Summertime and the living is easy! Of all the seasons, probably summer is most closely associated with happiness. Vacation, camping, family time, celebrations, picnics: these are activities that we associate with happiness.
In Western culture, individual happiness is often considered the primary goal of life. What parent hasn’t begun a sentence with, “As long as you’re happy…”? In many other societies, happiness is subordinated to family needs, communal obligations or other less individualistic pursuits. But the pursuit of happiness has a long history in Western culture, codified most notably in the United States Declaration of Independence as an “unalienable right.”
Most of us probably enjoy our happiness without overthinking it. But an Israeli guru of happiness will be in Vancouver later this month and he has thought a great deal about the subject.
Prof. Yoram Yovell is a brain researcher, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst with a PhD in neurobiology. He is the author of bestselling books and is a regular face on Israeli TV.
The United Nations ranks countries on a scale of happiness, topped by the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia – and then Israel.
For people who have not been to Israel or who lack an understanding of its culture, it may be a surprise to find that a country whose history has been so wrapped up in violence and conflict would produce a population that is collectively as happy as almost any society in the developed world. There is, however, an explanation.
Stability, basic freedoms and an economy that allows for individual financial comfort or success are among the baseline requirements for societal happiness, notes Yovell. Things like clean water, a social safety net and an effective, accessible healthcare system are also on the list. In many cases, it is also critical to have a sense of cohesion and shared purpose.
While Israelis may no longer be as united as they were in the days of the early chalutzim, the requirement of military or national service plays a factor in building social cohesion and making individuals feel part of a larger whole. For many, the ability to live in the world’s only Jewish state is another factor that leads to shared purpose and, indirectly, to happiness. (It is worth noting that, although Israeli Arabs report being less happy than Jewish Israelis, their happiness levels are higher than Arabs in neighbouring countries.)
Economic challenges in Israel – inflation, high cost of living and such – do not ultimately have a huge influence on happiness levels, Yovell maintains. Once the most basic needs are met, incremental differences in income or GDP have little impact.
We could all take some time this summer to reflect on the things that make us happy. In so many cases, the things that make us happy are precisely the things that make our society better – volunteerism, engagement and participation in our community, getting outside (especially if it’s sunny!), spending time with family and friends. These are things we could all do well to be more conscious of, be grateful for and try to consciously encourage in our lives.