Don’t Let the Pursuit of Happiness Keep You Down

Rethinking the American Dream

Posted Oct 25, 2012

The American Dream: once built upon the pursuit of happiness, now our country crumbles because of it. With a futile fixation on fame and fortune and the careless consumption of precious resources, we have an ailing environment, and the rates of unemployment and anxiety are somewhat alarming. We’ve consumed the lie that the ‘good life’ can be bought (blame decades of cunning marketing tactics and a rise in egocentricity). So, having bought into this notion of the Dream, we work infinite hours and commute far distances just so we can afford the lifestyle we see in magazine and tv ads — hoping to find happiness. Only, we haven’t. And worse — we’re not even sure how to.

According to Dan Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, people often mispredict what will make them happy. We choose pursuits based upon our tendency to idealize (and idolize) the things we think we desire, neglecting to consider real, potential outcomes. We channel our whole focus and energy into these pursuits. And when we do actually get what we want, it’s almost never like what we imagined it to be like — so we move on to our next pursuit. This is the hedonic treadmill

Too many of us have gotten on that treadmill, trying to chase down the "American Dream" — a national ethos originally birthed by James Adams in 1931: "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement." Unfortunately, over the years, Adams' sentiment has evolved into "better homes and richer bank accounts and fuller stomachs for only some." Yet research has shown that power, fame and material gain can actually diminish well-being. Well, it’s about time we rethink the American Dream.

Since the mid 80s, there’s been an ongoing movement — the mythopoetic men's movement where men, once engaged in the dog-eat-dog world of corporate America, battling for top-executive positions, are now reevaluating the American Dream and trading the hard-nosed grinds for more meaningful and engaging lifestyles. This movement also helps men in “deprioritizing work and economicsuccess in favor of emotional values and spiritual well-being”. What these men have known for decades, some of us are just now discovering. 

Yet many people go on day after day, unhappy, not even realizing that it’s often the pursuit of the American Dream that has led them to this very point in their lives. Like many, I used to believe that the ‘good life’ was a linear path — you get a college degree, land a great job in the city, get married, buy a house in the suburbs (perhaps with a white picket fence and a garden) and have two children, 1 dog and 1 au pair. I stopped at the house. Four months after purchasing it, my husband and I divorced. It was a difficult time, but I used this hardship to redefine my views of happiness and the American Dream. And I began by evaluating my personal values. I realized that while I was succeeding in goals I had set for myself, they didn’t really line up with the things I truly valued in life. Worse, I had no idea what a mismatch my pursuits were given my unique personality, strengths and deeply-held beliefs. 

More than 30 years of research from psychologists Ken Sheldon and Tim Kasser tells us that people are happiest when they live according to values that appeal to personal growth and connection to a larger purpose. But surprisingly, most of us still place highest value on money and power. In essence, values are the things that are most meaningful to you, the things you hold most dear. For instance, some people value religion, family, or helping others. These are known as intrinsic values, ‘embodied by personal growth, affiliation, and connection to the broader'. Intrinsic values are more likely to motivate behaviors that are satisfying and contribute to a thriving life!

Other people, as we well know, value beauty, six-figure incomes and having power over others. These are extrinsic values, and they actually hamper life satisfaction, cause distress and alienate us from our authentic selves!. Kasser and colleague Richard Ryan found in college students that those whose values were intrinsic versus extrinsic reported less depression and anxiety, and they felt more alive (a greater sense of vitality).  The reverse was true for those who sought out material goals. The take home message: people who focus on internally-motivating goals are more likely to flourish! They’re more likely to actually be happy instead of in throws of pursuing it.

Another study found that reflecting on personal values can actually attenuate stress responses on a psychological and physiological level. Even more important, people are more likely to be committed to goals that are personally meaningful to them, and they flourish most when their lives are self-authored — when their goals and actions resonate with their core selves – their character strengths and values.

Since the divorce about nine years ago, my life has undergone a major transformation. Sometimes it takes a major life change to get us to rethink our values and personal and professional goals. What I’ve discovered, and what research confirms to be true, is that happiness is derived from pursuing meaningful and challenging goals — instead of pursuing someone else's antiquated ideal of happiness. I’ve discovered that people flourish when challenged, engaged and put into circumstances that enable them to grow.

If you had told me nine years ago that I'd be a missionary or travel the world or graduate from an Ivy League Master's Program, I would've never believed you, especially since I lived a rather hedonistic lifestyle at the time and didn't care much for religion or education. Yet today I can say that all three things are true of my life, and they're true because I've learned to align my actions and pursuits with my values and character strengths. Though it hasn’t been an easy road, I’ve succeeded in ways I never thought possible. You too have the ability to change the trajectory of your life — to create your own American Dream — and it begins with connecting to your authentic self.

What do you value most — and what can you do to get your pursuits to align with those values? Those are the pursuits that'll bring you true happiness.


Angie LeVan, MAPP, is a resilience coach, speaker, trainer and writer, dedicated to helping individuals and organizations/businesses thrive!

Angie is available for presentations, workshops, media commentary, and private life coaching. For more information see:


Creswell, J. D., Welch, W. T., Taylor, S. E., Sherman, D. K., Gruenewald, T. L., & Mann, T. (2005). Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses. Psychological Science, 16(11), 84.

Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. Alfred A Knopf: New York.

Kashdan, T. B., & Breen, W.E. (2007). Materialism and diminished well-being: Experiential avoidance as a mediating mechanism. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology; 26, 521-539.

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1993). A dark side of the American dream: Correlates of financial success as a central life aspiration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology65, 410–422.

Library of Congress. American Memory. "What is the American Dream?", lesson plan.

Magnuson, E. (2008). Rejecting the American Dream: Men Creating Alternative Life Goals. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography; 37, 3, 255-290.  

Sheldon, K.M. & Kasser, T. (2001). Goals, Congruence, and Positive Well-Being: New Empirical Support for Humanistic Theories. Journal of Humanistic Psychology; 41, 1, 30-50.