It’s a Happy Israel, After All

Embroiled in endless conflict and surrounded by hostile neighbors, how is Israel the 11th happiest nation in the world?


Two years ago in this space, I wrote a piece that posed the following question: Is Israel doomed? My bottom line was this: The Israeli state will continue to survive and prosper but their Arab and Muslim neighbors will never let them completely enjoy it.

Two years later, Israel’s challenges have only grown in complexity and magnitude. And yet despite the steady stream of “oy veys” about Israel’s future from outside and inside the country, my own assessment remains pretty much the same. Except for one thing — I may have been wrong about the enjoyment part.

According to the latest World Happiness Report, published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Israel now ranks 11th out of some 158 countries evaluated. Whoa! When you take a look at the top 10, it kind of takes your breath away: (in order) Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, and Australia.

These countries actually have plenty of reasons to be happy. They’re affluent, secure, and some haven’t been involved in a war in 70 years. They aren’t living in the middle of ongoing, violent conflicts or waiting for an ethnic demographic time bomb to explode. Nor are they the objects of international campaigns to isolate or boycott them. Sure, they all have problems, but there’s no Swiss occupation in any other country; Canada isn’t surrounded by hostile nations. The Danes don’t confront groups on their borders with thousands of high trajectory weapons pointed at their civilian population centers. And no antagonistic actor is threatening to take Sweden to the International Criminal Court.

So, how does a tiny country with a conflict-ridden past sitting in the middle of a region in turmoil get to be No. 11? The United States, for all its vaunted security, size, wealth, and Mecca-like tourism reputation, ranks No. 15. Belgium is No. 19; the United Kingdom is No. 21; and France No. 29. Alternatively, at the other end of the spectrum, the world’s three most unhappy countries are Syria, Burundi, and Togo.

Why is Israel No. 11 on the happiness index? Here are some possible explanations:

The happiness report is pretty sketchy

I’m a big believer in happiness as a desirable state of being. But the concept of what makes one “happy” is pretty vague.

I know when I feel happy. For example, welcoming my first grandchild made me extremely happy. (My daughter, Jen, recently gave birth to her first child, Fenn.) But it’s still tough to quantify enduring happiness on an individual level, let alone when it comes to nation states. The happiness study is now in its third year and its roster of contributors includes John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard of the London School of Economics, and Jeffrey D. Sachs who is, among other things, special advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Overall, the report is a pretty impressive bit of research. It quantifies happiness according to six indicators, including GDP per capita, social support (or having someone to count on in times of trouble), life expectancy, generosity, freedom to make life choices, and absence of corruption.

These all strike me as pretty reasonable measuring sticks. But can you really come to hard-and-fast rankings of a country’s happiness based on a sampling of 3,000 people out of a total of, in Israel’s case, a population of some 8 million?

Happiness is… relative

This is one of my favorites. After all, life’s not perfect. So people should enjoy what they have. And in comparison to the neighborhood, which is increasingly angry, broken, and dysfunctional Israelis — at least Jewish Israelis — have it pretty good.

The first Arab country to appear is the UAE at No. 20; Oman at No. 22; Qatar at No. 28; Saudi Arabia at No. 35; Kuwait at No. 39; Bahrain at No. 49. But those are in the distant and relatively stable Gulf. The first Israeli neighbor to make the list is Jordan at No. 82; then Lebanon at No. 103; and the Palestinian territories (that’s the report’s language) at No. 108. (Iran, by the way, clocks in at No. 110.) You get the picture. My own view is that the more the rest of the region melts down from continued state dysfunction, civil war, sectarian tension, and low economic performance, the more Israel is to its own citizens — even with all its problems — a veritable island of tranquility.

But looking at Israel on its own and not as a country surrounded by less happy nations, we see by at least one of the index’s indicators, GDP per capita, Israel ranks 34th in the world. And consider a few of the country’s other achievements: The Bloomberg Innovation Index ranked Israel as the fifth most innovative country in the world, ahead of both the United States and the United Kingdom. According to an OECD study released in September, Israel remained the fourth most educated nation, again topping the United States, and was ranked 21st in the world in 2014, per the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index. Being engaged, productive, innovative, and well-educated don’t necessarily correlate with the happiness report’s indicators. But they sure do reflect a dynamic and exciting society, one that many Israelis would be happy and proud to contribute and belong to.

Escapist nation?

Maybe Israelis are just living in a dream world. That’s how columnist Mazal Mualem described Israel while trying to explain how the 2013 happiness report ranked Israel 11th and the country also fared poorly on several measures reported by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Even while the Israeli middle class is suffering from sky-rocketing housing prices, aren’t saving enough for retirement, and are still supporting their grown children, Israelis from the same middle class still live it up travelling abroad on, as Mualem points out, “all-inclusive packages at the expense of the future,” not saving, and spending money they don’t have. Mualem might be on to something.

Maybe given the stresses they face and the uncertainty of their dangerous neighborhood, Israelis have a sense of the importance of living for the moment. Is it possible that this kind of anxiety actually creates a tolerance for this constant and fraught sense of unknowing? And this tolerance manifests itself, possibly, either in denial or repression, but also, perhaps, in the reverse: a heightened motivation to live life to the fullest and to focus on enjoying every moment. Zahava Solomon, a professor at Tel Aviv University who studies trauma and has called Israel a stress laboratory, suggests that the “culture of conflict” has made Israelis acutely aware of their mortality but also “fearless” (as reported in The Daily Beast). There’s a fatalism but also a sense of fearlessness that can make you want to suck as much out of life as you possibly can and enjoy the moment.

Purpose and community

Above all, perhaps in explaining the happiness stuff is the very strong sense of identity that still seems to shape the way Israelis look at themselves and the rest of the world. Amidst all the fractiousness and divisiveness, the secular and religious divide, the crudeness of political life, and the unresolved Palestinian problem, there’s still among Israelis I have met over the years a real sense purpose, community, and pride of accomplishment. So perhaps what at first appears counterintuitive really isn’t. Nahum Barnea, perhaps one of the keenest observers of Israeli politics and a guy who’s fully attuned to the tremendous challenges facing his country, argues in this recent article that this sense of involvement and participation is key. Sure, life in Denmark “is happy: Relaxed, leisurely, stable. In Israel, on the other hand, life is good: Interesting, dynamic, calling for involvement. Most Israelis, it seems, prefer the good life.” And Barnea concludes, elsewhere that far from some utopian ideal of 1967, Israel today is, in many respects, a much better place in which to live than it was in its early years.

I say all this with the acute understanding and the humility that I live in Chevy Chase, am not an Israeli (and would never want to be), and there are Israelis who I profoundly admire and respect who have come to much less happy conclusions about the future of their country. In fact, they’d argue that Israel as they have come to know it is, well, doomed as a Jewish and democratic state unless it can resolve the Palestinian issue. I’d be the last to trivialize the challenges Israel faces. Though I’d point out these days that there may be an Arab state or two that disappears well before Israel does. Israel isn’t some piece of driftwood floating on a turbulent sea. It has agency and capacity to act. Whether it will or can — given the neighborhood it inhabits — is another matter.

“In the long run,” John Maynard Keynes famously remarked, “we are all dead.” Still, life’s also lived in the short-run. And that can prove to be quite a long time. I don’t know what the future holds for Israel. But I’m pretty certain come next year Israel will be high on that happiness report again — for whatever it’s worth.

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author, most recently, of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2