Shlicha's/Shaliach's View

Surprise: Israel ranks 7th on happiness index

Guy Gelbart

The month of Adar is here, “Mishenichnas Adar marbin b’simcha!” — It’s Adar, be happy!

The month of Adar is considered the month of joy in Jewish tradition. As my grandmother used to say, “That’s the way we are; you need to tell us to be happy.” It seems that happiness and sadness have always mixed in the Jewish tradition. We fast on Taanit Esther to commemorate the attempt to annihilate the Jews and we celebrate our victory the next day. As an old Jewish joke says, “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!”

Focusing on joy, I came across a fascinating study that suggests, surprisingly, that Israelis are happier than Americans. The Gallup’s global well-being survey of 2010 is, it seems, the most comprehensive and profound worldwide survey for well-being and “happiness” ever completed. Quantifying happiness isn’t an easy task — researchers for the Gallup world poll surveyed thousands of respondents in 155 countries between 2005 and 2009 to measure two types of well-being. First they asked subjects to reflect on their overall satisfaction with their lives and ranked their answers using a “life evaluation” score from 1 to 10. Then they asked questions about how each subject had felt the previous day. Those answers allowed researchers to score respondents’ “daily experiences”— things like whether they felt well-rested, respected, free of pain and intellectually engaged. Subjects who reported high scores were considered “thriving.” The percentage of thriving individuals determined each country’s ranking on the study’s “thriving” index. Israel ranked 7 with 63 percent of thriving individuals. By comparison, the United States ranked 11 with 59 percent.

These findings are extremely surprising when you take into account the period of time in which the survey took place — these were the years of massive homicide-suicide terrorist bombing attacks on Israeli civilians. These inhumane, unjustified and cruel attacks led to over 1,000 deaths, inflated fear across the country and led to the creation of the security fence; yet the Gallup study suggests Israelis’ level of happiness was still higher than that of Americans, Austrians or the British.

Taking into account financial differences between Israel and the United States makes those findings even more peculiar: the cost of living in Israel is on average 30 percent higher than the United States, while the average Israeli’s income is about 30 percent lower than his or her American counterpart.

So what makes Israelis happier? What makes their lives more joyful? I can only try to look into my own life to seek an answer. It could be the feeling of being part of something big, bigger than you, bigger than life, being part of history. It could be the amazing unmediated connection to Jewish memory, history and culture. Maybe it’s the unique sense of family you feel walking through the streets, as a stranger tells you to put a sweater on your baby girl “because it’s too cold outside for her.” Maybe it is the knowledge that you will always have someone to whine to, and someone to shamelessly brag to. There is some kind of crazy magic that makes those often rude, sweaty, impolite, way too emotional and sometimes brainy Israelis happy. Somehow this happiness is contagious!

As our Purim celebrations come to a close, hoping to infect you with some crazy happiness, uncensored smiles and uninhibited laughter, I wish you a very happy Adar.

Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s community shaliach (Israeli emissary) and director of the Weintraub Israel Center.