We’ve all experienced unexpected surprises in life. They can be shocking, daunting or even scandalous—or amusing, gratifying and amazing. Last Friday was National Smile Day, a celebration founded by Harvey Ball, creator of the iconic smiley face. As I was writing about the true meaning of that day, I couldn’t help but think of my friend, Alvin Wong, who was identified as the Happiest Man in America by the New York Times in 2011.
This isn’t an annual contest, or a commercial endeavor to promote anything. Today Gallup does an annual Global Emotions Report that polls almost 150,000 adults in 140 countries. In the U.S., that amounts to 1000 randomly selected Americans who are called and asked about their emotional status, work satisfaction, illnesses, stress levels and anything else that indicates quality of life.
So why did they identify the happiest man in America and not other countries—and why is he a man? Here’s Alvin’s story and the message we can learn from him.
How I met the happiest person in America
In early 2011, the New York Times asked Gallup to come up with a statistical composite of the happiest person in America. Gallup’s research showed that men tend to be happier than women; older people are happier than middle-aged and younger people; and so on.
But Gallup’s answer to the New York Times was surprising, to say the least. They found that American’s happiest person is a tall, male, Asian-American who is an observant Jew, over 65, married, has children, lives in Hawaii, has his own business and earns over $120,000 a year.
With that profile in hand, a New York Times reporter called contacts in Hawaii until they found their man— my friend Alvin! He is 5’10, 69 years old, Chinese-American, Jewish, keeps Kosher, has two daughters, lives in Honolulu, runs his own health care management business and earns more that $120,000 a year. And he is married to my friend Trudy.
When he was reached by phone by a New York Time’s reporter to tell him of the honor, his first response was utter disbelief. “Is this a practical Joke?” But then, by his own admission, he said, “I am indeed a very happy person.” And dear readers, I can attest to that.
How did I become the Wongs’ friend? I met Trudy two weeks after my family and I had moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. As soon as I had my girls settled in school and made our house a home, I knew it was time to take charge of putting a social life together for my family. I decided to drive to a synagogue and meet the rabbi.
When I entered the synagogue’s large front doors, I heard chitter chatter and decided to investigate. I opened another door and saw 20 young women my age. I was in my thirties. A beautiful young woman with silky jet black hair slicked back and a breathtaking smile that had “welcome” written all over it, said, “I’m Trudy Wong, president of the Women’s Division of Jewish United Fund. We’re having a meeting. Please join us.”
I accepted her invitation, thrilled to be involved, and remember thinking to myself that I picked the perfect time and day to walk through these doors. I was happy.
After the meeting, she asked me to stay and pushed me to be her co-chairman. I remember protesting, “Would this be fair to you and the other girls? I‘ve lived in Honolulu two weeks don’t know anyone yet.” She said, “you’ll meet everyone soon enough.” And with a big smile, I said, “yes” and told her, “I’m very excited. Thank you.”
I knew doors would open for my family instantly, and enjoyed charity involvement. (And to you, dear readers, who are planning to make a move, reach out to your church, synagogue or any groups that pique your fancy.)
Trudy told me she was raised in an observant Orthodox Jewish home in the South. She went on to say, laughingly and tongue-in-cheek, that she remained true to her religious upbringing except for one small detail. She fell in love with Alvin, who was a non-Jew and of Chinese descent!
Trudy was as committed to Judaism as she was to Alvin. And Alvin was so in love with Trudy that he wanted to convert to Orthodox Judaism, not an overnight happening. Studying with a rabbi for a long period, learning the laws of Judaism and some Hebrew, having a circumcision as an adult (a religious rite in the Jewish religion) were just a part of his conversion.
Knowing the happiest man
When I heard the marvelous news from a woman sitting next to me in my synagogue in Chicago, I was shocked—but not shocked. I was shocked because I didn’t even know there was an award like this (and in fact, it is not an award; it was a one-time effort by the New York Times.) But I was not shocked because when I was in Alvin’s company, I always remember smiling along with him.
That evening, I emailed and Facebooked Trudy my congratulations, and have been following Alvin ever since.
As I thought, Alvin has continued to give back, never sitting on his laurels. After contemplating his reasons for his sunny disposition and doing academic research on happiness, there was one word that stood out in his mind. He was a content man.
He decided to become a lecturer on the art of what makes a person content, determined to share his happiness theory with others. He has given back by speaking regularly at many professional conventions, to students of every age (from elementary school children to those on a university level), to the Hawaii State Senate. He was even featured on a PBS program.
He has declined book offers and accepts no money for his speaking appearances because, as he says, “I am not interested in making money on my fame. If I did not volunteer and I was doing this as a business, I wouldn’t be happy, would I?”
But he does note that he has experienced a twinge of sadness, hearing from unhappy people trying to discover his secret from as far away as India and Russia. “They wanted to know the secret of my happiness so they could be happy. It was eye opening.” He has used his title as a happiness guru to take on a life mission to explain what happiness is all about.
The happiest man’s lessons on happiness
After taking my own personal survey on Alvin’s key to happiness I am happy to leave you with what I think are Alvin’s quotes, which I use as my personal key to happiness:
1. On humility: “Humility teaches me that I don’t know everything, that I’m not the most important person. If you don’t listen, you’re not going to learn anything. Learning makes me happy.”
2. On setbacks: “When you have failure, when you have something that happens to you that is traumatic, what you have to do is learn from it, move on and not let that happen again.”
3. On values that match the Asian cultural norms of respect and humility: “My Asian and Jewish backgrounds complement each other. When I converted my mom said, ‘Judaism is one of the oldest cultures in the world, and the Chinese culture is, too. There will never be a sense of clashing of the two cultures.’”
4. On not taking yourself too seriously: “Learning to laugh at myself. If you can’t laugh at yourself…at all the problems and mistakes …then you are going to go through life a very unhappy person. This has always been my philosophy.”
5. On daily life: “I didn’t think about happiness before being dubbed something of an expert on the topic. Living a simple life with my wife, children, my dog, my faith, in the same stucco home in the suburb of Manos in Honolulu, Hawaii and giving back makes me a very happy man.”
My dear readers, as women over 50, we know there is no quick fix to happiness. Like marriage and raising our children, you have to work at it. As a woman who has lived through many of life’s hills and valleys, I would say this about the state of happiness, “I think a positive mental state of mind brings a person happiness. It is called ATTITUDE, and it pays to keep it positive.”