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Why the Beasts Fail to Understand Israeli Happiness


A recent, much-read article by Tiffanie Wen in the Daily Beast tried to figure out “Why are the Israelis so Damn Happy?” It based itself on an OECD study of 36 democratic countries, which found that while Israel doesn’t score very high on some major parameters like housing, income, job security, and education, it does score high -- eighth on the list -- for happiness. (Israel also got a high happiness score on other studies, such as this one.)

Considering that Israel has also experienced far more war and terrorism than any other democratic country since its founding in 1948, that result may seem puzzling. Wen, in fact, claims that “war has quite a lot to do with it” and goes on to say:

Think about it. How would you act if you woke up every morning thinking that this day could be your last? Or at least took a moment to imagine how you would be eulogized at your funeral?...

The point is this: you’d enjoy the day you had. And if you continued to survive until the next morning, this daily exercise might develop into a mantra for how you lived your life. And you might bother to take that beach day, or spend more time with your family. You might grow a pair and launch that startup you’ve been thinking about (Boom: Silicon Wadi) or stop a beautiful woman on the street and insist that she have lunch with you….

First of all, there’s a measure of truth to this. It’s true that a sense of living with threats in the background concentrates the mind on the small pleasures, the good stuff. And Wen also notes a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicating that Israelis — who are more toughened by bad stuff — “recover from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) more quickly than people of other Western nations.”

But beyond this limited measure of truth, Wen’s description verges on caricature. I’ve never known an Israeli in normal circumstances who wakes up every morning thinking the day could be his or her last. If one wants to understand why Israelis score high on happiness, “I could be dead any minute so I might as well enjoy myself” won’t get you very far.

Wen, an Asian-American from San Francisco currently living in Tel Aviv, acknowledges being “a non-Jew who doesn’t identify with the historic narrative of persecution; a non-Israeli who is unaccustomed to living under the threat of war; and an American that has come to ‘expect more and pay less.’…”

In other words, while it’s nice that she wants to try living with us, she’s not in a great position to understand a lot about the country. Even that phrase “the historic narrative of persecution” doesn’t sit well; while such a narrative exists in the Jewish ethos, so do a lot of other, more positive themes that hold more promise when it comes to answering the question Wen raises.