Happiest American Is Still Hawaiian, Jewish and Chill

How Alvin Wong Became an Unlikely Symbol of Contentment

Mazel Tov: Alvin Wong was informed by The New York Times that he is the happiest man in America.
Courtesy of Alvin Wong
Mazel Tov: Alvin Wong was informed by The New York Times that he is the happiest man in America.

By Hody Nemes

Published April 21, 2014, issue of April 18, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.