Issue 14.6: Dec. 2011 / Jan. 2012

The Pursuit of Happiness

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.


Although I am not by nature competitive,
I became compelled by the challenge to become happier than Alvin Wong. I imagined that, like Igor Vovkovinskiy, who recently beat out George Bell as the tallest person in America, I could be in The Guinness Book of World Records for beating out Alvin Wong as the happiest person in America. “Lee Siegel,” the Times would report, “has taken the happiness title away from Alvin Wong.” And that would make me really happy.


The article quoted Mr. Wong as saying that the key to his happiness was his ability to laugh at himself. I reckoned that if I were ever going to beat my rival at the happiness game, I should use some of his tricks. So I made silly faces in the mirror, stuck a carrot stick in my ear, wore bignose Groucho glasses and put a whoopee cushion on my office chair. What worked for Mr. Wong, however, didn’t seem to be helping me. The harder I tried to laugh at myself, the more seriously unhappy I felt. I had just dropped a banana peel on the floor and was about to step on it when I realized that maybe I’d misinterpreted what Mr. Wong had said. Maybe he didn’t mean that the key to happiness was laughing at ourselves but that the key to happiness was an ability to laugh, like Alvin Wong, at Alvin Wong. So, in hope of doing just that, I called him. Little did he know when he graciously invited me to visit his home that I was out to take his title from him.


Welcoming me with a warm handshake and cheerful smile, he cordially announced that he was happy to meet me.


“Well, I’m happy to meet you, too,” I insisted, concerned that he might be happier to meet me than I was to meet him. “Yes, I’m really, really happy to meet you.”


He laughed, and I wondered if he were, for the sake of happiness maintenance, laughing at himself like he said he did in the Times. Or was he actually laughing at me? And in that case, was the real key to happiness a secret he had kept from the Times reporter—the ability to laugh at others? Yes, maybe men are happier than women because they laugh at women more than women laugh at men, and Jews are happier than people of other faiths because of how much we enjoy laughing at gentiles. Maybe tall old rich people laugh at short young poor people. I wasn’t sure, but whatever its cause, his laughter did make him seem very happy—happier, I had to admit, than I was. But undaunted, I was ready to take him on, determined to leave his home happier than him. If only he’d known this, he wouldn’t have been so happy to meet me.


If I could—without resorting to physical violence—make him less happy, I reasoned, I could be happier than he was without having to become happier myself. So as we settled down at a table in his backyard, I took up the gauntlet: “Don’t you think that to be happy you have to be stupid? ‘Happy as a clam,’ they say, and nothing is more stupid than a clam. And of all the seven dwarfs in the Snow White story, Happy is one of the stupidest—not as stupid as Dopey, perhaps, but a lot more stupid than Grumpy.”


Unfazed by my forthright denigration of happiness, Mr. Wong smiled. “Yes, my daughter said the same thing when the article came out. The whole thing is kind of funny. When I first read the article, I couldn’t help but laugh. I thought it was some kind of joke.” Repeating what he told the Times reporter about happiness and laughing at himself, he chuckled. I was there to laugh at Alvin Wong, and so far he was the only one of us getting to do that.


“So, other than being stupid and thinking your life’s a joke,” I asked, “are there other ways to be happy?”


“Early in my life,” he answered with a contented smile, “my mother told me, ‘Don’t do things just for the money. Do what makes you happy.’”


“Early in my life,” I replied, “my mother told me to do my homework. I hated doing homework. It made me really unhappy. She also told me to eat my broccoli, which I also hated.”


“She knew that someday it would pay off,” he tried to assure me, “that in the long run doing your homework and eating broccoli would make you happy.”


What Mr. Wong didn’t know was that in my case, “doing things just for the money” would make me happy—even happier than him, because other than his Chinese ancestry, his income was the only thing that (according to the Gallup-Healthways poll) made him happier than me.


It occurred to me that it was only Gallup’s arbitrary demographic categories that made Mr. Wong so happy, so my next move was to discredit the poll that made him happier than me. “I don’t trust the poll,” I said. “Perhaps men aren’t really happier than women, but they’re less willing than women to admit how unhappy they really are when answering survey questions. Perhaps women aren’t less happy than men; they’re just more honest. Maybe people over 65 have become so used to being unhappy or so senile that they just think they’re happy. And each year Hawai‘i ranks as the happiest state because people who live here don’t dare say they’re not happy; they know that if they do, all the envious people who don’t live here will hate them for being ingrates. So the poll is misleading: Maybe you’re really not as happy as The New York Times says you are.”


Apparently thinking I was joking, Mr. Wong laughed. “The poll,” he said, “has been very influential. Health insurance companies and other businesses have spent a lot of money on the database. That Hawai‘i is consistently rated as the happiest state in America should contribute significantly to tourism and our economy. It’s hard not to be happy in Hawai‘i,” he said smiling with delight, and the lush pastel tropical vegetation on his aloha shirt enhanced the aura of happiness around him.


Although I had not succeeded in putting the slightest dent in his happiness, I hadn’t given up: “OK, even if people who live in Hawai‘i are happier than people living in the other forty-nine states, it doesn’t mean that they’re really all that happy. Americans, I discovered by Googling ‘happiness,’ aren’t very happy compared to other nationalities. They are, in fact, only 69 percent happy, and at any given time a quarter are unhappy. According to a Gallup World Values poll, we’re far behind many other countries: Nigeria ranks as the happiest country in the world. If we lived in Nigeria, you wouldn’t be considered very happy. ‘Poor Alvin Wong,’ your neighbors in Abuja would say. ‘Why isn’t he happier?’ I’d be here only to cheer you up.”


Once again the happiest man in America laughed, and at that point I had to give up, realizing that despite all my efforts to take the all-American happiness title from him, he was still happier than I was. As he stood on his doorstep waving goodbye, I could see from his smile that Alvin Wong was happy to see me leave.


In hopes of recovering from the unhappiness of my defeat, I stopped at a bar. It was, after all, happy hour. That there were only three other customers there brought to mind the statistic that at any moment one out of four Americans is unhappy. I was, I realized, that American.


It was after the third martini that the idea came to me of moving to West Virginia, the state that consistently ranks lowest for happiness on the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Yes, I could quit my job, divorce my wife, disown my children, convert to some millenarian religion, have a sex-change operation and move to West Virginia. There would be an article in The New York Times: “Discovered: the Unhappiest Woman in America—Lee Siegel.” A writer for a West Virginia airline in-flight magazine would interview me. “The key to unhappiness,” I’d tell him, “is an overwhelming desire to be happy.” I might even get into The Guinness Book of World Records! Yes, that would make me really very happy. But so as not to lose my title, I would, of course, have to keep my happiness a secret.