The Reasons of our Discontent
Bethesda-area residents are among the best-educated, highest paid, healthiest people in the nation. So why are people complaining they're not happy? A look at existential angst.
A 2011 poll of 18,000 women by Self magazine found that 84 percent had at least one venomous pal (aka a “frenemy”), and this was largely “because women don’t want to be seen as not nice,” Miller says. “If you have these incredibly toxic people in your life and you can’t determine who should make the cut and who shouldn’t, you’re undermining your own happiness. There’s an element of social contagion: The people you spend time with affect your happiness and success in life.”
To illustrate the importance of positive social contact, Miller cites “the positivity ratio.” Barbara Fredrickson, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, describes the formula in her controversial 2009 book, Positivity (MJF Books). She suggests that to be happy in your day-to-day life, you need three positive interactions for every negative one in your professional, familial and social relationships.
“If the ratio is off—if it’s under 3-to-1—you will languish and go into a downward spiral of negativity,” Miller says. “If the ratio is 5-to-1 or higher, you will begin to flourish and enter the upward spiral of well-being.
“I think the positivity ratio is off for a lot of people here,” she says, “because we have too much emphasis on the wrong things, and we have limited interactions with high-quality friends and too many negative interactions with long hours at work and long commutes.”
Sometimes travel brings that point home. Anna Pelesh, a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, spent several weeks in Tanzania last summer in a village where people had few material possessions. She stayed with one family in a dirt-floored hut with walls made of mud and water. Yet their personal interactions seemed to be quite rich. She later remarked to her mother, Bethesda Magazine Food Editor Carole Sugarman, that people there seemed incredibly happy.
Cameron had a similar experience while spending much of last summer in a small village in Tuscany. “The people there were so happy, and they had other ways of living and being that we’ve lost sight of here,” she says.
“They were very connected to the people in their community and the present experience. …Around here, our minds are constantly wandering. Happiness isn’t available when we’re thinking about what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow.”
New York author Gretchen Rubin sought to address this existential angst and sense of yearning with The Happiness Project (Harper, 2009), a book that followed a yearlong quest to find greater fulfillment in her life. It “is one of our best-selling titles,” says Amelia Duroska, community relations manager at the Barnes & Noble in Bethesda. And roughly four years after its release, the book was still No. 542 on Amazon’s best-seller list.
As Rubin discovered, “happiness is not something that happens to people—but something that they make happen,” says Csikszentmihalyi, the Claremont professor.
That means it’s a mistake to defer happiness. “A lot of people think: I’ll be happy when I get that promotion or when my child gets into a great college,” Cameron says. “The postponement dilemma blocks us from happiness.”
A better strategy: Embrace the life you want starting now by setting meaningful goals. “Happy people make short-term and long-term goals, many of which are out of their comfort zones,” Miller says.
That was the case for one Chevy Chase woman. She lived in a six-bedroom house, owned an enviable art collection, and had lots of friends and the financial resources to be a stay-at-home mom for her four kids. Yet the woman spent years feeling discontented.
“I kept wondering: How can I have so much and feel so empty and unfulfilled?” she says.
In fact, she was stuck in a conflict-ridden marriage and juggling multiple family responsibilities without the ability to recharge through more personally meaningful pursuits. So two years ago she divorced her husband and went back to work as a communications consultant. Only then did she regain the sense of engagement and emotional equilibrium that she’d been missing. Even though her financial status took a hit, she says she feels more grounded and content. She derives a sense of meaning and purpose from her work and her broader social network.
Last summer, the Chevy Chase lawyer who works at that international organization similarly decided to add activities that would bring her a greater sense of personal satisfaction—and allow her to get off the hamster wheel of professional achievement with its continuous push to the next level.
“I realized I had to get off this train or I would self-destruct,” she says.
She took extended time off from work so she would have more time to relax and rebalance her life. She also began taking acting and writing classes, things she’d always wanted to do. Already she’s feeling a greater sense of well-being.
“I decided I need to give myself permission to do the things I want to do that will bring me more fulfillment,” she says, “even if they’re not aligned with the professional expectations that others have of me. You can’t wear a mask of success and cheerfulness forever, because eventually cracks start to show.”
Come On, Get Happy
Experts say there are a number of things you can do to regain or experience a sense of happiness. Here are a few:
Don’t defer happiness, figuring you’ll have it once you get that big promotion, take that big trip, acquire a bigger and better house. “The postponement dilemma blocks us from happiness,” says Laurie Cameron, an executive coach in Chevy Chase. “We need to learn how to focus on what’s going on around us and pay attention to the joy that is available right now.”
Take time to practice gratitude, perhaps by jotting down three to five things you’re grateful for in your life each day. Research has found that keeping a record of what you’re grateful for can improve your mood and lead to enhanced well-being. “Gratitude is one of the most powerful ways to create happiness,” Cameron says, “because it helps you learn to appreciate what you have. Plus, training your mind to pay attention to these things during the day shifts how you relate to the world.”
Look for an activity that’s so engrossing and enjoyable that you become fully immersed in it and lose track of time—whether it’s playing a musical instrument, doing something artistic or creative, or playing a game or sport you love. Doing this is a matter of achieving “flow.” “The sweet spot of flow is when you have focused attention, and you’re pushing yourself in terms of your competence,” Cameron says. “Flow sets you up for overall happiness if you have enough of it in your life.”
Volunteer to do something kind for someone else, whether reading to an older adult or serving food to the homeless. A 2013 study by researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland found that altruistic attitudes, volunteering and informal assistance behaviors contribute to people’s sense of satisfaction and well-being.
Focus on the present. “The key to happiness is to be relatively immersed in the moment and the rewards you are receiving moment to moment and hour to hour,” says Dr. David Goldman, who heads up the neurogenetics laboratory at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Rockville. In a 2010 study, Harvard University researchers used an app to prompt 2,250 adults at random times during the day to note how they were feeling. They found that people who are focused and fully engaged in what they’re doing at any given moment are more likely to be happy than people who are distracted from the task at hand.
Recognize that small things can make you happy, rather than focusing only on major life events, and set realistic goals. By creating more opportunities to engage in activities that bring you pleasure—whether it’s drawing, cooking, fly-fishing, meditating, or something else—you’ll enhance your enjoyment of these experiences and boost your capacity for happiness, says Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a North Bethesda psychiatrist.
Stacey Colino lives in Chevy Chase and frequently writes about health for national magazines such as Real Simple.