The Maturing American Dream

I heard an article on the radio today with people expressing anxiety that the American dream would be deferred or even lost because it looked like the next generation of Americans might not be materially significantly better off than this one. First let me stipulate that this is not something I believe. Even at ostensibly similar income levels, Americans today are much better off than people were years ago because almost everything has improved in quality. A TV today is so much improved that it is hardly the same product as the best you could buy in 1982. Clothes are higher quality. Cars are more reliable. The list goes on. But let’s assume for a minute that it is true, that American prosperity will hold in place now and forever until the end of time. What does that really mean?

It is a maturity. A baby grows quickly into a child and then into an adult, but doesn't keep growing forever. At some point things are done. I have realized that in my own life, as I imply above. I don't really want more than I have now. I am content. That does not mean that things will never change. I still like to play around with investments, but I don't really care very much about the profits, which I tend to give away these days. This is in contrast to my "hungry period" where I was concerned with getting things and achieving career goals. This was a necessary life-stage, but it is passed. Perhaps the same is true for Americans as a whole.

My father lived and died never really having achieved financial security. He had to think about money much more often than I do. My kids don't seem to think about money very much at all. It is a concept in life that a satisfied need no longer motivates. At some point you have enough.

As a society, Americans have enough. That is not to say that some people are not still in serious need. They may have to think more about money than others and some may even require the sustained help of others. But most Americans have enough, even if they don't themselves know it.

My favorite psychologist (practically the only one I like beside Viktor Frankl) was Abraham Maslow. He postulated a hierarchy of needs. Humans move along this hierarchy and must satisfy the basic needs before they will pursue others. Once the need is satisfied, it stops motivating and people don't think much about it. The most basic need is air, yet we think about breathing not at all until it becomes difficult. We are not motivated by air in most cases. What would you pay right now for a square meter of air? The hierarchy moves from survival needs to interpersonal needs to "self-actualization". You think about truth, beauty, poetry and philosophy when you are already well-fed and generally secure.

IMO most Americans have reached the point of self-actualization and we almost certainly have as a society. This means that we have to be more sophisticated in our pursuit of happiness. While a hungry man will be happy when he gets a bowl of food and a man being pursued by a hungry lion will be happy when the danger is removed, a person who has met his basic needs MUST develop higher sensibilities if he wants to become and remain happy. It is a difficult transition, especially for people with recent memories of severe deprivation. Look at the situation of lottery winners who were recently poor. They buy stuff and think it will make them happy. It works at first, but each additional purchase is less satisfying than the one before.

So today we Americans are at the delicate stage where we have enough, but don't know it. We have passed through the rambunctious stage of mere acquisition and we have to move on. Many don't want to do it. Introspection is hard when there is little inside. These sorts prefer to point outside themselves at the many problems that still exist. "Look," they say, "we are not there yet. We have lost more than we have gained." The answer to this is the old saying that many people have too much money, but nobody has enough unless they take control of themselves.

Let me be clear. Individuals will still need to build their lives. When they are young and starting out, they may need to work harder, but the hardest work they will need to do is to know when they have enough and begin to enjoy the life they have earned rather than become frustrated or angry that they don't have more, or fall into the even more pernicious fallacy that they cannot be happy as long as others have more than they do.

The American dream was noble to the extent it meant that people were seeking freedom and the capacity to make choices. I would also add that it was noble to the extent that it included service to America as well as getting the good life. The dream was base to the extent that it was strictly material. Money is a means to provide security and enable choices. It is should not be a goal in itself. And if you dream of money, it is time you woke up and asked what you really value.

Posted by Christine & John at May 29, 2012 2:27 PM
Comment #345652

Well the definition of enough is always going to change. But we surely have a ways to go. Many people still have to wait two years before an upgrade in their cell phone. Can’t we do better?

By the way I don’t know if you noticed but the whole decaying/declining of America narrative is the main rallying cry of the Republican party right now. Boy are you off message.

Posted by: Schwamp at May 30, 2012 9:17 AM
Comment #345713


Either people say I am toeing the line or off message. Sometimes I am accused of both at the same time. These are just opinions and observations.

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