Some Thoughts on the ‘American Dream’

One of the ideals that was taught to me as a child is best expressed today as the “American dream,” that every American should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.

It’s a great, flowery idea, but what does it actually mean?

Let’s start with prosperity. It’s a good place to start. Google defines “prosperity” as the state of being prosperous (which isn’t particularly helpful), but also offers several synonyms: success, profitability, affluence, wealth, opulence, luxury, the good life, milk and honey, (good) fortune, ease, plenty, comfort, security, and well-being.

When I hear “prosperity,” I wind up visualizing certain things. I visualize someone who has a strong career that earns a healthy income but eats up a lot of their time and energy. I visualize someone that owns a nice house with a green lawn. I visualize a shiny car in the driveway and a well-dressed family.

That’s a vision that has been shared to me by friends, family, and popular culture for many years. It’s a tangible definition of the American dream.

Those are the things alluded to by many of the synonyms of prosperity. It’s affluence, wealth, opulence, and luxury.

I don’t have any problems with that “dream” in a broad sense. In fact, in some ways, I’m living parts of it.

Not too long ago, however, I was committed to the whole picture. I was aiming for the shiny car and the house with the white picket fence and the well-dressed family and the time- and energy-consuming career.

Over the last several years, I’ve dropped a lot of those things.

I still have a career, but it’s far less time consuming. I’m able to send my kids off to school in the morning and be here for them when they get off the bus in the afternoon.

We don’t dress in rags, but no one would claim that we’re all “sharply dressed,” other than perhaps my daughter.

The car I drive is 12 years old and was bought used off of Craigslist.

We have a nice house, but it isn’t even in the “upscale” neighborhood in our relatively small town.

What happened? What changed? Why did I walk away from the popular vision of the American dream?

It’s simple. I realized that the true American dream isn’t really about any of that stuff.

It all comes back to the idea of “success” and “prosperity.” There tends to be some consensus definitions of what those words mean in America, such as having a good job, one that pays well, and having certain lifestyle trappings.

The thing is, those are kind of like training wheels. They form lifestyle objectives for people who can’t – or won’t – develop them on their own. They make up a simple recipe to follow that will make your life comfortable and not very different than the lives of many around you.

And for many, that’s enough.

However, you don’t have to look too hard to see cracks in that image. For many people, that kind of vision isn’t enough – or it’s too much.

If you want a cultural example of this, think of the film “American Beauty.” In it, the main character, Lester Burnham, is living that “American dream” life but is incredibly dissatisfied with it. He goes through the motions of that life early in the film, but is basically joyless. As the movie goes on, he undergoes something of a transformation and, over the course of the film, begins to make life choices that move him in a very different direction, away from a soulless job and away from many of the material trappings, and by the end of the movie, he begins to realize that the things he thought he always wanted weren’t really the things he wanted after all. It’s well worth watching if you haven’t seen it.

For me, I came to realize that I valued a lower-stress job more than I valued a high income.

I realized that I valued professional flexibility more than I valued shiny cars in the driveway.

I valued being able to eat almost every dinner around the dinner table with my family more than I valued nice clothes.

I wanted to spend my spare hours wandering in nature or reading a challenging book more than I wanted a huge house.

I realized, in the end, that I didn’t really want the life shown as an “ideal” on television or in magazines. I wanted my own life, one that made me feel good every day when I woke up. I wanted a life surrounded by powerful relationships. I wanted a life full of learning and growing and sharing things. I wanted a life where I could help other people with most of my life’s energy.

To me, having those things is the definition of “prosperity.”

Here’s another way of putting it: Rather than focusing on the affluence, wealth, opulence, and luxury aspects of prosperity, I changed my focus to the plenty, comfort, and well-being aspects of prosperity.

I’m still chasing that American dream of prosperity, but I’m chasing different aspects of it than are typically shared in popular culture.

For me, one of the greatest challenges of that shift is the realization that a lot of popular culture is all about different aspects of prosperity than the ones I’m interested in.

Our culture today lauds opulence and wealth. There’s a hefty focus on the lives of the incredibly wealthy, particularly those who spend their money in showy ways, wearing $5,000 suits and $20,000 dresses and $100,000 jewelry. Commercials don’t show the efficient and reliable late-model used cars that are out there, but instead focus on brand-new shiny expensive cars with dozens of features that you don’t need and barely want.

For many, all of that sets the tone for the American dream. It’s about getting money, sure, but it’s also just as much about spending it on luxurious things. It becomes a treadmill of sorts, where you’re constantly chasing the next expensive thing, because there’s never “enough” when you’ve adopted a belief that the American dream is about filling your life with luxury.

It took me a long time to realize that this definition of prosperity doesn’t really lead anywhere that I want to go. The idea of having these trappings of wealth doesn’t make me feel happy in any way. I don’t really want to have a shiny car in my driveway; I just want one that’s reliable and can get me to where I want to go. I don’t really want the perfect house. I want one that’s comfortable and provides a place to retreat, a place to host good friends and family, and a place to explore my own interests.

The definition of “prosperity” that leads to a life that I actually want is different than the definition of “prosperity” that most of popular culture operates under.

And that’s okay.

I am very happy with my life. It feels prosperous to me because I have everything I ever really wanted. I have plenty of free time. I have a nice enough house that provides space to explore my own interests and a place to gather with friends and family. I am able to be there for my family whenever they need me, no questions asked.

To me, that is prosperity.

To achieve that, I had to abandon some other elements of prosperity. We live quite frugally and buy a lot of generic products. We live in a reasonably-sized house – in fact, one that could easily afford to be a little bigger. We drive used cars.

Those choices are ones that we make because we realized that, in chasing our American dream, those are the right choices to make. Making different choices – a big house, new cars, lots of name-brand products, lots of luxury goods – would pull us away from our American dream.

The challenge for you is a simple one. What is your American dream? Keep in mind that it does not have to look like what you see on television or what you read about in magazines. Instead, you can fill it with whatever constitutes “prosperity” to you.

What brings you a sense of lasting ease in life? What brings you a feeling of lasting comfort? What things in your life authentically contribute to a sense of well-being? When are you truly happy – not when are you supposed to be happy, but when are you truly joyful in a sustained way?

Perhaps that’s the real American dream that you should be seeking. Maybe your dream is the same as the one on television, but I’m willing to bet that for many of you it isn’t.

If you want something different, if you want your own American dream, you have the tools to make it happen. Start living frugally. Pay off your debts. Strive to spend far less than you earn. Make every effort to live your day to day life in line with whatever it is that truly brings you a sense of prosperity.

You’ll be glad you did.

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