Are Israelis Really Happy?

It happens to us every year. Ever since the Central Bureau of Statistics began publicizing its "social survey" data in 2003, we are surprised each time to hear that four out of every five adults in Israel are content with their lives. Last week, the CBS issued the "happiness meter" statistics (in fact, no such formal appellation exists; it is the writer's invention) for 2005: 82 percent of Israelis are happy with their lives, including 88 percent of young people. Many of these young people, mind you, were too disheartened with the situation to even take the trouble of casting a vote in the election that took place earlier this year.

Will the real Israeli people please stand up? Are we a people whose most fundamental human right is the right to grumble and whine? Or are we really so happy? Four years ago, when the CBS findings were first publicized, Haaretz conducted a poll of its own. In that poll, 80 percent of respondents also said they were happy with their lives. But then Haaretz expanded the menu of possible responses, at which point it became clear that the majority were only somewhat happy. It was also found that 85 percent were not happy with the "state of the state." One got the impression that the results in fact indicated that Israel was a country whose citizens had learned to accept the bad news with equanimity.

When you ask people to sum up their situation in a single word, they say "Okay." When you ask them to sum it up into more than one word, they answer "Not so okay." This is how statistician Rafi Smith interprets the findings on "satisfaction with one's life." "It's as if you would ask someone how things are going," says Smith. "He answers you with 'okay,' without telling you straight away the entire tale of all his woes. But if you delve deep, you'll find that he has quite a few problems."

One way to explain this, adds Smith, is that "when people talk about their personal lives, they have a tendency to beautify reality." The question, he feels, "doesn't tell you anything about life in Israel, about its complexity, or about what bothers people here."

"Israelis love life, like the Brazilians," says sociologist Prof. Oz Almog of the University of Haifa, who goes on to enumerate a few more reasons for our positive outlook: "All of the surveys show that it is alienation that leads to strongly negative feelings, and the key to enjoying life is the sensation that you belong. In Israel, there is a strong sense that the state belongs to me and I belong to the state. Israel is a country in which people wear few masks. They are less guarded; they look each other in the eye. There is an Israeli way of looking at a person. It's very comforting to live this way. There is a high standard of living here. There's also something in the climate."

So why do we grumble? "Complaining doesn't mean you're not enjoying life," the sociologist declares. "Some people complain and enjoy the act of complaining."

Explanations aside, Almog does not quite believe in these polls. "To a large extent, they're nonsense," he states. "They are the malignant disease of the social sciences."