Every semester I ask my students to define the American Dream. In classroom discussion I ask them to name multiple characteristics of the American Dream. Next I push them to come to a consensus about 3-4 core characteristics that define this concept. Some of the most common characteristics named are social mobility, financial security, freedom of choice, the opportunity for someone to start a family and abundance of wealth/materialism.
It's that last characteristic that gets students talking. Affluence, excessive wealth, materialism, conspicuous consumption, "get rich"----whatever you call it, it somehow has been associated with what it means to achieve the American Dream. Most of my students do not like it; some think it is a joke. I'll call it the materialistic pathway. I would consider this an infection that needs to be cured, almost like a disease of the imagination that has hurt of our national "dream" of what is required to be happy. Our imaginations have begun to associate American happiness with materialism. However, it seems the two can blend into one thing at times, where financial security must become a need to display our financial security to assert ourselves among our peers. While many of my students are excited about the opportunities that the structure of the American Dream provides(financial stability), others are very skeptical about the American Dream because they associate it with unashamed pursuit of material gain.
We've Achieved the "Get Rich" American Dream, But It's Not Working
Psychology Today writer Lauren Sandler deconstructs this characteristic of the American Dream in her article titled "The American Nightmare." She explains that many US citizens have achieved what the American Dream has prescribed, yet we are still unhappy as Americans. One part of her article looks at the idea that acquiring a large house leads to happiness. She explains that Americans seem to believe that a big house is required for happiness, not just simply being a homeowner. Furthermore, she says a big house seems necessary to replace to public square:
Fifty years ago homes averaged 1,700 square feet. Now that figure is up to 2,700, and interior architecture, in Duany's mind, exists to mimic an urban world where few Americans dwell today. The double-height entry hall is the surrogate of the town square; the media room supplants the theater; the master suite practically exists as its own townhouse. Multiple dining areas further service our separation from the outside world: The breakfast nook is the diner; the formal dining room is the special-occasion white-tablecloth restaurant; even the kitchen island functions like a European tabac. "If you had a public realm," Duany says, "you wouldn't have to buy more house." Duany's own work in the New Urbanist movement—planning walkable, mixed-use areas designed to recapture a sense of community—may be the best bet for a resurgence of the public realm. But even a semi-utopian like Duany has a hard time imagining how to reverse the course of American sprawl en masse."
Sandler paints a picture of Americans who are proud home owners (of large houses) but ultimately miss out on the experience of being a part of a social community. The desire to display our wealth by having a large house, isn't something that all American desire, however somehow it has made its way into the American consciousness as having "arrived." This is something I hear my students express every semester specifically that they feel this pressure as well.
Sandler goes on to provide further research about how this perception of the dream does not provide the kind of life satisfaction we hope for. There's no doubt that "getting stuff" requires very hard work. Work ethic is a must for anyone trying to provide for a family and establish a career. Yet when your work ethic is used to achieve a materialistic pathway, it does not lead to the contentment we hope for. She quotes psycholigist Tim Kasser of Knox College whose recent work found:
"a negative correlation between the number of hours a person works and life satisfaction. "The more people focus on a materialistic pathway to happiness, the less happy they tend to be, and the less happy they make others," he says. Over time this devotion to earning income detracts from pursuits that might reduce this misery, such as forging strong relationships. Kasser argues that a materialistic drive actually damages our ability to form personal bonds—causing us to "treat other people as objects to be manipulated rather than as unique individuals with their own desire, needs, and subjective experiences." In other words, the more we focus on accumulating things, the harder it becomes to drop these things and focus on people."
Her article clearly questions the "materialistic pathway" and helps us understand that it is a threat to this national narrative.
The Materialistic Pathway is a False Narrative, Now What?
What if many Millennials become cynical about the future of the nation because the American Dream is associated with the materialistic pathway? I am not talking about financial stability or the need to earn a good salary. Seeking financial opportunity is part of the American Dream. However, when displaying your financial security becomes an end in itself, it becomes something that becomes empty and self-centered. Aside from this being a false narrative, wouldn't it be sad for false ideas overshadow the essential parts of the American Dream mentioned earlier: opportunity to establish one's career and family, social mobility and freedom of choice. There are other characteristics that we could add to this list. Wouldn't it be bad for something to come along and ruin this and ruin this concept? I believe the "materialistic pathway" as being an infection in the American imagination that must be questioned and rejected in order for the American Dream to continue to exist.
Man has been tempted to believe that riches will make him happy for centuries. If you read the Gospel of Matthew you'll see that Jesus talks a whole lot about the dangers of worshiping money. This is not a new problem. It's just something that we must guard our imaginations against to avoid idolizing wealth and affluence. Instead, when we think of the American Dream, we want to consider that this gigantic concept is a good idea and worth saving by rejecting the false ideas that have crept in. To restore this idea we can consider narratives that illustrate what the American Dream should represent: the idea of a person coming to America in hopes of establishing a family and to live in safely from outside threats. An individual who desires to be a part of a community, town, church, school or city in which you help serve others and contribute to the common good. A young 18 year old who rejects an entitlement attitude, but works hard 8 hours a day to pursue the career of their choice. We need to be clear about what it means to achieve the American Dream.
Sometimes we don't need a new ideas, we just need to purify and carefully define ideas established long ago. The American Dream is one of those ideas worth purifying. If we are not careful about how we imagine it------the negative aspects of materialism could overshadow the great aspects which has made our country flourish for over two centuries.