Israelis Happy, Says OECD, Despite Low Ranking on Income and Education

A study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development finds that Israelis are among the most content people in the Western world, even though the country doesn't measure up to many other criteria.

Israelis are among the most content people in the Western world, even though the country doesn’t measure up by many of the criteria in a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Over the past year, the OECD examined quality of life among its 34 member countries, which includes Israel, and two nonmembers, Brazil and Russia. Its Better Life Index is based on 11 criteria: housing, income, labor market, community, civil engagement, education, health, environment, personal safety, balance between work and leisure, and an overall life satisfaction index.

Despite not ranking high among OECD countries on many criteria, Israelis scored particularly well by two measures − health, where Israel came in fifth out of the 36 countries, and happiness, where it came in eighth.

The study has an innovative approach. “Which country is number 1?” the OECD website asks. “That’s up to you! The OECD has not assigned rankings to countries.” If the respondent thinks housing is more important than the environment, for example, the site weighs that accordingly.

The study’s approach reflects an outlook among economists in recent years that measures like gross domestic product and unemployment don’t necessarily gauge quality of life. In any case, if the OECD ascribed equal importance to each parameter, Israel would not do well in the study. On a scale with 10 as the maximum, Israel would average about 5.4 and rank about 25 out of 36.

It’s not clear why Israelis are so happy, despite a relatively poor showing on measures such as housing, income, job security, community support and education. It could be that what makes the average Norwegian happy doesn’t do the trick in Israel. Or maybe Israelis try to appear happy even when they’re not and respond to pollsters accordingly.

The following is a sample of the findings.

Housing, 28th place

The OECD’s measure for gauging housing quality mixed criteria including the average number of rooms per person, the percentage of disposable household income going to housing, and access to basic infrastructure such as running water. The data, from 2010, put Israel in 28th place among the 36 countries.

The highest score went to the United States, followed by Canada and Ireland, while Turkey came in last place, with Estonia and Hungary just above it. The average Israeli has 1.2 rooms to himself compared with an OECD average of 1.6. Canadians are best off with 2.5 rooms per person.

Despite Israelis’ dissatisfaction with housing costs, as reflected in the 2011 social protest, Israel was in the middle of the pack regarding the percentage of household spending devoted to housing. Israel placed 20th with an average of 22% of net disposable income going to housing, precisely the OECD average.
The lowest average here was Russia at 11%; the highest was New Zealand at 29%.

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics says Israelis on average spent 28% of their net income on housing rather than the OECD’s 22%. In any case, an informal survey revealed that 83% of Israelis are satisfied with their housing, compared with an OECD average of 87%.

Income, 16th place

Israel ranks 22nd when it comes to disposable income ‏(about NIS 6,000 a month on average‏). On top here is the United States, followed by Luxembourg, Norway and France.

On the other hand, Israel ranks higher − in 10th place − as measured by household financial wealth at $47,750, based on 2009 data. This is higher than the OECD average of $36,238, and measures total financial worth, meaning the value of assets minus liabilities.

Health, 5th place

Israel ranks high on all measures related to health. The most important is life expectancy, which averages 82 for Israeli men, almost two years more than the OECD average. Israeli women on average live to 84. Ironically, Israeli spending on health care is just 7.9% of gross national product, compared with 9.7% in the OECD. And 81% of Israelis say they’re healthy, compared with 70% in the OECD. By this measure, Israel ranks 7th.

Happiness, 8th place

Israelis scored 8.5 out of 10 on the happiness index, despite an average or poor showing in many measures. This isn’t the first time Israelis have ranked high on well-being. A similar UN survey released about a year ago ranked Israel highly. In both surveys, the Nordic countries scored well, while nations with higher rates of economic inequality, such as the United States and Britain, scored more poorly.

An obvious explanation would be that in countries with greater equality and solidarity, people feel less social injustice and discrimination. But in Israel, this explanation isn’t convincing because economic inequalities are relatively high. Again, Israelis may try to appear happy when questioned by pollsters. Another explanation is that the sample may not have been representative.

Itzhak Harpaz of the University of Haifa’s Center for the Study of Organizations and Resource Management added: “Life expectancy in Israel is high, health is good, and we’re proud of the country’s accomplishments in science and high-tech. All of these affect how Israelis view their lives.”

Lior Dattel and Itai Trilnick contributed reporting. 

David Bachar