Yesterday, Washingtonians learned that we live in the happiest city in America! According to the Examiner, the D.C. area ranks first among the nation’s 52 largest cities — those with 1 million or more residents — in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. The rank is based on “emotional health, work environment, physical health, healthy behaviors and access to basic necessities,” according to the index’s web site. Our happiness is attributed to an 85% non-smoking population and the fact that 72% of our population visit the dentist regularly (healthy smiles). Other factors include job security — our 6.1% unemployment rate is the lowest of any large metropolitan area in the country — and we have easy access to lots of green space, bike trails, rivers, mountain ranges, and of course world-renowned museums and galleries. Why wouldn’t we be happy?
The news is great, but it also made me reflect on what makes D.C. so pleasurable for me. Let’s face it, the winters are freezing and often come with several debilitating feet of snow, and the summers are uncomfortable and often come with 90-plus degree heat and 100% humidity. The slightly comfortable transitional months in between always seem so short. March and April — when the Cherry Blossoms are in bloom — are two of the loveliest months of the year. October, when the foliage begins to turn and the temperature cools down, is an inviting month, too. But the other months — oy! Don’t get me wrong, I love living here. If I was miserable here, I’d probably have moved a long time ago. But the weather is not the reason I stay.
I have a challenging, decently-paying job, yes, but I have heard it said that with my degrees from Johns Hopkins and Georgetown, I’d probably make more money further away from D.C. than I do here. After all, here I’m competing with some of America’s best and brightest, some of whom attended the same schools I did or better. Not to mention, the cost of living in this city is considerably higher than, say, in Tucson, Arizona, so my dollar doesn’t go as far as it could elsewhere.
Washington, D.C. is the capital of the free world. Lots of exciting things happen in this city. Down the road from me is Embassy Row, where, on any given night, I might catch a glimpse of the Vice President coming home to his Observatory Circle mansion or I might see the British ambassador pulling out of the British Embassy gates. When the Pope visited, he stayed at the Apostolic Nunciature on Massachusetts Avenue, near Glover Park. Last Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I attended a free Kennedy Center event where the First Family were also in attendance. I have been to the West Wing and have stood in the Rose Garden. But the truth is, a lot of tourists can have these experiences. And the darker truth is, state visits and motorcades often mean road blocks and traffic chaos. (I have to admit, I did enjoy helping Laura Bush do her Christmas shopping at Barnes & Noble several years back; running into Eleanor Holmes Norton on a lazy Sunday afternoon in Eastern Market is fun; and it is kind of cool that George Stephanopoulos used to go to my gym and shops at my Safeway. When he gets on a bigger network, that’ll be even cooler.)
The nightlife is definitely great. Adams Morgan, the U Street corridor, Dupont Circle, Georgetown, and H Street all offer great venues for hanging out with friends. In all of these parts of town, there’s a nice range of bars, pubs, and clubs, making happy hour one of the favorite pastimes of city-dwellers. Trust me, if you have a niche, there’s a bar for you. Gay bikers who like leather bears, right this way. Hipsters in skinny jeans who date bicycle messengers, follow me. Lesbian lobbyists who like line dancing to country music, well…. But the nightlife alone isn’t what makes D.C. fun for me. It keeps me sane, yes — and I don’t have a terribly stressful career — but it isn’t what keeps me happy in this city.
What keeps me happy here is being surrounded by people with drive. They say New York is the concrete jungle where dreams come true, perhaps. I say Washington, D.C. is where reality is made better. Here, the majority of people actually care about the work they are doing. (The jaded ones leave sooner or later.) And they are often doing good work for some valuable causes: think of the many non-profit organizations downtown. Every two years, new blood is brought in to shake up the government — a transition that happens without riots or violence — and those people come with valued ideals and exciting ideas. Each summer, ambitious young people from all over the country pour into the city for internships in which they believe they can make a difference, and often that belief grows into career choices that bring them back. (An internship is what brought me here in the first place.) The energy that drives this city is not the parks, the parties, or the political thrills — those can be regarded as pluses — it’s the people. On any given day, I can meet a lobbyist, a diplomat, a non-profit canvasser, or a student focusing on international relations or policy. These people who commit themselves everyday to making the country just a little bit better make me happy I live in Washington, D.C. and they beat all the other perks any day.