Story by Lee Siegel
Photos by Olivier Koning
The March 5, 2011, edition of The New York Times was full of the usual bad news: atrocities against humanity, war, terrorism, murder, sexual abuse, natural disasters and a crumbling economy; the Taliban, it was reported, were training young boys to be suicide bombers, and not only was Muammar Qaddafi brutalizing defenseless opponents to his regime, but Charlie Sheen was fired from Two and a Half Men for moral turpitude.
Amid all those depressing stories there was an article that was supposed to cheer readers up: “Discovered: The Happiest Man in America.” It was a report about an ongoing, five-year Gallup-Healthways Well-Being survey assessing the quality of life in America. Each day a thousand randomly selected Americans are polled for data that is sorted into a demographic index of happiness as determined by gender, age, marital status, ethnicity, income, religion, geography and height. Men, the poll suggests, tend to be happier than women, older people happier than younger ones, married happier than single and so forth. Based on a composite of the Gallup findings, the happiest person in America would be an over-65-year-old, tall, Asian-American Jewish man living in Hawai‘i, married with children and earning more than $120,000 a year. The writer for the Times discovered, much to her surprise, that just such a person exists. He is Alvin Wong, a well-to-do, five-foot-ten-inch, 69-year-old Chinese-American convert to Judaism who lives in Honolulu with his wife.
Given the statistics I realized that I was actually a happier person than I thought I was. Yes, according to the survey, I am almost as happy as the happiest person in America. Like Mr. Wong, I’m a man over 65 with children who lives in Hawai‘i (). Not only that, I’m actually two inches taller than Mr. Wong (), have been Jewish longer than he has () and have been married more times than him (). The edge I have on him in terms of height, religion and marriages should make up for the fact that I don’t earn over $120,000 a year. OK, it’s also true that I’m not Asian American (), but at least my name, Lee, is more Chinese than Alvin (). And I eat a lot more Chinese spare ribs and mu shu pork than he can because he keeps a kosher diet. That should count for something.
It made me happy to learn how happy I was. But one of the perils of happiness, I soon discovered, is that the happier you are, the happier you want to be. There’s no such thing as too much happiness.