Gallup Poll shows Israel high on happiness index

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By Rabbi  Dow Marmur

JERUSALEM–Though I grew up in Sweden I never thought of its citizens as being particularly happy. In the 1940s and 50s we heard a lot about drunkenness and suicide but not much about life as bliss. Denmark, on the other hand struck us even then as a very happy place.            

According to a just published Gallup poll, Denmark does indeed scores highest on its happiness index: 720 Danes of the 1000 who were asked there and in 123 other counties described themselves as very happy.

Surprisingly, however, Sweden seems to have caught up with 69%, the same score as Canada. Much seems to have changed in Sweden in the last half-century.

Foreigners may be even more surprised that Israel is in seventh place with 63%, a higher score than countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Holland and New Zealand. Whereas citizens of these and other countries often assume that, in view of Israel’s notoriety in the news and its complicated political and security situation, as well as the grim statistics about people living below the poverty line, its residents would be miserable, the cold figures produced by the reputable polling company suggest otherwise.

Real misery is to be found in several African countries as well as Haiti, all of which scored in low single figures only.

This week of Pesach has been a telling illustration of the kind of affirmation of life that prevails in Israel. About a million Israelis (15% of the total population) visited parks, museums and other places of interest in the land. Countless families came together to celebrate. Hundreds of thousands went abroad to relax and to explore.

Though the standard of living in Israel is considerably lower than not only in Denmark, Sweden and Canada but also in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia (#4 on the list) and New Zealand (#8), the ability to affirm life and enjoy it seems to be greater here. Gallup doesn’t offer any reasons for it and it’s probably inappropriate to speculate about them. Yet a few factors are worth mentioning:

*Most Israelis come from countries where they were much more vulnerable to physical attacks and economic hardships; for them Israel has become a real haven.

*Jewish tradition, even for those who wouldn’t describe themselves as religious, matters more than some would let on. It offers a structure and a framework for the marking of times and seasons. Living in “Jewish time” makes for happiness.

*Not only its countless holy places, but the sheer magic of the land itself, from the desert in the south to the vineyards in the north, affect not only tourists, many of whom come back again and again, but also the locals. We spent two of the Passover days travelling to places of interest and admiring the views. It made it a very special holiday.

*Despite the debilitating pressure, exacerbated by the current turmoil in the region, most people here feel that their lives matter and that what they do makes a difference. The group of 18 who sat around the Seder table at which we were present started life in half-a-dozen countries around the world before they found their way here; five of the youngsters were currently serving in the army. Time and place came together.

Gallup may be telling us something we tend to overlook: happiness doesn’t mean that all our needs are satisfied, only that the prospects, the challenges – and the dangers – that are before us bestow a unique dimension to our existence. It’s an affirmation of life.


Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.  He now divides his year between Canada and Israel.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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