The given critical essay aims to answer the question: “Is the American Dream still alive?” More specifically, it is the main thought of this paper that Americans are highly driven by consumerism, instant gratification, and materialism. To satisfy these needs and wishes they oftentimes turn to loans. It all ends in huge debt and financial instability. As a result, numerous middle class families are overrun by debt. With their new technologies snuggly tucked in their pockets and new cars safely parked in their garages, many Americans are left absolutely anxious and clueless as to how to repay these loans. Furthermore, the given paper will challenge the idea of home ownership, which is one of the key postulates of the American Dream.
In an article by Quelch in Harvard Business Review (2008) the author talks about the hijacking of the American Dream. More specifically, he explains that “irresponsible banks and mortgage brokers” were not the ones responsible for the economic crisis (Quelch, 2008). As a matter of fact, he states that the crisis is a “demand-side problem” caused by materialistic thought and longing for easy gratification. The author of the article writes: “Americans need a refresher course on the American dream” (Quelch, 2008). What does this mean? It is simple. Quelch points to the screaming difference between the American Dream two centuries ago and now. Then, it signified the freedom to honestly pursue one’s goals “to the limits of one’s ambition and ability” (Quelch, 2008). Moreover, the American Constitution puts “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” at the forefront, yet it says nothing about “an automatic chicken in every pot” (Quelch, 2008). While there is a great amount of irony in this allegory, it leads us up to a very important issue. Americans have come to view the American Dream as a process of ceaseless acquisition of “stuff”. Of course, this does not concern the whole population. Some people still view the American Dream from a more traditionalistic, family-oriented perspective: giving one’s children access to a higher education, leading a healthy life, and being of service to the community. Given this, one could say that the American Dream is only partially dead.
James Truslow Adams first spoke of the American Dream in 1931, in his book “Epic of America” (Quelch, 2008). He wrote:
“It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position” (Quelch, 2008).
From the abovementioned quote, it is absolutely clear: the American Dream is about self-actualization and equal opportunity; it has nothing to do with endless acquisition of more and more material possessions. Hence, I agree with Quelch’s idea that Americans have long detached from the true meaning of the American Dream.
In his article, Van Boven explains that increased material possessions do not necessarily mean greater happiness (2005). Furthermore, the author makes the following thesis statement: “investing discretionary resources in life experiences makes people happier than investing discretionary resources in material possession” (Van Boven, 2005, p. 132). According to Van Boven’s research, happiness is in the eye of the beholder, not in the number of cars, phones, or houses. What is also important, the author explains that “dispositional materialism” has a negative correlation with “subjective well-being and psychological health” (Van Boven, 2005, p. 132). According to this information, the American Dream culture with its emphasis on “possessing” is fundamentally flawed. Such culture prevents “self-actualization and happiness”; on the other hand, a culture of “being”, experiencing, living in the moment is more likely to lead one to a happier, more fulfilled state (Van Boven, 2005, p. 132).
Furthermore, materialistic thinking has been reinforced by the marketing industry. Advertisements and marketing campaigns play around with one’s natural needs and instincts. These human needs revolve around belonging to a social group, feeling accepted and loved, as well as satisfying one’s physical needs. Marketing specialists play with the human subconscious in order to boost demand. As a result, many people have been convinced by the media that acquiring certain products and services will make them more attractive, loved, and happier. But this is an absolute lie.
As one can tell from the abovementioned information, not only does materialism lead to increased debt, but it also creates a “joyless economy” (Van Boven, 2005, p. 133). It is worth taking a second to define materialism. Materialism is the belief that material goods form the basis of one’s life and happiness. Yet, numerous studies show that individuals with a materialistic approach to life are less psychologically healthy and more unhappy (Van Boven, 2005). Van Boven’s (2005) research concludes that “the more people aspire to materialistic goals, the less satisfied they are with life, and the more at risk they are for developing psychological disorders” (p. 139). Finally, researchers explain that “experiential pursuits” lead to greater well-being and happiness, while materialistic pursuits diminish happiness (Van Boven, 2005, p. 140).
Taking into account the evidence presented above, over the past two centuries, the American Dream has shrunk in size and meaning. When it was born, it was a manifestation of freedom and accomplishment through equality, honesty, and dignity. But, over time, it diminished to “a luxurious definition of needs” (Van Boven, 2005, p. 140). In this narrow materialistic reality people have become slaves of their own greed. In my opinion, the “experiential” approach could be one of the better alternatives for redefining the American Dream. Yet, the topic of this paper is somewhat different.
Another article by Best (2012) explains that the American Dream has been reduced to “home ownership” and “college education”, the two main “signals of middle class living” (p. 349). Continued access to loans has caused many to chase these ideals, forgetting about the real American Dream, as it was described by James T. Adams. Furthermore, Best (2012) explains that the value of home ownership and college education are constantly reinforced through “economic incentives provided by the government” (p. 350). The abovementioned assets have come to be viewed as essential parts of the American Dream, directly linked to upward social mobility. In my opinion, this gives people a solid basis for further materialistic goal-setting.
However, Dickerson (2009) explains that after the financial crisis, owning a home has become an even more distant dream than before. As a matter of fact, the financial crisis was caused by this constant materialistic race toward more material possessions, and real estate is just one of them (Dickerson, 2009).
Based on the abovementioned information, the American Dream has come a long way from the moment it was proclaimed. In the very beginning, it spoke of equal rights to reach for one’s goals regardless of one’s origin or background. However, toward the end of the 20th century, these ideals transformed into hardcore materialistic thinking. As it was mentioned earlier, advertising and marketing played an important role in this process. People were manipulated into believing that they needed more material possessions in order to be happy. In reality, research shows that increased materialism leads to spiritual and psychological demise. Henceforth, in conclusion of the paper, I can say that the American Dream is almost or partially dead. As it was mentioned earlier in the paper, some people are still driven by family-focused values, service to others being one of them. At the same time, most Americans have become infected with overt materialism. As a result, instead of truly enjoying their lives and the present moment, many Americans have lost themselves in constant pursuit of more material goods. Yet, it is absolutely clear, that this race has nothing in common with the real American Dream.
- Best, E. (2012). Debt and the American dream. Society, 49(4), 349-352.
- Dickerson, A. M. (2009). The myth of home ownership and why home ownership is not always a good thing. Indiana Law Journal, 84(1), 189-237.
- Van Boven, L. (2005). Experientialism, materialism, and the pursuit of happiness. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 132-142.
- Quelch, J. (2008, October 27). How marketing the American dream caused our economic crisis. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2008/10/the-current-economic-crisis-ha