|Israeli happiness is a remarkable thing|
|Friday, 08 June 2012 03:05|
|The decline of Jewish historical angst counts for something|
List #1: A major war every decade, minor military campaigns every few years, universal army service in the prime of early adulthood, and for many citizens, an additional several weeks a year of reserve duty for years thereafter; very dense housing and traffic in the center of the country; very hot and humid summers with no rain for seven months; a hotheaded, loud and gruff population; a dysfunctional political system; and a high cost of living with relatively low salaries.
List #2: According to the latest United Nations’ worldwide survey, the people of Israel are the 14th happiest of all! You’re probably thinking: The U.N. can’t get anything right. But these results are quite consistent over the years from a host of different surveys. So the question is not what the U.N. survey is doing wrong, but what Israelis are doing right.
The answer lies in the word “Israelis,” as in “people.” For when they are asked how they would rate the country’s situation, Israelis tend to give the social, economic and political conditions rather low marks. In other words, Israelis live in a clearly differentiated world: the country’s macro-social situation (not so good) versus the micro-personal situation (doing very well, thank you).
Certainly anyone reading the daily papers would have to agree with at least the former diagnosis: social protests everywhere, ongoing political corruption trials and deteriorating national security situation (read: Iran). You name it, Israel’s got it. So where’s the “good life?” What’s there to be happy about?
Luckily for me this is not an academic article, so I can go out on a speculative limb here. These are some of my thoughts on the matter.
First, Jewish holidays are intrinsically lugubrious (slaves in Egypt, Temple destruction, Holocaust remembrance) – but then Israelis realize that at least for now, we’re past that. Call it the decline of Jewish historical angst – relative to the past, we’re doing pretty well!
Second, as I noted in an earlier column, Israel is a highly social society – that’s not a tautology, because in this age of rampant virtuality, most advanced countries have a distinctly non-social (not to mention pockets of anti-social) society. People are happy when they are with other people – and it is hard to find a “lonely” Israeli
Third, and somewhat related, Israelis have family nearby. Whereas many (most?) American children live a plane flight away from their parents and siblings, the vast majority of Israelis are, at most, a couple of hours’ drive away from their loved ones. Holidays are happy-days because of familial togetherness coupled with general national feelings of “all Jews are responsible for one another” (“kol Yisra’el arevim zeh la-zeh”). Fourth and finally, what gives people true satisfaction is to be part of something “big” and “important.” That’s true at work, but it’s even more true when one is part of an historic nation-building project. Israelis aren’t just “living” – they are “making history.” This is equivalent to what in the argot of the Internet we now call “crowdsourcing” or “Wiki” – the collective effort to bring about something larger than ourselves. This something is close to miraculous when considering where we came from – from the Holocaust to dirt-poor new state under massive attack for starters.
Did I just contradict myself? How can Israelis complain so much about the state of their state and still feel pride in what the country has achieved as a result of their individual efforts? Well, that’s another part of the answer: democracy and complaining. As a Russian immigrant explained when asked why he moved to Israel if everything was fine in the Soviet Utopia: “Here [in Israel] I can complain.”
Freud would understand: The more steam you can let off your chest, the happier you’ll be. From that standpoint, I expect Israelis to rank even higher on the happiness scale in the years ahead....
PROF. SAM LEHMAN-WILZIG teaches at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. In 2008-09 he was Schusterman Visiting Professor at Brown University. Visit www.profslw.com.