As a first-generation American, the woman just wanted to make her family proud. So she went to a good college, and then to law school at Catholic University.
Over the years, she rose through the ranks, first in the federal sector, then in an international organization. She got married, bought a beautiful home in Chevy Chase, had the prototypical two kids, and took up strength training and aerobics to keep fit.
Today at 45, the lawyer is the model of success among family members and peers. So why isn’t she happy?
“To a lot of people, it looks like I’m living the American dream,” says the woman, who, along with many others interviewed for this story, asked to remain anonymous. But “at times I feel like I’m living a lie.
“Reaching all these benchmarks has sometimes felt anticlimactic. People would be surprised to know that, because I always look cheerful and very put together. But the pressure to deliver on high expectations gets to be exhausting. …It’s always this feeling of: What’s next for me?”
We’re all searching for happiness, aren’t we? But what does it take to be truly happy? Having “enough” money? The Bethesda area boasts one of the highest median family income rates in the nation, according to a 2012 report in Money magazine.
The satisfaction of knowing you’re capable and smart? Forbes magazine recently named Bethesda the “most educated small town” in America since more than half its residents possess a graduate or professional degree.
Health? “If you have your health, you have everything,” according to the aphorism, so by that measure, most Bethesda-area residents have it all. Self magazine consistently rates Bethesda one of the healthiest places for women, with rates of smoking, obesity, heart disease and diabetes among the lowest in the country. And in 2012, the American College of Sports Medicine ranked Greater D.C. the second fittest area in the U.S. (Minneapolis came in first), thanks in part to the number of people who walk or bike to work and/or exercise regularly. Stroll down Bethesda’s Woodmont Avenue any weekday morning and you’ll see women in yoga pants and men in track suits and running shoes.
If “having it all” is the key, then people in the Bethesda area should have a lock on happiness. So why is it that on any given day, many of the people striding through downtown Bethesda look either distracted or disgruntled? Why aren’t more of them smiling? Why does someone like that Chevy Chase lawyer—with the beautiful house, the beautiful family, the successful career—seem so discontented?
Lisa Teitel Schlesinger, a psychotherapist in private practice in Rockville, sees it all too often. “In my work, I encounter many people who seem to have everything except peace of mind,” she says. “They may have been able to successfully complete their mental checklist of what their life should look like—yet they still feel unhappy or have a gnawing sense of emptiness or an overwhelming sense that something is missing in their lives.”
Dr. Robert Hedaya, founder of the National Center for Whole Psychiatry in Chevy Chase and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, estimates that 50 percent of people living in the Bethesda area “are mildly to severely unhappy.” Since moving here 34 years ago, he has definitely seen “a growing sense of unhappiness and lack of fulfillment.”
Hedaya partly attributes the problem to the competitive atmosphere here. “It doesn’t really matter how much you have,” he says, “because there’s a sense that it’s never really enough. A lot of people are asking: Is this all there is? Is this it? Like a drug, the benefits of power and money are transient, and one always needs another fix. Until a person can step out of this paradigm, happiness will remain elusive.”
In dozens of interviews with experts and area residents, the subject of keeping up with the Joneses (who happen to be doing very well) arises again and again. The pressure is on socially, professionally, materially and intellectually, with many people feeling their worth is measured by how they stack up.
“There’s this sense here that nothing is quite enough. You have to keep getting ahead in your career, you have to be active at the gym, take trips abroad and know what’s on The New York Times best-seller list,” says a North Bethesda lawyer and father of two who lives in an airy, contemporary home and whose household earnings exceed $300,000. “You’re expected to keep up with all of it to be accepted, and this leads to feelings of emptiness.
“We’re never content because we’re always looking for something more,” he says. “I see it all around me and I feel it, too. Sometimes I wonder: When is the bucket full enough?”
Part of the problem, experts say, is that many of us look in the wrong direction when making comparisons—namely, upward (toward those who have more), instead of downward (toward those who have less).
“To compare up is to invite envy; to compare down is to invite gratitude,” says Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a North Bethesda psychiatrist and author of The Gift of Adversity (Tarcher, 2013). “When we compare and find ourselves wanting, we make ourselves unhappy.”
Dr. David Goldman, chief of the laboratory of neurogenetics at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in Rockville, has noted the same phenomenon. “Regardless of how many possessions they have,” he says of area residents, “the disparity between them and their neighbor may make them feel dissatisfied.”
And we spend a disproportionate amount of time making these comparisons. In a 2008 study, researchers at the University of Illinois found that 12 percent of people’s daily thoughts involve comparisons.
“In our old neighborhood, people were never satisfied with what they had because they always wanted more,” says an artist and mother of two who moved from Bethesda to Germantown partly to get away from that in 2012. “Everybody was always getting the latest gadget or the hottest workout gear and checking in with each other so they could try to keep up with getting the best. But trying to keep up wasn’t making them happy, and the discontent was practically contagious.”
Amassing wealth and material possessions can be a hollow victory, experts note, creating the illusion of a happy life without the actual substance or feeling.
“The striving pathway to do more, to get more, to be more does not lead to happiness,” says Laurie Cameron, an executive coach based in Chevy Chase who works with successful clients who are seeking a deeper sense of purpose and passion in order to gain greater happiness in their lives. “In this area, there’s a lot of judging and rating and comparing, and we’re often coming up short when we compare ourselves to others. It’s a mental habit that brings a sense of unease.”