The American Dream isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, or at least so it seems for many Americans. Though education, job/business, financial stability, and wealth can provide the outward appearance of success, for many of us, something is still missing.
This missing piece has fueled a mental health crisis in all sectors of society. Rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness in the U.S. have only risen since the COVID pandemic began, while wealth continues to rise. According to Mental Health America, over 20% of adults in the U.S. experienced a mental health crisis in 2019-2020. This trend has likely worsened since the COVID pandemic, according to the American Psychological Association’s Practitioner Impact Survey (2022), which indicates that demand for services has increased for three consecutive years.
So why do we feel so rotten?
The science of well-being has been illuminating the answer to this question for decades. While we’ve been chasing success as measured by money, status, financial security, and power, we also have been neglecting the parts of our lives that feel most satisfying to our hearts and souls. In other words, the things that we think make us happy are actually having the opposite effect.
If we were to invite our hearts into the conversation, we will likely discover that we are not placated by the finer things in life for any length of time. Instead, we long for things like connection, meaning, beauty, and truth—what Brene Brown terms wholehearted living—and which are generally missing from our main metrics for success.
All you have to do is look inward to feel the emptiness and frustration created by the pursuit of society’s measures of success. After all, you’ve done everything you were told to do, played by the rules, and worked hard. But to say that the reward feels less than satisfying might be a gross understatement for many. It may be a cold consolation for you to know that you are not alone, but you're not: Millions of others are wondering where they went wrong. It is not you that went wrong, though, but rather that our framework for what matters has led us astray.
You may not be able to change that cultural framework, but you can change your own. You can discover a more fulfilling way to view and live your life. You are in control of where you focus your attention and energy (within certain constraints). Thus you have the power to make changes that can make your life feel more rewarding.
Here are three tips to get you started on creating a more satisfying life:
1. Don’t play the victim. Unless you’re a Kardashian, you probably have to work for a living and handle most of your responsibilities with little or no help. Following your heart does not absolve you of your responsibilities; rather, while you’re fulfilling your responsibilities, you have the ultimate choice as to how to view these roles and where to direct your attention when full attention is not required. For example, if you resent cleaning your house, you might tell yourself that you’re helpless within your circumstances. Though I also would prefer to do something else, I also remember that caring for my environment equates to caring for myself. A beautiful, clean living space is a privilege. Focusing on my home as a privilege instead of an obligation changes how I feel about the chore.
Ruminating in frustration or resentment as a coping strategy can trap you in the status quo. While some degree of rumination might inspire a solution (such as bartering chores with others), you are needlessly jeopardizing your health, wellness, and cognitive functions by fostering negative feelings (Frederickson, 2013).
2. Make joy your metric. Marie Kondo helps us to understand that things influence our emotions, and that we should only keep what “sparks joy." The same can be said for the roles, activities, and relationships that we have in our life, within the limits of what is practical. Purging joy-less aspects of our lives may require transition time and/or skill development. For example, your dream of leaving your toxic workplace and having your own business may require years of saving, education, research, and planning. Spending a little time daily investing in that goal will increase the odds that you’ll be fully prepared to launch when the time comes.
Doing a turnaround on unsatisfying relationships may also not be practical in terms of your ability to leave situations that do not serve. Remember that you have more options than simply either leaving a relationship or maintaining the status quo. Most of those intermediate options involve doing inner work to examine your unseen patterns and triggers that could be contributing to the poor quality of your bond. Learning how to take a healthier approach to the relationship is within your control, and also might invite others to rise to the occasion as well.
3. Lean into challenge. Many of us have been brought up to believe that life is supposed to be easy. Though it’s true that the modern world reduces our need for heavy physical labor, the trade-off is that our world is much more complex. Understanding and managing our organizations, communities, systems (legal, government, healthcare, political), families, personal, and professional lives is overwhelming. Our ability to communicate with large numbers of people also means that we have so many more relationships to manage. Most of us have little or no training in doing do so effectively, and yet it must be done. The more we resist the challenge, and the learning that goes with it, the more difficult our situations become.
Embracing difficulty, learning, and growth not only helps us surmount the challenge, but it can also help us to be more successful (Dweck, 2006), and build our confidence and sense of purpose. For instance, losing my husband and sister to cancer in 2018 was devastating, but the sense of loss also created space for me to imagine what is most important in my life. Following my heart and hopes for the world every day enabled me to replace hopelessness with hope, and grief with a gift for the world.
You have the power to turn heartbreak into self-transcendence. Be intentional about focusing on your heart’s desires rather than feeling victimized by circumstances. It’s a heavy lift and a long road, but what you can create in your life is truly unique and spectacular.
Each path is also unique, and neither straight nor easy. What works for you may not work for anyone else. Explore, experiment, and pursue what feeds your heart and soul. The options are endless, so just follow your curiosity, energy, and excitement. You have the chance to feel fully and vibrantly alive in the pursuit of your heart’s desire. What’s more exciting than that?
American Psychological Association (2022), Psychologists struggle to meet demand amid mental health crisis; https://www.apa.org/pubs/reports/practitioner/2022-covid-psychologist-workload, accessed 1/31/23
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.
Frederickson, B (2013). Love 2.0: Creating Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection, Plume.
Mental Health America, State of Mental Health in America 2023 report, https://www.mhanational.org/issues/state-mental-health-america#:~:text=11.5%25%20of%20youth%20(over%202.7,illness%20did%20not%20receive%20care., accessed 1/31/23.