Low Income, High Prices and Wars: So Why Is Israel One of the Happiest Countries in the World?

Israel consistently ranks among the top countries on the World Happiness Report – well ahead of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany. How is that possible?

The beach in Ashdod. Number 11 in the rankings has remained quite stable over the past three years: Israel.
Ilan Assayag

Like all my friends, I know a great many Israelis who have left the country – some to Berlin, others to California, Miami and Paris. To my mind, and perhaps yours too, they are immigrants who left a problematic, dangerous and slightly backward country to search for more comfortable and happier lives in developed and enlightened nations.

In light of this view, it is very confusing to examine the data published annually since 2012 by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), a sort of international taskforce established at the initiative of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to implement sustainable policies for a better life.

The report found that Israelis who immigrated to the United States, France or Germany had moved to countries where the citizens’ happiness level was lower than in Israel. Israel has achieved a consistently high ranking in the world happiness report since it began, says Richard Layard, one of the three professors of economics who are the editors-in-chief of the report. This ranking is not a coincidence or a statistical mistake, but according to the parameters the report measures, Israel is a good place to live, he adds.

Locals at the beach in Ashdod, southern Israel. Israel has achieved a consistently high ranking in the world happiness report since it began
\ Ilan Assayag

The World Happiness Report is based on data from the Gallup World Poll, which measures 14 key areas relating to quality of life around the world. Some are rather objective and easy to measure. Others, more subjective and complex, are based on observations, indexes from the social sciences and, mostly, on questionnaires completed by sample groups. The six key variables used in the report are: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity.  

The latest annual report, for 2018, was released in March. The top 10 nations in the happiness rankings were: 1. Finland, 2. Norway, 3. Denmark, 4. Iceland, 5. Switzerland, 6. Netherlands, 7. Canada, 8. New Zealand, 9. Sweden and 10. Australia. These were the same top 10 countries in 2017 too, with small changes in the order. 

Finland also had the happiest immigrants: the 2018 report devoted special attention to migrants with the conclusion that the higher the happiness index in a country, the more satisfied the immigrants who arrived, as well. 

Pedestrians in Helsinki, Finland. The happiest place on earth.
Bloomberg

Number 11 in the rankings has remained quite stable over the past three years: Israel, which comes well ahead of the United States (18), the United Kingdom (19), France (23), and even Germany (15). The biggest gainer over the years was Togo, which moved up 17 places from its former last-place position; and the biggest loser is Venezuela. The bottom four countries are all from Africa: Tanzania, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Burundi, with Syria (150) and Yemen (152) not much better off.

Israel’s good showing was not a one-off result and not an accident, and every year when the Happiness Report is released, it arouses a wave of reactions, generally of two types. One is shock, which resounds on the social networks: “Why exactly is everyone here so happy? After all, housing is expensive, security is awful, corruption reigns and everything is insufferable,” writes one Israeli.

The other, opposite viewpoint comes out in opinion pieces and blogs; it says all the alleged negative things are just a figment of the media’s imagination – and Israel really has a stable economy, long life expectancy, excellent health services and a solid social and family framework that gives the individual a feeling of security and belonging.

A restaurant at the market in Jaffa. Why exactly is everyone here so happy?
\ Eyal Toueg

An interesting question is how the happiness index can be so high in a country in which even the debate over indexes themselves is so polarized and political. Social support, freedom and generosity are not characteristics we intuitively ascribe to the divided Israeli society, where life is pictured more as an ongoing mass brawl. In addition, it seems that everyone complains, mostly about the high cost of living. So then what brings Israel consistently to such a high ranking on the international happiness scale?

Exactly what is being measured?

It is worth narrowing down the discussion and defining precisely what the happiness index measures: It measures the ability of a country and society to provide citizens with economic security, proper medical care and a healthy long life, a feeling of freedom – of action, speech and movement – and the feeling of belonging to a group that we identify with and trust.

I’m not sure if this indeed describes happiness; in fact, I tend to doubt it. However, this is what the UN happiness report measures.

When you ask about Israel’s place in the happiness index, it must be examined in light of these issues. It seems a gap exists between the public discourse in Israel, which tends to describe the situation harshly, and the concrete data of the reality in Israel when it is measured from the outside.

