Why are the Israelis so Damn Happy?
By now everyone in Israel has read the results of the study published earlier this month that showed Israelis ranked among the happiest people among the Western nations, despite an extensive laundry list of problems in their country.
Israel ranked low in terms of income, housing, education and security for example—all things we would typical associate with contentment. As an Asian-American who hails from San Francisco, I could add a few of my own complaints to the list: lack of ethnic food, the outrageous cost of imported goods, the raging summer heat, the marginalization of minorities and refugees, and the famous Israeli frankness that has me constantly fielding questions about why I pay so much for my apartment and my (ever so subtle) fluctuation in weight (Up or down? Eating cakes or working out?), chief among them.
So then why—if they probably can't find a job or afford the apartment that they live in—are Israelis so damn happy?
War has quite a bit to do with it. The fact is that Israel has been in a perpetual state of war—or under the threat of war—since David Ben-Gurion declared independence in May 1948, the only Western country in the world in which this is the case.
Even during periods of "peace," there still seems to exist, at a minimum, a potential intifada brewing in the West Bank, or chemical weapons making their way into the hands of Hezbollah, or rockets being lobbed into the country from Gaza.
And this has created a fascinating psychological paradox, one that has been studied extensively by Professor Zahava Solomon of Tel Aviv University. On one hand, as she told me in a recent phone interview, the culture of conflict has made Israelis constantly aware of their potential demise; on the other it has made them virtually fearless. 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? (An exercise that Stephen Covey recommended in his wildly popular “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” although admittedly “live in a war zone” did not make the list.)
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, or park on the sidewalk if there was no other parking within a five-block radius. You might climb a mountain, or go scuba diving or backpack in South America for a year. All things that Israelis do in droves, and that, in my opinion, probably lead to a more fulfilling existence.
This brings us to the second part of the paradox: Israelis have a lot to fear. And so they've learned to fear nothing. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that Israelis recover from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) more quickly than people of other Western nations. The study compared people who experienced 18 months of terror during the Second Intifada to New Yorkers after 9/11 and found that the amount of PTSD in Israel was similar to New York immediately following the collapse of the Twin Towers. However, one and two months after the attack, PTSD was significantly higher in the U.S. than it was during the Second Intifada.
Several studies have repeatedly illustrated the rapid habituation to new conflicts by the Israeli public. And still other studies have consistently shown that while the level of anxiety in Israel is typically higher than other Western nations, the level of clinical anxiety remains very low, even during periods of immense violence. So even though Israelis are painfully aware of the never-ending threats, they're also braver because of them. By experiencing more anxiety on a daily basis, they've become inoculated against bad things when they do occur, and habituate to them rapidly. They are able to function in spite of them. And if they have learned how to get on with life despite a credible threat of chemical warfare or irate threats coming out of Iran, it follows that they can probably deal well with housing and economic woes. Everything here is simply small potatoes in comparison.
Daily life in Tel Aviv is rife with examples of this: A dog bites another dog at the park. Maybe a little yelling ensues in the good Israeli way, but no one throws any punches or threatens to sue. Someone cuts in front of you in line at a chaotic grocery store on Friday afternoon. You grumble but let it pass. Apartment hunting on foot in 110 degrees all day? Should've worn layers. You can't get an office job out of the army so you wait tables for a few years? Nothing to be ashamed of.
These experiences, I'm embarrassed to admit, have the ability to frustrate me to the point that my day (or week, or month) is ruined. And part of the struggle living here is that they often do. But to an Israeli, my thinking about these things one minute after they happen seems like overhyped drama.
And this tough Israeli psyche doesn't just manifest itself within the die-hards who’ve lived here for decades, like my 86-year-old ex-paratrooper neighbor Fishkay, who was born in Israel and says, "Nothing scares me" with such a stone-cold expression on his weathered face that you truly believe him. Even young people who had never experienced conflict before this last scuffle in November handled it better than I did.
I crumpled into a ball in the rocket-proof hallway of my Tel Aviv apartment building and sobbed into my dog’s fur. (Unfortunately Fishkay was on hand to witness the whole humiliating display.) “Why aren’t they scared?” my American friends and I uttered to each other in disbelief for the entire duration of Operation Pillar of Defense.
Being raised in Israel lends to a unique mental capacity for overcoming hardship that is unlike any other Western country in the world, a mindset which, if you’re living in a place where it's tough to find a job or pay your rent and people regularly threaten to wipe you off the map, could come in pretty darn handy.
So where does that leave me? 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” like the Target slogan so succinctly proclaims?
Like everyone else in this country I’ll either have to adapt and be happy or get out. And in true Israeli fashion, I'm sure the locals will be cool with it either way.