Israel's Happiness Index Be Damned: Gov't Should Build Roads, Not Read Minds

A UN survey says Israelis are the 11th happiest people in the world; Gallup found them to be quite morose. They had the same data. Maybe happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Happiness is hard to quantify: government would do well to confine itself to building bridges, not basing policy on 'happiness' gauges.
Happiness is hard to quantify: government would do well to confine itself to building bridges, not basing policy on 'happiness' gauges.Credit: Reuters
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

Are you, Mr. or Ms. Average Israeli, happy, or not?

According to the United Nations World Happiness Report released last week, Israel ranked No. 11 in the world, way ahead of joie de vivre kinds places like France (29) and Italy (50), although behind no-nonsense countries like Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark.

Being released on Independence Day last week, the poll made the rounds on social media, bolstering our national pride and compensating for the fact that the weather was cold and rainy.

But then there was the Gallup Poll released a month earlier to mark the International Day of Happiness, March 20. It showed that Israelis are miserable. Our national score put us in the bottom third of worldwide mirth rankings between a marginally happier Iran and slightly more dour Mongolia.

In the Gallup survey, the world’s happiest people all live in Central and South America, whose countries occupy all the top 10 spots, including Venezuela, where basics like toilet paper are perpetually in short supply. The others are all mostly poor and don’t measure up well by the usual social and economic barometers.

The gap between Israel’s place in the two happiness indices wasn’t particular big, but the fact is that all of the UN’s most joyous countries came out much less gleeful in the Gallup rankings.

Frankly, my dear

How can we be so happy and so sad at the same time? Needless to say, Gallup felt compelled to answer this question since both surveys use the same polling data, and back their conclusions with references to 30 years of serious scientific research into happiness.

The answer is pretty straightforward: The UN asked people to rate their lives on a scale of 0-10. Gallup asked people whether they actually had recently enjoyed positive experiences, such as feeling well-rested or doing something interesting; or negative ones, like stress or physical pain.

Apparently Israelis don’t get much positive feedback from each other, but they don’t give a damn either. But, then again, they don’t seem to be influenced by anything else either.

Happiness and the Bibi factor

Research has shown that contrary to what everyone would like to believe (but no one really does), the more money you have, the higher you rate your life. Except, of course, in Israel and Latin America.

The UN report lines up happiness quotients with more objective indicators like GDP per capita, life expectancy and the level of corruption in society. The world’s happiest countries all do well by these measures until you get to Israel at No. 11, when all of sudden the objective bar shrinks relative to the happiness bar.

In other words, based on prosperity, Israelis (and Latin Americans) are happier than they should be.

Now Bibi’s election victory starts to make sense. Prices for housing and cottage cheese have soared, greedy tycoons are crushing us and huge numbers of us live under the poverty line, yet we’re happy despite it all and have returned Netanyahu to office twice since 2009.

And, here’s the scientific evidence to prove it: According to the UN report, Israel’s happiness quotient rose between the 2005-2007 and 2012-2014 periods by 0.269 points.

One starts to feel a lot like Winston Smith – George Orwell’s clerk at the Ministry of Truth in 1984 – while reading the 170-page World Happiness Report.

“How much weight should be given to the happiness of future generations – the [fourth] chapter suggests a pure time discount rate of no more than 1.5% per annum,” we are told in a typical passage.

You can imagine what attending an International Day of Happiness Day ceremony would be like, but, encouragingly, a cursory Google search found no signs of one.

A crazy little thing called regulated love

The Orwell reference isn’t for nothing. There is already an unfortunate phenomenon of turning everything from haute cuisine to religion and literary criticism into a science, with the best intentions, of creating a better and more rational world. Whether we get better food or a higher form of faith as a result is debatable, but certainly when governments take it upon themselves to intrude into the very private and happily amorphous spheres like love, artistic creativity and happiness, little good is likely to come out of it.

But that is exactly what the UN Happiness report thinks governments should do.

“To build a better world requires that decision-makers give a central role to the happiness criterion in decision-making at every level, requiring changes both in how outcomes are evaluated and in how policies are designed and delivered,” the report recommends.

Of course, happiness policies can and should be backed up by exacting science, the report says.

But that’s no insurance policy against abuse. Marxism began its life as “scientific socialism” and easily morphed into Stalin’s death camps and the insanity of North Korea. Better to let governments attend to building roads, helping the needy and administer a reasonably just and orderly society; let people decide whether they are happy and how they want to achieve it.

There’s a second reason why governments should stay away from happiness even it could be scientifically measured and improved by laws, policies and programs. The happiness that the UN talks about is really contentment -- the feeling that you have what you need and don’t require more. Happiness is what you feel after getting a promotion or finding a dress in the store that flatters you; contentment is what you feel after the end of an ordinary day when your world feels all in place. There’s nothing wrong with either emotion, but the world needs lot of people who don’t feel content.

The ex-wife of the celebrity entrepreneur Elon Musk recently responded in Quora, a user-generated question-and-answer website, to a question about how to be not just successful but extremely successful, like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Her answer for anyone who aspires to happiness or contentment isn’t encouraging. “These people tend to be freaks and misfits if the work itself doesn’t drive you, you will burn out Be obsessed. Be obsessed. Be obsessed,” were among the bits and pieces of her answer.

It’s not exactly the portrait of a man at peace with himself, but then without Musk or someone like him no one would be developing an electric car or civilian space travel. Contented people don’t write great novels, start up companies, practice hours at the piano or endlessly urge their children on in school. It’s the wrestles and non-content who are aspiring to something they don’t have and thereby make the world go round. Governments should do nothing to discourage that.

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