High levels of inequality exist between social groups, housing prices are high and there are disagreements over how to divide up the resource pie, but nonetheless, Israel has a stable economy and a large part of the public is benefitting from the economic prosperity. While the public health system draws criticism, in practice it is rather inexpensive and of high quality. (This does not include mental health care, which, while it too has high quality staff, still suffers from a serious problem of scarce resources.)

The survey was conducted in Israel, not including the occupied Palestinian territories. In Israel proper, the public in general does not have a feeling of any major impingement on their freedom. The Palestinian territories were surveyed separately, and the results were quite different: They were ranked 104th out of the 156 countries surveyed.

Participants at the Tel Aviv gay parade in 2018.
\ Ilan Assayag

It is especially important to mention that the social support measurement in Israel is exceptionally high, Layard has noted. This is because the Israeli family is more resilient and has disintegrated less than the institution of the family in Europe and the United States. It has remained a major system of identity and support because of the geographical closeness and the close ties between parents and children in Israel – at all ages. In addition, and surprisingly, an overall feeling of solidarity and identification with society in general exists, too.

Despite the conspicuous hostility between communities and groups in Israel, a clear solidarity exists among Israelis in general, a high level of identification with the country and a tendency to unity. It seems this coming together is related to the situation of a long-term, ongoing war; it is an instinctive unity against a common enemy, says Layard. It increases the general feeling of belonging and the experience of happiness, or satisfaction, related to the Israeli experience, he added.

The parameters surveyed by the Gallup poll revolve around three main indexes: The economic situation, health and social issues. The survey was planned and conducted mostly by economists. It is constructed as a balance sheet: The greater the accumulation of positive reports and data, the higher the happiness index. Some of the figures are objective and some come from such material as a survey of feelings and social connections. But the survey does not examine directly how the public feels in the countries studied. All sorts of general feelings, such as conversation style; how bosses treat employees; driving style, accumulated anger at work, on the road and at the government are only indirectly represented in the results.

The happiness survey reflects the economic resilience of the population, its health and the social security net for people, but the elusive fabric of the “collective spirit” is much harder to characterize.

South American paradox

Layard is very much involved in efforts to increase happiness in Britain, alongside his other work. Happiness is a kind of balance sheet, he says, more positive feelings compared to negative feelings. Some of the negative feelings have a stronger influence, such as psychiatric illness, and as a result Layard says he has invested a great deal of his work in promoting psychiatric treatment in Britain and making it available to a wider group of patients. Mental health is indeed a major health issue; however, is being healthy synonymous with being happy?

In South America, in countries such as Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, the Gallup measures used in the happiness report are not very high. Income is not high for most people, the health systems are inadequate and the structured social support system is shaky. Nonetheless, when we measure other things – those not included in the report but ones that measure positive feelings and expressions of the joy in these countries – they are high in general, and even higher than in Israel, Sweden, Iceland or Switzerland, which score much higher in the official happiness report.

At the same time, Israelis exercise a high degree of expression of feelings such as worry, stress and anger. Scandinavian countries, which are in firm control of the top spots in the happiness rankings, have always struggled against high alcoholism and suicide rates, and have provided the world with an abundance of impressive but chilling art works that describe social and familial alienation and loneliness.

It would seem that the two responses in Israel to the happiness report have a firm basis in reality: Both the amazement at whether the index truly reflects the situation here; and also the thought that we must keep things in proportion when complaining that everything in Israel is deteriorating and corrupt – and the only solution is a foreign passport, possibly Polish (in 42nd place in the happiness index) or even Portuguese (77th place).

Other doubts and questions arise from the report concerning Israel, the more we delve deeply into the results. For example, what is the index actually measuring – since the authors deal only with a number of sectors of life they consider to be the most important, in particular economic, political and social security? The concept of happiness in this writer’s view is private, personal and even intimate.

A woman is taking a photo at a concert in Tel Aviv. The elusive fabric of the “collective spirit” is hard to characterize.
\ Ilan Assayag

The World Happiness Report contains important information for the public – and has political significance too. It seems to say that Israel is a good country to live in, and offers more opportunities than we usually think it does. Given the general conclusions of the happiness report, it may even be a good place for immigrants. However, we should remember that in the Palestinian territories, alongside Israel, the quality of life – based on the same parameters – is much lower. The report does not provide any clear insights that individuals could make use of in their personal lives, except perhaps as a reminder of the old adage about the neighbor’s grass always being greener.