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Wealth and Happiness

A paper presented at The Seventh Anglo-Israel Colloquium: “Wealth and Happiness: Quality of Life in Israel and the United Kingdom,” at Kfar Blum, 1-3 November, 2007

We seem to be conditioned to the myth that wealth automatically brings happiness. Most people imagine that their lives would be much happier if only they were rich.
However, the studies by Kahneman and Tversky that gained the Nobel Prize for Economics for Professor Kahneman are disappointing in that sense. Very rich people are no happier than average people. It seems that beyond the basic material level human happiness does not depend on wealth.

 On the macro level we can see a significant statistical connection between the wealth of a country and the happiness of its citizens. Researchers at Leicester University published findings on the level of happiness in different countries. Denmark and Switzerland were at the top of the list. The US was 23rd, the UK was placed forty first and Israel fifty eighth. Lowest on the list, at 178, were the African citizens of Congo, Zimbabwe, and Burundi.

However, there is a contradiction between the macro and the micro levels. Living in Denmark doesn't necessarily make you the happiest person on earth. People always compare themselves with the next door neighbor, so if you are poor by Danish standards it’s no comfort if you are rich compared to the Chinese. Further, even when people become better or worse off, they adapt themselves very quickly to their new situation. For example, a study that examined the happiness level of the100 richest people in the world found that they were no happier than ordinary people. Lottery winners or high tech people who made the "exit" returned to their basic level of happiness a few months after their success.

We conclude from this that most of the myths about happiness are either wrong or relate to things beyond our control. For example, in order to be happier it's clearly better to live in a rich democracy than in a poor autocracy, to have a family and a social life, and not to be involved in wars and other catastrophes. In addition, it's a waste of time to earn a lot of money, enjoy good health, gain education, and move to a city with a better climate.

So what does make us happy? It is mainly two simple things: pleasure and satisfaction.

It's true that we can say that we love chocolate ice cream and that we love our jobs. We use the same word, love, but, the emotional reaction and process of each of these states is different. One means pleasure. The other usually means satisfaction.

Pleasure is a relatively raw phenomenon – it is physical and sensory. It requires little thought, and its effect diminishes quite rapidly. This makes pleasure a bit addictive – you need more and more in order to keep a constant level of pleasure, and then you have withdrawal symptoms, because you might experience difficulties or moodiness when it ends.

Satisfaction is a more sophisticated phenomenon than pleasure. The main thing that differentiates between them is that: when it comes to pleasure, there is always the anxiety that it's going to end. It's a limited resource, initially powerful, but each temporal minute that passes also means the fading of pleasure.

In contrast, when you experience satisfaction, the flow of time becomes harmonious so time loses significance. Instead, it passes faster and people feel more energetic and fulfilled. Time passing does not feel like time lost. Though it lacks the intensity of pleasure, it can be retained for much longer.

Modern life presents us with many chances for immediate pleasure in the form of TV and shopping malls. But it seems that these limited activities increase the feeling of emptiness and depression. Nevertheless, people continue to opt for them. This might be the reason for the increase in the rate of depression in wealthy countries over the last century. Food, TV and drugs are a quick and immediate solution, but they fade away at the same speed. Educating children towards the consumption of these products will make them unhappy as adults.

It's not surprising, therefore, that during the last century there was a massive increase in clinical depression rates. Most of the population of the western world will experience a state of depression at least once in their lifetime.

I will devote the last part of my talk to Israel. If we make global comparisons, we have in Israel, simultaneously a higher rate of clinical depression but also a higher rate of happiness. I'll try to interpret this statistical finding from a more anthropological point of view.

First, the citizens of Israel suffer from relatively high stress because of the security situation. There are definitely specific populations who are at greater risk, like elderly people, those who live in war zones, minorities and so on.

But lifestyle in Israel is not connected only to the current situation. It has also to do with the past. The Jewish people lived in exile for more than 2000 years and had to fight for their survival many times. They acquired the image of a motivated people who emphasisepersonal achievement. This approach meant that they had to demonstrate resourcefulness and to improvise in order to bypass restrictions and obstacles, and to survive. These elements have remained in the DNA of the Israelis even in their own country. We know that entrepreneur-ship in Israel is very strong. However, it does not come without a price. Israelis have a problem with conservation and long-term planning.
How does this connect to happiness and a relatively higher happiness rate in Israel? I'm not sure we have the definite answer for that, but I'll try to suggest rather an extreme interpretation. It seems to me that life in such a situation is full of challenges. I think this hectic lifestyle keeps the Israelis’ satisfaction level higher than might be expected. If you tell the average Israeli about the calm lifestyle in a normal country like Denmark or Switzerland, they will tell you that it's too boring. The Israeli citizen has become used to listening to news broadcasts every half hour and continually takes part in public debates. I suspect that, if a peace agreement were to be achieved one day and real peace were to come to  this country, we would all fall into depression and boredom, unless we can become wise enough to develop an alternative to our hectic life style within  the current fragile security situation.

In summary, although life in Israel is stressful compared with that in many other countries, and increases the rate of clinical depression and anxiety, there is a cultural heritage to be created in: being in action, and being constantly challenged by circumstances. This keeps people’s interest levels high, and their social bonding relatively strong. All these generate, at the end of the day, a higher degree of happiness than might be expected.

So what does make people happy? Mainly being challenged all the time, in a supportive environment, about the things that give meaning to life. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that our education system works accordingly with this mission in view.

We don't have enough time to get into this now, but there is a way of educating children to find satisfaction in life and thereby to reduce the probability of depression by up to fifty percent. This is, at least, according to the findings from the prevention programs conducted by Prof. Martin Seligman, the leader of the positive psychology approach in the United States.

I think that this conference is an opportunity for us to find ways of influencing the education of the younger generation, in order to make them more satisfied and happier in life.