The following is a revised version of Jonah Cohen’s keynote speech at the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts’s celebration party for Israel’s 75th anniversary, held on 30 April 2023 at the historic Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts.
The Secret Sauce of Israeli Happiness
Some of you might have heard the news that Israel is the fourth happiest country on the planet, according to the latest UN-sponsored World Happiness Report. Only three Scandinavian countries ranked higher on the global happiness index. The Danes (the second happiest people) and the Icelanders (the third happiest) measured roughly the same as the Israelis when one rounds up the hedonic numbers. The Finns, the world’s happiest people, were fractionally more contented. Think about that for a moment. Except for three very slightly happier nationalities, the Israelis proved to be more joyful than the rest of Scandinavia and all other affluent Western peoples who sometimes boast of their joie de vivre.
The international press likes to paint a dour picture of the Israelis. Some journalists were therefore quick to point out that the research behind the report predates the acrimonious judicial debate now roiling the Jewish state and thus the data may not reflect currently unhappy feelings. True enough, but this wasn’t a one-off report.
When one includes previous years’ research on the polling data, which goes back to 2005, it becomes very hard to deny that the Israelis are consistently among the world’s most joyous people. Last year, they ranked nineth happiest; before that, twelfth; and before that, fourteenth. Between 2013 and 2018, they held steady at the eleventh spot. For as long as the report has been published, in other words, Israel has been in the top fourteen happiest nations. Nearly twenty years of data reveals a pattern of felicity that transcends the fleeting political controversies of the day.
Importantly, too, the report’s researchers intentionally focused their survey questions on overall ‘life evaluations’ and not just on how people feel today or yesterday. What that means is that they formulated their questions so as to reveal how people assess the broad trajectory of their lives. The reason they asked those kinds of questions was precisely to reduce the excessive influence of short-term emotions and transient political passions such as the present dispute over the judiciary.
Time and again, Israeli answers to these carefully crafted surveys exhibit high levels of what Aristotle called eudaimonia, good spirit, which is a rather paradoxical outcome given the volatile neighbourhood in which the Israelis live. What explains their happiness? What’s the secret sauce of Israeli joy?
According to the report, happy nations are correlated with six key variables. Their citizens enjoy healthy life expectancy from birth. They have friends and family on whom they can count when they’re in need. They are free to choose what they do in life. They value generosity and donate to charity. They generally trust in their country’s civic and commercial institutions. And they’re able to obtain a decent standard of living. All those qualities can certainly be found to varying but high degrees in Israeli society and probably provide part of the answer.
But I would like to suggest that they don’t sufficiently explain why the Israelis, these much-maligned people in an embattled Middle Eastern environment, are nearly as happy as Finns and Danes. Many other countries, after all, are correlated with those six qualities. Most are wealthier and better protected than Israel, as well. Yet, astonishingly, over the past year, amid thousands of Hamas rocket attacks on civilian centers, Israelis came out feeling inner peace more often than nationalities whose external conditions are far more tranquil and prosperous. How do we account for this paradoxical fact?
Anti-Israel critics will surely argue that Israeli happiness is a result of the country’s ‘settler colonialism’ on ‘Arab land’, forgetting that the same geographical area could just as well have sustained an angry and gloomy ‘settler’ population. And there’s the rub. Owning territory, having piles of things, doesn’t necessarily translate into inner happiness. Why is it, for instance, that none of the Arab countries – with all their vast territory, manpower, resources, and absolutely delicious food – made it into the top twenty list of cheerful nations? The closest, coming in at 26th happiest, was the United Arab Emirates (the Middle Eastern country that just so happens to be friendliest toward Israel, a poignant fact perhaps).
External circumstances, it seems, can only account for so much. A nation’s worldview must also be a necessary condition to explain the happiness differential between countries. National groups display opposing life evaluations because underlying their feelings about the outside world, there are differing philosophical assumptions and interpretative habits of mind which colour how they experience life’s various blessings and sufferings.
All nations in the end must struggle in our painful universe, but each looks at its struggles differently and thereby experiences a different reality: to one national group, life is unjust, boring, tiresome; to another, meaningful, interesting, rich with fresh adventures. Consequently, if we want to understand the paradox of Israeli happiness, we must try to understand the Israeli way of looking at the world. Here are five philosophical attitudes that, I believe, permeate Israeli society and help to explain why it is the happy place that it is.
(1) Connecting with others
According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which spearheads the world’s longest-running research into what makes human beings happy, wellbeing hinges on good relationships. ‘People who are more connected to family, to friends, and to community, are happier and physically healthier than people who are less well connected,’ Harvard researchers found after tracking the life trajectories of 1,300 people over an eighty-five year period. But here is the really interesting thing in their findings: it’s not just deep connections with significant others that is important. Casual relationships also matter, profoundly. The quality of your daily encounters with people whom you don’t know so well – the cashier at the grocery store, say – is vital. ‘When you exchange some pleasant words with those people you get little hits of wellbeing, little hits of happiness, that turn out to be important for our sense that life is good,’ Harvard’s leading happiness researcher, Robert Waldinger, tells us.
That spirit of neighborliness, of honest and wholesome day-to-day connection, is palpably evident in Israeli society. I recall, for example, when I took my wife on her first visit to Israel, she was deeply moved by the way strangers would stop us on the sidewalk to play with our newborn baby, while others would crowd around to give us unsolicited parenting advice. Childhood innocence commands Israeli attention. Mothers are honoured. Strollers are everywhere. Big families with loud, lively kids fill restaurants and cafés and then they stroll together with parents and grandparents for peaceful evening walks. Not every country is like that; I’d say much of this country isn’t like that. But these seemingly small, ordinary instances of human connection combine to give the impression that the Israelis are happy because they are, each in their own way, fully present to the people around them.
