Editor’s Note: What is Happiness?
It’s our own personal journey, as we see it. And hopefully, this issue offers clarity.
→ By Robbie Dingeman
Mānoa’s Alvin Wong went viral in 2011 when The New York Times declared him “the happiest man in America.”
Based on characteristics associated with happiness, the Times-commissioned Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index determined that year that the happiest person in the U.S. would be a tall Asian American who was 65 or older and an observant Jew, married with children, living in Hawai‘i, running his own business and earning more than $120,000 a year. The Times reporter went on a quest to find the right match, and Honolulu’s Temple Emanu-El led her to Alvin Wong.
In stories carried across the globe, he shared what made him happy: a positive outlook, a loving family and “being able to laugh at yourself.” Wong retired that year and began a new volunteer career on the community talk circuit. “I have spoken to every single Rotary Club,” he says, “some of them twice.” He also began studying what makes people happy, from meditation and ancient philosophies to modern paradigms. He became something of a happiness guru.
Growing up in World War II Hawai‘i in the ’40s and ‘50s had shaped his view of the world and his place in it. “Pearl Harbor still affected us in the Islands in terms of military governorship and military occupation and the internment camps,” Wong says. His Chinese heritage paid the price of those anxious times: “My dad always told me that you can’t be Chinese anymore, you have to be an American because in order to succeed in this world, you cannot bring in your Asian culture.” Looking back, Wong knows he lost many opportunities to learn about his heritage, his parents’ background and what shaped them. He didn’t learn to eat with chopsticks until his late teens, nudged by peer pressure from friends when he asked for a fork at Chinese restaurants. “I grew up in this household that taught me how to kind of be a chameleon in order to succeed,” he says.
These studies taught him that happiness often requires resilience. They taught him the Hawaiian concept of ha‘aha‘a, humility, which includes listening more than you speak. And the importance of accepting failure as part of life, and to keep going forward.
“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a small fortune. And it goes on to say: But if you want happiness for a lifetime, you help somebody else.”
Wong would need these lessons for what came next: Two-and-a-half years ago, Trudy Schandler-Wong, his wife of 46 years, was diagnosed with dementia. The hub of their family, she had been a longtime flight attendant and extraordinary volunteer. She chaired the annual Honolulu Symphony ball, planned the welcome of a law school dean and invited decades of international students to their home. “She was the one in the front and I was the one that was content to be in the back, making waffles and pancakes,” Wong says.
Now, “I’m her principal caregiver, and I will be as long as I possibly can.” When anxiety derails his wife, Wong holds her hands and talks her through the episodes. He’s learning to live inside “Trudy’s prism, what her mind perceives as her world.” There are bright spots, like a recent dinner they hosted for friends from the East-West Center. Back in her element, Schandler-Wong loved that.
Today a different theory of happiness resonates with Wong, one from a Chinese proverb. “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a small fortune.” He pauses. “And it goes on to say: But if you want happiness for a lifetime, you help somebody else.”