningful.

And while most of us outside Israel can’t relate to living every day amongst bombings and missiles and various Mideast crises, I think the lesson that results from doing so applies to all of us, in every part of the world.
Bad things are all around us, in our midst and in the news. But there is also the moment, and the living in the present and enjoying the right here, right now. Catching up with an old friend who called randomly after you’re numb from hearing bad news about a loved one. Having a dance-off with your children before they head to school and you to work, before you read the headlines laden with strife and terror as you settle in at your desk.
Maybe the real lesson of being a grown-up is, amid the pain, to find the joy, and to hold onto it for dear life.

About the Author
Tova Ross lives in New Jersey with her family, and works in communications and as a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, Tablet Magazine and Kveller.