You can see this humane attitude even amid the current divide over the judiciary. The perceptive American political analyst, Mike Doran, who is fluent in Hebrew, recently translated an amusing anecdote from an Israeli WhatsApp discussion wherein we get a glimpse of the Israeli habit of looking past their differences to form simple friendly connections. ‘Tonight in Jerusalem there’s a huge demonstration in support of the judicial reform,’ reported Doran. ‘So one guy turned to his WhatsApp group and asked if anyone had an Israeli flag to lend him. Another guy responded, saying, no problem, but you must return it to me by Saturday. I need it to protest AGAINST the reform. Of course I will, the first guy replies. Thank you!’
‘Only in Israel,’ Doran chuckled.
(2) Approaching life with gratitude and empathy instead of sanctimony and resentment
One senses this grateful and empathetic spirit nearly everywhere in Israel. As soon as one steps out of Ben Gurion Airport, it feels almost as though one has landed among a newly resurrected people who are amazed to be alive again. Their talk is louder; their manners are brusquer; their gestures more animated; their clothes more casual; their citizens freer than in other Middle Eastern countries. Sabra, the local cactus fruit, with its prickly exterior but sweet inside, is often used as a metaphor to describe these earthy Jews living beside the Mediterranean. It is indeed an apt metaphor because, as many visitors to their country have observed, the gruff Israeli façade is quickly belied by frequent acts of unsentimental kindness and hospitality, which makes their sweetness all the more touching. Israeli tenderness is particularly evident on sabbath evenings, I have found, when nearly all Israelis would sooner invite a stranger into their homes for supper than to hear of him eating alone.
(3) Being mindful and brave in the here-and-now
Memories of past distress and fears of future troubles have been curtailed in Israeli collective consciousness. Israeli men and women learn from a young age that even the worst catastrophe can be forged into higher purpose and action. This way of thinking is widely communicated across Israel on various holidays but especially on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which in Hebrew is meaningfully called ‘the Day of the Holocaust and the Heroism’. It is a sacred time when the entire nation pauses to remember not just the six million who perished but also the human spirit’s capacity for heroism amid terrible adversity. Every year this motivational reflection is instilled throughout the Israeli population who, as a result, regularly exhibit a pro-active approach to the challenges of the present moment, a courageous willingness to say, ‘Okay, this situation is bad. But what good can we make of it? How do we move forward right now?’
(4) Using and enjoying what they have rather than stewing over what they do not
Wise recollection of their grandparents’ suffering has helped younger Israelis to keep their own worries in perspective. That poisonous psychological temptation to measure oneself against those who are better off, to constantly tally who is getting ahead, has been properly restrained in Israeli consciousness, thanks to their shared memory of those who were once far worse off and left behind. Careful awareness of past Jewish miseries, such as the Holocaust or the Farhud in Iraq, has resulted in the Israeli inclination to appreciate what they have rather than to obsess over what they do not. Unlike Arab nationalists and Western anti-Israel activists who burn inwardly for complete Palestinian control ‘from the river to the sea’, the less utopian Israelis have tended to make do with whatever national sovereignty that fate has afforded them. Against Israel’s own territorial maximalists, Fathom contributor Shany Mor has argued eloquently that Israel’s traditional pragmatism and amor fati has made the Jewish state stronger and happier, not weaker and sadder like its neighbours.
(5) Caring for their physical bodies
‘Health outweighs all other blessings so much that one may really say that a healthy beggar is happier than an ailing king,’ Schopenhauer observed in the nineteenth century, and his observation has been born out in the Harvard research. An important factor in one’s long-term inner wellbeing depends, in no small part, on how one has treated one’s outer physical self. ‘The best advice I can give is “Take care of your body as though you were going to need it for 100 years,” because you might,’ Waldinger says.
The Israelis, of their own accord, have done exactly that. Their country was recently ranked the tenth healthiest country in the world, according to the Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index. That outcome has much to do with the fact that the Israelis choose to eat one of the most healthful diets on earth, rich in homegrown fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, and freshly baked breads. Taste one of their tomatoes and then taste one of ours; or visit one of their outdoor markets bursting with sack-loads of colourful spices, piled with glistening fruits and vegetables, teeming with fresh and dried herbs; and you’ll quickly realise that our dietary experiences are not alike, not by a longshot. One global survey, published in the Lancet Global Health Journal, found that the Israeli diet is the ninth healthiest in the world. ‘Israel is the only developed nation on the list,’ Haaretz journalist Liz Steinberg points out, adding perceptively: ‘The other nine countries are all in sub-Saharan Africa and their citizens eat “healthful” foods not out of choice, but due to poverty, as the study notes. Most Israelis, on the other hand, are selecting their foods based on actual choice.’
The above five philosophical attitudes – connecting with others, leaning toward gratitude and empathy, being mindful and brave in the present moment, using and enjoying what one has, and caring for one’s physical body with a healthy diet – explain, at least in part, why Israeli civilisation is a happy civilisation. That’s not to say that the Israelis haven’t suffered. Crowded into a tiny geographical area, surrounded by violent theocratic enemies, bullied in the United Nations, slandered by NGOs, vilified on college campuses, their nation regularly threatened with destruction, their flag ritually defiled in street demonstrations, their leaders burned in effigy, their history denied, their holy sites desecrated, their products boycotted, their loved ones shot and stabbed and bombed and car-rammed on any given day; and all the time cruelly depicted in the international press as racists and criminals, the Israelis have certainly suffered, but they have also shown that with the right philosophical attitude, inner peace remains possible in the teeth of hatred and bigotry. Say what you want about Zionism: few political philosophies can claim such an achievement. It is not Israel’s only achievement. But it’s a big one, and it’s sufficient to justify why we are here celebrating today.