Why is Israel the world's fourth happiest country?

The secret of Israeli's soaring levels of wellbeing is very simple, as any visitor knows


TOPSHOT - A woman wearing earrings depicting the Israeli flag smiles before demonstrators chanting slogans and waving Israeli flags in Jerusalem on May 29, 2022, ahead of the 'flags march' to mark "Jerusalem Day". - Thousands of flag-waving Israelis marched on May 29 into the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem's Old City during a nationalist procession that regularly stokes Palestinian anger, a year after Jerusalem tensions exploded into war. (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP) (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

March 23, 2023 10:12

Between the 1970s and mid-1990s, the number of people who bowled in America increased. Yet the number of people who bowled in leagues dropped.

This trend became the central example in political scientist Robert Putnam’s seminal book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. He argued that since 1950, Americans had dramatically reduced the time they spent interacting socially, leading to poorer, less meaningful, less interesting lives.

It also led to much lower civil engagement, for example, lower voter turnout, work on committees and attendance at public meetings.

In short, people have grown more solitary, lonely and inward-looking.

This thesis goes a long way to explaining a conundrum that in recent years has presented itself like clockwork each winter. Why are Israelis so happy?

The question arises with the latest findings of the World Happiness Report, which is sponsored by the UN-affiliated Sustainable Development Solutions Network. This year’s report shows Israel rising ten places since 2020, to fourth — right behind Finland, Denmark and Iceland. This is the happiest Israel has ever been.

Britain, by contrast, was ranked 19th, which put us behind the Americans (15th) — but at least we’re still happier than the French (21st).

Israelis’ happiness, at first glance, seems anomalous. The top-ranked countries have reputations as peaceful, quiet kinds of places. Israel is involved in a protracted dispute over its borders, its citizens are subject to frequent terror attacks, there is the existential threat coming from Iran and, while it’s a democracy, it is riven by internal tensions. There’s also terrible road rage and the price of cottage cheese is outrageous.

Is it possible that people living in this pressure cooker can really be the fourth happiest nation on Earth?

The stats that say “yes” are based on a combination of people’s own assessment of their situation, as well as economic and social data. They measure social support, income, health, freedom, generosity and the absence of corruption.

But while Israel might score well on most of these criteria, the one that is surely the outlier and the most obvious explanation for Israelis’ unusual sense of well-being is that first category, social support. For all its internal divisions, Israel is still a country driven by family and community connections to an extent that is rare nowadays in the West. Even secular Israelis will have Friday night dinner together regularly and come together to celebrate festivals, Independence Day, births, bar and bat mitzvahs and huge weddings.

Israel’s size plays to its advantage. When family members move away from each other, they are still usually within easy driving distance. As many of us who like to visit discover, holidays in Israel are never vacations in the traditional sense, but one long series of family meet-ups, punctuated by the occasional car ride.

Moreover, many Israelis live in relatively tight-knit communities. The high levels of religious affiliation — both for Jews and Muslims — means that daily life often revolves around synagogues or mosques, where friendships and support systems tend to form. Israelis are also bound by their army service, with those bonds re-enforced through regular reserve duty.

And outside of the main conurbations, many Israelis live on small yishuvim — often translated as settlements, but really just villages — where residents often lead intertwined and interdependent lives.

That social support has a huge impact on their overall levels of happiness. It also indicates why some commentators, who speculated that Israel’s rankings will drop next year, once the current string of political protests are taken into account, may very well be wrong; or at least why the protests may not make so big a difference to Israelis’ overall sentiment.

The protests are undoubtedly an expression of deep concern about the country’s political and judicial future. But Putnam’s thesis was that the drop in social interaction caused a drop in democratic participation and in the civic engagement necessary to sustain a vibrant democracy. Viewed in this light, Israel’s peaceful yet determined protests can be seen as evidence of a strong social fabric, where people care not only about their own futures but also about the collective, and come together to effect positive change. It is a symptom of the very “social capital” Putnam was concerned was on the decline.

This may even be a virtuous cycle, as some protesters have noted that the demonstrations have re-enforced a sense of solidarity and kinship.

The key to Israelis’ happiness, therefore, at least partially lies in the fact that they rarely bowl alone.

March 23, 2023 10:12

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive