Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Happiest Countries

Synchronicity—the fantasy that the simultaneous occurrence of apparently unrelated events has meaning beyond mere coincidence—has always seemed a slippery concept for me. And yet it happens from time to time that I have two contiguous conversations that seems uncannily related to each other even though the people I’m actually speaking with don’t even know each other, let alone regularly (or ever) coordinate what they have to say to me. Other times it’s more of a literary phenomenon for me—I read two books or even two essays contiguously and find the meaning of both enhanced dramatically by their juxtaposition…even though they are only juxtaposed in terms of my personal reading habits, something the author of neither could possibly have anticipated.

I had an experience like that this week. First, I was very taken with Evelyn Gordon’s essay posted on the Mosaic website about her feelings regarding this year’s Better Life Index, an annual global survey published earlier this month by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and was prompted to read about it elsewhere in even more detail. (To see Gordon’s essay, click here.) What interested me particularly were the twenty-two specific factors identified as those the most tied to a sense of contentedness on the part of the individual and thus statistically brought to bear to figure out which of the surveyed countries have the citizens the most rationally described, to use the simplest term, as “happy.” (The OECD has thirty-four members states, including the U.S., Canada, Israel, and most of the European Union, but two non-members countries, Russia and Brazil, were included in the survey as well.) The factors were interesting in their own right and included, among other things, the respondents’ level of reported satisfaction with life itself, their sense of being in basically good health, their average amount of disposable income (that is, what’s left over when the bills are paid), their life expectancy, their overall level of satisfaction with the places in which they live, and their sense that they have “quality support networks” to rely on in times of trouble. It strikes me that it would be an interesting exercise to challenge myself to say what my personal twenty-two factors would be, the ones that I myself feel together constitute the definition of happiness. But now that I’ve had a chance to contemplate the ones in use in the OECD survey, they really do seem well chosen and reasonable. And so I continued to read.

The first four nations on the list—those countries whose citizens’ responses indicated a level of personal contentment with the givens of their lives that superseded the analogous level in all other countries included in the survey—were no surprise: Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Finland are stable, prosperous places with good school systems, first-rate health care, no rational reason to fear an attack from some rogue state beyond their borders eager to annihilate them, and a highly developed sense of pride in their national culture. Neither did numbers six through ten particularly surprise me, and for roughly the same reasons: Norway, Australia, Canada, Holland, and New Zealand are all wealthy places self-endowed with fine cultural institutions, excellent hospitals, first-rate universities, etc. But it was the country in fifth place (that is to say, the country of the thirty-six nations surveyed that ranked fifth in terms of the happiness of its citizenry) that surprised me mightily: little Israel. Also interesting is that it’s been more than five years since the United State was in the top ten, but I somehow find that easier to explain to myself than Israel’s presence on the list.

So there I was contemplating this very interesting list when my reading time was suddenly invaded by a different report, the much-awaited, wholly surprise-less, report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the 2014 Israel-Gaza Conflict. It’s impressive, actually, that after having squandered its moral capital with respect to Israel more or less utterly that the U.N. even bothers going through the motions of writing and publishing these reports. And yet they do. The successor to the infamous Goldstone Report of 2009 that was so biased against Israel that its own author, Richard Goldstone himself, eventually retracted his support for the most egregious of his own findings, this report appears to be just one more U.N.-based, knee-jerk effort to condemn Israel and thus informally to buttress its enemies. Its first chairman, William Schabas, turned out to be a paid consultant for the PLO and was duly gotten rid of. (Apparently there are levels of public hypocrisy too much even for the United Nations.) Another member was chosen because of his expertise in racism and racial discrimination, neither of which areas of expertise had any relevance to the Gaza controversy. Most damning of all was the fact that the study was commissioned by, of all groups, the U.N. Human Rights Council, a body so overtly and unabashedly hostile to Israel that it has taken the time to pass more resolutions against the Jewish State than against all other countries combined. (The Human Rights Council also commissioned the Goldstone Report in 2009.) Surprisingly, the report did criticize Hamas for its rocket attacks against Israeli towns—each one of which unambiguously targeted civilians—and, even more surprisingly, for Hamas’s extrajudicial execution of alleged collaborators, none of whom was tried, let alone vigorously defended, or convicted in court. But that, at least to me personally, sounded like so-much window dressing provided to provide the whole undertaking with an aura of evenhandedness. Back in March, when Secretary of State Kerry warned the Human Rights Council that its obsession with Israel risked “undermining the credibility of the entire organization,” he was really saying the very least. And this week’s report could reasonably be taken the Council’s insolent response to that sober warning.

But it isn’t specifically to take on the United Nations that I am writing today (or to wonder aloud, although I surely do, why the United States pays a whopping 22% of the budget of such a useless, morally bankrupt organization), but to describe my response to reading both reports, the United Nations Report on Gaza and the OECD’s 2015 Better Life Index report, one after the other. Some of the reasons Israelis are so happy are obvious. Of the thirty-six countries surveyed, Israelis have the eighth highest life expectancy and the eighth highest sense of their own good health. Surely, that counts for a lot! But what about the whole sense of dread and impending doom that any normal person who reads the New York Times or listens to NPR would expect to weigh Israelis down and make them, not the fifth happiest nation in the OECD (plus Brazil and Russia), but morose and fully consumed with anxiety and existential dread? And yet…Israel is number five in this year’s survey, ahead of every nation considered other than Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Finland. It isn’t money. (The average Israeli’s disposable income in 2014 was about $22,000, in the top of the bottom half of the nations surveyed.) And it certainly isn’t a sense that peace is close at hand. (0% of Israelis think that, which statistic I just made up but feel fully confident is correct.) 87% of Israelis, on the other hand, said they felt they personally had a strong support network backing them up in times of stress or trouble. But more telling still is that Israel was tied for fourth place when it came to the percentage of its citizens who said, simply, that they were satisfied with their lives.

So perhaps the real question has to do with that last statistic. What is it that makes people feel content despite everything in the world that could legitimately be brought to bear to make them unhappy? Israelis couldn’t possibly have more reasons to be worried. The prospect of a nuclear Iran is probably at the top of the list, as it certainly should be. But there are a million other reasons for Israelis to be unnerved by the universe and specifically by their contemplation of their place in it. And still they win fifth place in the personal-happiness sweepstakes, ahead of nations far more commonly thought of as wealthy, secure, places like Austria and Ireland.

In my opinion, what makes people happy is specifically not money or the level of luxury that characterizes their daily lives, but a sense of meaningful purpose, a sense of attainable destiny. To speak on the level of the individual, nothing is a surer guarantee of personal contentment than the belief that one’s life is purposeful, that one’s efforts have meaning far beyond the confines of one’s daily list of chores or one’s job, that one’s daily routine is part of a much larger program of meaningful endeavor that grants life the kind of meaning that transcends its day-to-day details. This, I’ve seen a million times over in the course of a career serving three different congregations: feeling purposeful, useful, and productive—and not merely busy, let alone overwhelmed with busy-ness—are the constant predictors of happiness in life. And what is true of people is, I’m guessing, also true of nations. America is a good example—for the 239 years that our nation has existed, its periods of greatest success and cohesiveness have been in the course of those years the most characterized by a shared sense of national purpose, and our most devastating retreat from national happiness—the War Between the States in which more than half a million citizens died at the hands of other citizens—was characterized specifically by unresolved differences over what precisely our national destiny was to be.
Israel’s great strength is its sense of national purpose. Indeed, the very notion of responding to history instead of merely attempting to endure its relentless vicissitudes—and responding to violence, prejudice, and hatred not with rage or rancor but productively and creatively by creating a safe haven for Jewish people in the homeland of the Jewish people—that is the story against which to interpret the contentment of Israel’s citizens. The majority of Israel’s Arab minority is made up of people who see a role for themselves in the only country of which they are citizens. The world seems to find that odd, but to me it isn’t any more weird or inexplicable than imagining Jewish citizens like myself buying into the national cultures of countries in which Jewish people constitute a tiny minorities, yet in which they have come to feel they have a place nevertheless.

When I am in Israel, it’s that sense of national purpose that always makes the strongest impression on me. It is wherein lies the nation’s true strength—in its sense of itself as existing at the confluence of history and destiny, and imbued with a deep, ineradicable sense of national purpose. That, I believe, is why Israel is the fifth happiest nation in the OCED.  And, of course, it’s also why I’m so proud to be off next week to spend the summer in Jerusalem. Joan and I aren’t citizens of Israel…but its sense of purposeful destiny is fully ours as well.

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