Three years ago, Alvin Wong received a call from The New York Times. After asking him a few questions about his demographic background, the excited reporter on the line gave Wong a piece of news that would upend his life: He was the happiest man in America.
His first response was utter disbelief.
“Who would ever have thought? You’re sitting around in your house, and someone says you’re the happiest guy,” Wong said. “I said, ‘Is this a practical joke that you guys are playing on me?’”
The reporter, Catherine Rampell, wasn’t kidding. The New York Times had asked Gallup, the polling firm, to assemble a statistical composite of the happiest person in America, based on its 2011 report on American well-being.
Gallup’s data painted a surprising picture: The hypothetical happiest American would be a tall, Asian-American man over 65 years old, who lives in Hawaii, is married with children, owns a business, earns a household income of more than $120,000 a year — and is an observant Jew.
In other words, Alvin Wong.
The 5-foot-10-inch Honolulu senior citizen was born to Chinese parents, is happily married and has two children. A convert to Judaism, Wong is active in his synagogue and keeps a kosher home. At the time, he ran his own health care management business and earned more than $120,000 a year.
The next day, the Times published a small article about Wong, noting that, by his own admission, “he was indeed a very happy person.”
Overnight, Wong became a celebrity in Hawaii and received worldwide media coverage. For six months, his phone rang off the hook. with calls coming in from the likes of Good Morning America and ABC World News. He has appeared on television and radio more times than he can count. A short independent film released in 2013, “The Happiest Person in America,” was inspired by his story.
“He called me one day and said: ‘Somebody just told me I went viral. What does that mean?’” his daughter, Shaaroni Wong, related.
All the attention led Wong, now 72, to start contemplating his own sunny disposition and to check out academic research on happiness. Determined to share his happiness with others, he decided to lecture on the art of contentedness. He has become a kind of happiness guru. “I’ve taken this on now as a life mission, to explain what happiness is all about,” he said.
Three years after his selection, the speaking invitations still roll in. Wong appears regularly at the many professional conventions held in Honolulu. He has spoken to schoolchildren, University of Hawaii donors and the Hawaii chapter of Hadassah. When the Forward called for an interview, Wong was preparing to address the Hawaii State Senate during its daily “moment of contemplation.” In the coming weeks, he will be featured on a PBS program about prominent Hawaiians.
But Wong says he has declined book deal offers. And he does not accept money for his speaking appearances; he is not interested in making money on his fame. “If I didn’t volunteer, and I was doing it as a business, I wouldn’t be as happy, would I?” he said.
His newfound title also brought a twinge of sadness. Many of the people who call him are not reporters, but unhappy people trying to discover his secret. “You get all these calls from India, Thailand, Russia, England, and they’re asking the same question: [What is] the secret of your happiness?” he said. “It made me unhappy in the sense that everyone was looking for the secret for happiness. It was eye-opening.”
Sometimes callers can be obnoxious, too. A rabbi once called and spent 30 minutes lecturing Wong on why Jews could not possibly be the happiest religious group because of their tragic history. Wong listened politely. “I never hang up. That’s rude,” he said.
Wong says that this sort of humility is the key to his happiness. “Humility teaches me that I don’t know everything, that I’m not the most important person,” he said. “If you don’t listen, you’re not going to learn anything.”