The secrets of Israeli happiness and longevity

The secrets of Israeli happiness and longevity
Israelis on the beach in Tel Aviv (Reuters)

Think of Israel, and, for many, the first images that come to mind are of endless conflict, war and the constant struggle to survive against impossible odds. Israel’s external challenges, from constant and sustained attacks on its legitimacy to frequent threats of annihilation from its neighbours certainly contribute to this sense of endless strife. Moreover, Israel’s internal challenges, from caustic debates over the role of religion in society to how to address the country’s thousands of illegal migrants from Africa, to massive social protests over the cost of living, add to the sense that Israel is a tense place, constantly contending also with itself. All of these challenges combined might easily lead one to believe that Israel is a very unhappy society in which to live.

The reality, however, is actually far sunnier. Based on findings in a recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on life satisfaction in the developed world, Israel was recently declared the 6th happiest country on Earth. Israel, with all of its security concerns, ranked higher than even Australia, which ranked 8th. What’s more, Israel also ranked very highly, at #14, on the Columbia University’s U.N.-commissioned World Happiness Report, a survey of the happiness of every country on Earth, developed and developing. The overwhelming lesson to be learned from both of these reports is that Israel, despite the very real nature of its external and internal conflict, as well as its own citizens’ predilection to kvetch, has emerged over the past 64 years as a very successful, happy society.

It’s important to note that this trend isn’t a new one. A Dutch study dating back to 2000 ranked Israel as one of the world’s happier countries, and a 2010 Gallup poll ranked Israel as the world’s 8th happiest country (tied, at the time, with Australia). What’s even more striking is that Israelis remained relatively happy even through periods of intense violence such as the Second Intifada. Hebrew University of Jerusalem scholar Dr. Assaf Zussman notes that

“Israeli Jews’ self-reported satisfaction levels remained stable despite changing levels of terrorism. In 2002, considered the most violent year of the Second Intifada, 82.9% of Israelis stated that they were “very satisfied” or “fairly satisfied” with their lives; in 2003, which was calmer, 81.7% of Israelis expressed satisfaction; and in the following, even calmer year, the percentage was 82.4%.
The research shows that the level of life satisfaction among Israelis is less affected by terror than we are accustomed to think. […] Even in 2002, at the peak of the Intifada, Israeli citizens were content enough with their lives to be placed at a good middle spot in comparison with other western countries.”

Dr. Zussman does note that Israeli Arabs reported a decline in happiness during the Second Intifada, possibly out of fear of discrimination in the wake of attacks committed by terrorists from the Palestinian Territories. However, the point still stands that even during its darkest moments, and especially in recent years, Israel overall has remained a very satisfying society in which to live.

How could it be that a nation that has had to face existential internal and external threats since its establishment comes out as on average as a happier place to live than peaceful, prosperous Australia? The explanation for such a surprising state of affairs doubtless lies in many factors, including a tradition of strong family life, and sense of social cohesion and purpose (see below). However, one important factor generally cited is the strong overall health of the Israeli population, as well as its long lifespan. In a recent article in Ha’aretz, Meirav Arlosoroff notes the long lifespan of the average Israeli, one of the OECD’s indicators of a happy society, as one of Israeli society’s most notable features. She writes that:

“Israelis love to gripe about the country. Israelis think life here is much harder than in other Western countries. It turns out that Israelis also have a lot of time to devote to their grousing: life here may be difficult, but Israelis live long lives.
At 81.5, Israel has the sixth highest life expectancy in the world. This is mainly because of the men, statistically speaking. Israeli men can expect to live 79.6 years, on average, the third highest in the world, bested only by men in Switzerland (79.9) and Iceland (79.7).”

Arlosoroff also points out that Israel’s wealthy economy also contributes to this longevity, in that:

“Part of the answer lies simply in money. Citizens of OECD member countries are not only the richest: they boast the highest life expectancy. This is little surprise: it is well recognized that money can buy health services, which in turn prolongs life.”

Money as a means by which to access health care, however, does nothing for national life expectancy if the health care system itself is inadequate. Israel, however, has one of the world’s strongest health care systems:

“[…] its health services are apparently still one of the better ones on the globe. Despite growing concerns about recent deterioration, the health system here is quite advanced and fairly egalitarian and accessible.”

Arlosoroff also discusses how the Mediterranean diet and climate are additional beneficial factors contributing to longevity among Israelis, but she also points out that:

“[…] other Mediterranean countries have similar dietary habits and climate, without boasting particularly long life-spans. Greece, for example, lags far behind Israel in its citizens’ life expectancy.”

It appears, then, that beyond strong institutions, a pleasant climate and a healthy diet, another factor is also contributing to Israel’s overall happiness. Arlosoroff cites Professor Yehuda Kahane’s explanation that a high quality of life often emerges from both hardship and a common feeling of social cohesion and purpose. The generation that survived the Holocaust, established Israel and fought in its wars of survival were motivated by this, Kahane says, and to an extent that social cohesion still exists in Israel today. The dynamic of life expectancy increasing during periods of hardship has been documented in the past, when average English life expectancy during World War II actually increased, despite the large number of English casualties, because, as Arlosoroff says, “the war brought about social cohesion and gave purpose to life, which prolonged the lives of the elderly folks at home.” The same case could be made for Israel, which is no stranger to such existential challenges.

Despite widespread negative perceptions, then, the truth is that Israel has developed against remarkable odds into a vibrant, successful and happy society. Israel’s economic ascendance over the past two decades into the “start-up nation” that it is today further underscores its resilience in the face of its many challenges. Israel’s strong international showing on measures of happiness and longevity is just one more indication of how truly successful this mix of resilience and nation building has been.