If You Follow the American Dream Checklist, You Will Be Happy

Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Shawndra Russell

“Consumed by desires for status, material goods, and acceptance, Americans apparently had lost the sense of individuality, thrift, hard work, and craftsmanship that had character- ized the nation.”

–God’s Country: America in the Fifties by David Reisman

___Go to College
___Find a Good Job
___ Save for Retirement
___Get Married
___Buy a House
___Have Kids
___Get a Dog
___ Buy Your Kids Their First Car
___Send Your Kids to College

James Truslow Adams coined the phrase “American Dream” in his 1931 book The Epic of America, and this idea has permeated our collective psyche through the media, our childhoods, politics—nearly every facet of our lives. Marketing and advertising teams use this term to encourage spending; politicians use the term to encourage patriotism, spending and stability; parents use the phrase to encourage their children to succeed. Chuck Palahniuk, in an infamous Fight Club passage about consumerism, writes, “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t.” We waste so much time and energy worrying about monetary things that we forget what we really want: happiness. While the concept of America as the land of opportunity is positive and encouraging, the stark reality is that Adams’words have morphed into the idea that if you do the prescribed right things—get good grades, go to college, get married, buy a house, have babies, buy lots of stuff—then you will have money and stability and ultimately achieve happiness. You’ll find a good job with a company that cares about you as an individual. You will get raises each year not only for increases in the cost of living but also to reflect your hard work and productivity. You will retire young enough to enjoy your free time with plenty of money saved up for a comfortable lifestyle, and the company that you have been with for 20, 30, maybe even 40 years will continue your benefits, maybe chip in with a pension. You will be able to pay for your children’s first cars, college, weddings, and maybe even contribute to helping them buy their first house. You will have it all because you were a good citizen and worker that pursued the American Dream.

Get real.

While all of that sounds great, this former path to retirement has caved in. Think of your working years as a bridge that was supposed to get you from college to retirement safely and securely. That bridge wasn’t maintained and the funds to repair it have dwindled (sounds like Social Security, right?). So, the bridge has collapsed, leaving a line of people stuck waiting to cross over a new bridge. But that bridge hasn’t been built, and may never be rebuilt. Even if it is rebuilt, the destination on the other side will never look the same. No more retiring at 60 or even 65. No more pensions, health care post-retirement or long-term employment with the same company. These bridges may be longer, may not have government or corporate funding, and may not have a stopping point. Instead, they will be made solely by you based upon your passions, interests and personal goals.

Benjamin Franklin warned, “The Constitution only guarantees the American people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.Don’t rely on anyone or anything to give you the life you want. Figure out a way to enjoy your life now rather than daydreaming about an outdated promise of a happy, secure retirement.

So, should we abandon everything about the American Dream? Of course not. Valuable ideas can be found within this concept. Hard work will always be a must. Providing for yourself and loved ones instead of relying on social programs should remain a top priority. Buying things that bring you happiness and fulfillment is good for the economy (just as long as you save first, spend second instead of the American tendency to charge, charge, charge). Barack Obama urges, “In reaffirming the greatness of our nation we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those that prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor –who have carried us up the long rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.” Obama emphasizes some of the best aspects of the American Dream—hard work, persistence, innovation. But everyone has to stop thinking that what worked for previous generations will continue to work. Companies go through layoffs. Companies fold. Companies cut benefits. Being self-sufficient should be the goal and with that, pursuing your true passions must supersede any plans of going into a field just for the paycheck and promise of retirement. If you pursue your true passions, then retirement is not some far off milestone that you inch towards. Instead, you will enjoy your day-to-day existence so much that one day you will look at your bank account and realize that you could retire, but your work is too meaningful to stop doing (of course, taking plenty of vacations and time-off will be necessary throughout your life instead of just waiting until after retirement).

We have to stop defining success under the umbrella of the American Dream. We have to quit telling the next generation that they need to do A, B, and C in order to be successful. We need to discourage people in their twenties to settle down, buy a house, have a family, and find a stable job with a steady paycheck. We have to stop promoting the greedy nature of the American Dream, as pointed out in the CNBC series “American Greed,” which examines the dark side of the American Dream.” Instead, we have to foster the natural gifts and passions that each of us possess. As a former teacher, I would ask her high school students what careers they were interested in, and a large majority said doctor, lawyer or business person. When asked why, their answer? Money. This attitude is scary and leads to unfulfilled adults trudging through life wishing they would have pursued music, or opened a bakery, or traveled the world, or found a job working outdoors. In order to establish a better quality of life, need to pinpoint our individual dreams and stop allowing the masses to decide them for us.

The constant ads that permeate the television, movies, radio, and print media brainwash us to think that we can’t be truly happy unless we have the latest gadgets, a big house, a 9-to-5 job, and a college degree. Paul Heyne, an economist professor for 25 years, stated, “The gap in our economy is between what we have and what we think we ought to have – and that is a moral weproblem, not an economic one.” We don’t need stuff to be happy—happiness can be achieved if your passions are recognized and nurtured, and we consider a wide variety of potential careers that we may have never even heard of or considered. Gandhi said, “Whatever you do in this life will be insignificant. However, it’s very, very important that you do it anyway.” This quote acknowledges the fragility of life—much like the fragility of our economy—but emphasizes that we all have a purpose. Sadly, this purpose is buried underneath bills, responsibilities, and expectations that stem from the pressure to achieve the American Dream as quickly as possible.


7 thoughts on “If You Follow the American Dream Checklist, You Will Be Happy

  1. Pingback: If You Follow the American Dream Checklist, You Will Be Happy … | HappyTipsDaily

  2. I just had a conversation about this very subject with my son who will graduate from college in May. He is struggling to find his career path as he wishes to follow a nontraditional route. The best advice, as agreed upon in your article, is to follow your passion – do what you love. Young people need to create new rules – ones that work in the world today. The future depends on the innovative thinking of today’s youth. Cheers to you, Shawndra!

  3. Nice framework to focus on social issues and personal motives. With a new intention such as this, the American Dream is restored to its original purpose. Thanks.

  4. I really like the Fight Club quote you used about being the middle children of history with no purpose or place. It reminds me of a quote from the biographer of Kurt Vonnegut [author of Slaughterhouse-Five] that I came across recently:

    “Vonnegut was a disenchanted American. He believed in the American dream because his family had lived it. The proof was there. But he felt that he had missed the golden era. There was a sense that he had arrived too late.” (http://bit.ly/tdhMnY)

    I also feel like the idea of the American Dream as we know it is gone and we need to make something new that is based less on what is material and more on what can truly make us happy.

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