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The ongoing casualties of a prolonged war, fallen soldiers, and the unresolved hostage crisis made this year’s Memorial Day and Independence Day more solemn than usual. Most agree that Israel is experiencing some level of national trauma. How are we then able to understand the latest World Happiness Report claiming that despite the staggering toll of war, Israel fell only one rank from 4th “happiest” before the war to 5th after the outbreak of the war? If this seems implausible, it’s because it is simply misleading.

Happiness is a complex concept comprising several components, including life satisfaction and emotional happiness. Life satisfaction is a measure of quality-of-life (e.g., GDP, social support, generosity, life expectancy, minimal corruption, and freedom). Emotional happiness is the relative balance of high positive and low negative emotions.

The World Happiness Report used a single-item question asking participants to rate life in their country as “the worst” (0) to “the best” (10) possible life. This question is most strongly related to quality-of-life factors noted above and is open to many interpretations. Americans might say that life in the United States is the best because we are financially well off. Israelis likely say that life here is the best because it’s the most meaningful. But financial wealth doesn’t guarantee emotional happiness and a meaningful life is often fraught with stress and emotional challenges.

The World Happiness Report is ranking life satisfaction, not emotional happiness. The Report collected data on positive (laughter, interest, enjoyment) and negative (worry, sadness, and anger) emotions. However, it didn’t consider them in the rankings. When using emotional happiness scores rather than life satisfaction, Israel’s ranking shows a stunning freefall in mood that is cause for concern and appropriate responses. A standard measure of emotional happiness used in psychology for 40 years is a positive ratio, the percentage of total emotions that are positive. A country, for example, that scored 7 on positive emotions and 3 on negative emotions would have a positive ratio of 7/10 = 70%.

In the report covering the period before the war, Israel had a positive ratio of 72% which achieved a rank of 52nd, nearly identical to the United States, but far lower than the life satisfaction ranking of 4th or 5th. In the year measuring 2023 that included the first three months of the war from October 7 to December 31, Israel’s positive ratio fell by 24 percentage points to 48%, plunging their emotional happiness rank to 137th of 138 countries. The score today, four months later, would likely be lower.

What does a 48% positive ratio and 137th place ranking in emotional happiness mean? Although Israel remained relatively high in life satisfaction, its emotional happiness score ranks it sandwiched between two failed states: Afghanistan in 138th place with a positive ratio of 36%, and Lebanon in 136th with a ratio of 49%. To further understand the depth of this positive illusion about Israeli “happiness”, note that psychological research shows that a 50% positive ratio is associated with mild levels of diagnosable depression and anxiety. Globally, only about 5% of the population is clinically depressed. Therefore, most countries have emotional happiness ratios well above 50%, typically ranging from 60 up to 87%. Only Turkey, Lebanon, Afghanistan–and now Israel–are below 50%.

The bottom line: The strong sense of purpose and resilience in dealing with adversity allows Israel, despite the trauma of war, to maintain a decent level of life satisfaction. The sad truth is that the nation’s emotional happiness has plummeted from a pre-war normal level to clinically diagnosable levels of depression, anxiety, and anger. (Israelis are dealing with uncertainty about the hostages, mourning for the fallen, enlisted sons and husbands who have been in danger for months. Their responses on emotional happiness are expected, ed.)

Because the WHR influences public policy and funding, the myth of Israeli “happiness” could hamper appeals for necessary, ongoing assistance. Realistic coping is not achieved through denial but by acknowledging a problem head on and seeking appropriate help.

Israelis must clearly recognize the reality of reduced emotional happiness and work to rebound from this hopefully short-lived plunge into a national depressed and anxious mood. Other countries should look twice at the rankings to determine if they are happy emotionally, or just satisfied.

Robert M. Schwartz Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, researcher, and former faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He is a pioneer in positive psychology who developed a scientific method for measuring concurrent positive and negative emotions that underlies normal, optimal and psychopathological states.