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Surprising Science

Why is Israel So Happy?

What is the Big Idea?

Israel ranked 14th on the United Nations first World Happiness Report launched on April 2. Topping the list are peaceful and ultra-liberal countries like Denmark, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands.

How can this be? This is especially confounding when you take into consideration that Iran is threatening to obliterate Israel with its nuclear prowess. And as op-ed writer and author Giulio Meotti delicately puts it, Israel is “the only nation without recognized borders and globally selected to be an emblem of evil.”

In the face of such global threats, foreigners and perhaps Israelis themselves cannot explain what is making them so happy. 

What is the Significance?

Meotti, author of the bookA New Shoah: The Untold Story of Israel’s Victims of Terrorism, posits that “Israeli happiness is much more than the American dream of a large house and a nice car.”

Israelis are happy because they succeed demographically, says Meotti. They have low birth rates, high life expectancy, and high assimilation rates. 

“[They] are happy because their country has a history of scintillating enlightenment, with the highest production of scientific publications per capita in the world, more museums per capita and the highest worldwide publication of new books.”

The war-torn country had five Nobel Prize winners in the last five years. 

They also have economic success. They don’t have much in terms of natural resources, but they have the technology know-how and a flourishing high-tech industry. Dan Senor and Saul Singer talks about this in their book  Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle

Their technology start-ups attract more venture capitalist dollars per person than any other country in the world, said Senor. They get 2.5 times the U.S., 30 times Europe, 80 times India, and 300 times China. Israel has more companies on the tech-oriented NASDAQ than any country outside the U.S., more than all of Europe, Japan, Korea, India, and China combined.

As a young country surrounded by enemies and no natural resources to speak of, Israelis had to capitalize on adversity and create a culture of innovation in order to survive. 

“The fact that Israel specializes in adversity is most dramatically seen in downturns,” said Senor. “When the tech bubble burst and the peace process fizzled in 2000 to 2001, one might have expected the Israeli tech scene — then only a few years old — to evaporate. Instead, Israel garnered a larger market share of the global venture capital pie in 2005 than it did in 2000. Similarly, in the current downturn, Israel has been among the least affected and the first to recover among developed nations.”

So what is contributing to Israel’s economic success? It’s a little bit of chutzpah and a lot mandatory military training. 

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All non-Arab citizens in Israel serve in the Israel Defense Forces at 18 years old. Their training is comparable to a technology boot camp where 18 to 22-year-olds are assigned projects that expose them to cutting edge technology, teamwork, mission orientation, leadership skills. The experience instills in them a desire to continue serving their country long after they’re out of the IDF. 

Beyond the elite tech units, the military has a much broader cultural impact,” said Senor. “The compulsory service produces a maturity not seen in Israelis’ foreign peers who spend that time in university.”

They also get a little bit of help from immigrants, who Senor says are “natural risk takers since they were willing to uproot themselves and start over.” Israel is a pro-immigration country and have embraced the more than 70 nationalities in their small nation. And immigrants bring with them engineering talent that is perfect for the technology sector. 

Israeli is a resilient country, says Meotti. Even in the face of violence or uncertainty, “Israelis are also happy because they know that Dimona and the IDF are there to protect them, even if the army lost some of its famous deterrence.”

Image courtesy of  Protasov A&N/


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