In a study published in 2010, researchers at Princeton University surveyed 450,000 people across the U.S. about their household income, everyday emotional states, and overall feelings about their lives and well-being. They found that happiness increases along with annual household income up to about $75,000. Beyond that amount, earning more money has no effect on emotional well-being.
“For generations, people have tried to understand what is the secret to the well-lived life,” says Caroline Adams Miller, a Bethesda-based executive coach and author of Creating Your Best Life (Sterling, 2009). “But our happiness levels have not kept up with income or pedigree. There’s this myth that if you get a particular home or a certain pair of expensive shoes or something else you want, you’ll be happy. But we adapt to possessions and salary levels. I call it the hedonic treadmill: We get caught up in needing the next fix.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (HarperCollins, 1990), has researched this very topic. “If people strive for a certain level of affluence thinking that it will make them happy, they find that on reaching it they become very quickly habituated,” he writes in a 1999 article in American Psychologist, “and at that point they start hankering for the next level of income, property or good health.”
In other words, people’s goals tend to get pushed upward as soon as the lower ones are attained, leading to a continuous yearning for more.
“Where I think it becomes a problem is when unhappiness becomes not just an undercurrent in life but a dominant force,” says the NIAAA’s Goldman, author of Our Genes, Our Choices (Academic Press, 2012). “Here in this area, we have many people who suffer from addictions, depression, anxiety disorders and obsessive disorders—and these can lead people into a chronic state of unhappiness.”
Cameron tells of a Bethesda mother of two, a fun-loving woman with significant wealth, a gorgeous home, a country club membership and lots of friends. She volunteered on numerous school and philanthropic boards, and pushed herself to excel in tennis and to attain the material goods and positions in society that she thought would make her happy. On the surface, the woman seemed to have it all, yet she felt unfulfilled—and eventually, that took its toll.
“She had been numbing herself with alcohol, drinking wine with friends or by herself every night, and it got out of control,” Cameron says. The woman eventually checked into rehab. Now that she’s recovering, she’s preparing to launch her own creative agency, a dream she had long postponed.
“For other people, it may be food or shopping or another false refuge [that’s used to numb their discontent],” Cameron says. “It’s not a true way out or a path that leads to happiness.”
To an extent, each of us is born with a capacity for happiness. In 2011, researchers at the London School of Economics reported finding a so-called “happiness gene” that regulates the movement of serotonin in the brain. Their research appeared in the Journal of Human Genetics.
Studies of twins suggest that genetic factors account for 35 percent to 50 percent of a person’s propensity for happiness. In other words, as much as half of our capacity for happiness is genetically determined by “our biological mother or father or both, a baseline or potential for happiness to which we are bound to return even after major setbacks or triumphs,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and author of The How of Happiness (Penguin, 2007).
The other half of a person’s propensity for happiness can be influenced by environmental, cognitive or behavioral factors. These include expressing gratitude, cultivating optimism, avoiding overthinking and social comparisons, nurturing social relationships, learning to forgive, pursuing meaningful goals and savoring life’s joys, according to Lyubomirsky.
On its own, “happiness is an elusive goal: If you pursue happiness, you’re less likely to be happy,” says Steven Stosny, a Germantown psychologist and author of Living and Loving after Betrayal (New Harbinger, 2013). “I think happiness is a byproduct of having meaning and purpose in your life.”
Many people operate on cruise control, however, staying in a lackluster job or doing the same activities day after day despite the lack of gratification.
“Too many people are not setting hard, proactive goals,” says Miller, the executive coach. “Instead, they’re reaching for low-hanging fruit.” And success that comes easily isn’t all that satisfying, she says.
Even as we’re pursuing that “low-hanging fruit,” we’re rushing around to do so. We hurry from a meeting or appointment to a child’s soccer game, then perhaps to a social engagement on any given day. We often feel that our time, energy and attention are spread so thinly that we aren’t doing anything well enough.
“People here are always on a time schedule; even pleasure is scheduled,” says Helene Brenner, a psychologist in Rockville and Frederick and author of I Know I’m in There Somewhere (Gotham, 2003). “The pressure here is constant and it’s contagious.”
What’s more, “people feel like they can’t afford to stop to experience the magic of the moment, which contributes to chronic anxiety or tension,” she says. “People never feel like they’re safe or OK as they are now. There’s this sense that you always have to get further or have more.”
Stosny sees another problem endemic to this area: a sense of entitlement that’s accompanied by resentment when things don’t pan out as we believe they should. “There’s a lot more [resentment] now than when I started out in my practice 30 years ago,” he says. “We need to get rid of some of our sense of entitlement. We need to get back to the idea of feeling good by doing good, by being true to our deeper values.”
Hedaya, the holistic psychiatrist in Chevy Chase, has observed it, too. “People here have a sense of entitlement,” he says. “Maybe it’s because they’re working hard and pushing themselves and their children to come out on top, and it doesn’t fill them up.”
And that sense of entitlement affects people’s attitudes. “There’s a huge rudeness factor,” one Bethesda restaurant owner observes. “People complain about everything, and they always want attention right now. They act as if they should have a different standard that should apply to them. Some of these people are doctors or dentists or in businesses where we have to wait for them. But God forbid we’re five minutes off on a reservation—they get really fired up and they get insulting.”
The manager of a high-end Bethesda fitness club sees it, too. “The expectations are inflated here,” she says. “Some members believe they’re entitled to have things exactly as they want them, so they complain about all kinds of stupid stuff—like someone mopping the floor near the cardio machine they’re using. I believe it’s a sign of their unhappiness: They feel like they need to control something, and they get very bitter when they can’t. It’s like the more miserable they make someone else, the happier they are.”
Real happiness comes from a variety of sources, experts say, including meaningful social interactions. But those can be hard to come by these days.
“I grew up here and I barely recognize the place,” says a Chevy Chase woman in her early 40s. “People used to seem happy and friendly; now they are more like robots. They won’t make eye contact and sometimes won’t even respond if you smile or talk to them in a store.”
But creating meaningful social contacts can be difficult with our hectic schedules and the nature of our environment. “Even though most of us want relationships and connections in our hearts, this is a very transient place,” Hedaya says.
“People aren’t born into a social network, and it’s hard to establish one and find stability in one here. There’s a relational emptiness.”
Brenner agrees. “I keep hearing how much people feel isolated,” she says. “Their circles of connections and support keep shrinking. …And because people aren’t that happy, they feel like it’s a shameful secret, so they retreat—and that makes them more isolated and less likely to have those nurturing relationships.”
Many people don’t even know their neighbors, despite having lived on the same street for years, Hedaya notes. Or they don’t make time—outside of posting thoughts or news on Facebook—to socialize with friends.
“Wherever you go, you see people on their phones and electronic devices,” says Schlesinger, the Rockville psychotherapist. “Instead of being emotionally connected with the people who are physically present, people are conversing electronically with people who aren’t there. But there is no app or substitute for true face-to-face connectedness. Having close relationships with others where you are your true self helps you feel understood and validated, which can make you feel happier.”
Complicating matters is the fact that in a competitive, high-stress area, “people are very self-involved,” Miller says. “Relationships need to be reciprocal to be healthy and meaningful.” And that’s not happening as much as it should, she says.