Op-Ed: The End of the American Dream

by Amy Scheuerman

Nothing lasts forever.

Lately I have been thinking about the American Dream: to pull oneself up by the bootstraps and become a working member of society.  However, while the phrase has remained constant, the meaning of the term has shifted.

In early American history, the American Dream was to become a doctor, a lawyer, or another successful professional. In the original definition, things were much simpler because to be a lucrative professional meant success.  And there is the pivotal term: success.  Money used to equal success or at the very least represent it.  Now that this is no longer true, what does this mean for The Dream?

In modern America money and success are two different things.  Money buys luxury (one might argue that it always has), but success is purchased through other means.  The definition has now evolved so that the two are decoupled and the previous meaning of the American Dream, which combined them, is now useless.

So, what is the current American Dream?  I would argue that we are in the process of inventing a new Dream.  Success is still integral, as is being a productive member of society, but the economic aspect, and the way economics effects our psyche, needs to be re-evaluated.

Psychological studies show that people, when given a questionnaire, will state that they would be perfectly happy if only they could earn ten percent more than they currently do.  This is as true for someone living in the cramped projects of North Cambridge as it is for someone with a six figure income living in a Lexington mansion.  Apparently, all people have an eternal dissatisfaction with their current state of income, no matter what their level on income happens to be.  What does it mean for us as a society, this constant need within us to always earn more, to be slightly richer?

To my mind it means disaster. Our need for a Manifest Destiny has a scientific proof (or pseudo-scientific depending on your opinion of psychology), but the problem is that every Manifest Destiny meets its demise: a big dead end sign in front of an empty gold mine and a vast Pacific Ocean or an economic bubble being popped by a child’s simple question about what those big numbers actually mean.  If our only striving is for material wealth, then we are aimed for disaster indeed if we pursue the American Dream.

I have met people who are not rich, and yet they are happy, and more than that, they are content.  For me, this is more than a matter of semantics: content means a deeper satisfaction and a more long term one than happiness does.  And if others can be content with less, then so can I.

In 1972, Bhutan developed an alternative to the GDP index for measuring the success of its country and population. It is called the Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index.  It was widely praised and also widely mocked, but the idea stood out in many people’s minds as a new way of identifying the success or failure of a country in terms of its people.  I look to Bhutan and its GNH as my proof that wealth is not the universal indicator of success.

And so for my New Year’s resolution I am going to resolve to stop following the American Dream.  Instead I will follow my own dream.  It is not a dream of earnings, but one of happiness and self improvement. I will do this because, while I think it’s human to strive to be more than we are, I think it is foolish to strive to have more money than we do.  The two are not the same as they were back when money represented success so simply in the early days of our nation.

I will play piano, I will write stories, I will take walks on snowy days.  I will labor on research and papers and articles.  I will make love.  I will eat delicious meals.  I will share my joys with my friends and family.  I will farm and cook and give the fruits of my labor to those in need.  I will become a successful member of and perhaps even a leader in my community and I will be content with the wealth that I have.  That is my American Dream, and I hope it brings me more joy than a law degree would have.

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