Amid the miasma of glum news from Israel is a light to be celebrated.
A scan of the headlines reveals existential worries. Proposals from the governing coalition of Israel are derided as threatening the democratic foundation of the country, an overthrow of the rule of law and a move that gestures to a dictatorship. The strife, which includes hundreds of thousands of Israelis protesting in the streets for more than 14 weeks, now is piled upon by more conflict – a resurgence of the intermittent terrorism that plagues the country and its peoples. Individual acts of terror against civilians, as well as cross-border violence in the form of rocket fire from Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, have unsettled Israelis already distressed by domestic affairs. Conflict in Jerusalem between the Israel Defence Forces and Muslims who barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque disrupted Passover, Ramadan and Easter commemorations over the weekend.
And yet, when an annual report on the happiness measurements of citizens around the world was released last month, Israelis had spiked to become the fourth happiest people in the world, up from ninth last year. Admittedly, the data were from 2020-2022, and so were not collected during the current upheavals, but they do cover the worst years of the pandemic and implicitly take into account other periods of terror, political turmoil and challenging times.
“The happiness movement shows that well-being is not a ‘soft’ and ‘vague’ idea but rather focuses on areas of life of critical importance: material conditions, mental and physical wealth, personal virtues and good citizenship,” according to Prof. Jeffrey D. Sachs, who is director of the Centre for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and is involved with the study. (Simon Fraser University’s Dr. Lara Aknin is also part of the World Happiness Report team.)
For the sixth year in a row, Finland topped the list as happiest in the survey, which measures life expectancy, GDP per capita, social support, corruption levels, generosity, people looking after each other, and freedom to make key life decisions. Canada came 13th.
One of the world’s foremost academic experts in the science of happiness is the Hebrew University’s Prof. Yoram Yovell, who is a well-known figure on Israeli TV and who visited Vancouver in 2019. Canada ranks high (though not as high as Israel), along with the Nordic countries, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, he explained during his visit here, in part because they share a developed world economy with social stability, fundamental freedoms, basic infrastructure like clean water, and supportive social welfare and healthcare systems.
Happy people, Yovall has noted, also tend to experience a sense of social cohesion and purpose. In Israel, some of that cohesion comes from the shared experience of military and national service and, for many, the decision to live in the Jewish state, which reinforces membership in a collective identity.
There may be something reassuring to Diaspora Jews about the happiness of our Israeli cousins. Many of us read the news and fret over the well-being of our family and friends overseas. It is a curious comparison to see Jewish Canadians wringing our hands while the objects of our concern are leaving us in the dust when it comes to the annual happiness rankings. Of course, it is not quite so clear-cut. A sense of well-being, happiness and overall contentment are slightly varying concepts and are not the same as carefree bliss. The meaning of life is a life of meaning, it has been said, literally or in effect.
As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of renewed Jewish self-determination in the state of Israel, despite all the concerning news, we can be happy that Israelis – and Canadians – consider themselves, overall, to be happy. And we can contemplate the conditions that contribute to happiness – and what changes are needed to improve those measures in other countries. Everyone has a right to well-being.