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The Psychology of the American Dream

Why do we believe so fervently in the American Dream?

What does it mean to you? Having written a book on the topic, I have a habit of asking anyone and everyone, joining a long line of others who have tried to get a better understanding of the American Dream. The usual answers—financial stability or, more specifically, making enough money to be able to retire (still often $1 million, despite inflation), “the good life” (usually a nice house in the suburbs with all the consumer trappings), to work for oneself, to have (at least) fifteen minutes of fame, the “pursuit of happiness” or, once in a while, the Statue of Liberty—come back, an interesting but somewhat frustrating exercise, as all the others found in their own formal or informal surveys. Besides reaching no real consensus, the responses do not come close to capturing the undeniable power of the American Dream, making it seem more like a wish list than what I believe to be is the guiding mythology of the most powerful civilization in history.

The problem, of course, is that it does not exist. The Dream is just that, a product of our imagination, and a complex one at that. That it is not real, however, ultimately turns out to be the most significant finding about the American Dream. The fact that many of us have assumed the Dream to be real makes it even more compelling.

Much of this naturally has to do with how central the Dream has been and continues to be to the American idea and experience. Rather than just a powerful philosophy or ideology, the American Dream (the D is sometimes capitalized, sometimes not, my preference the former) is thoroughly woven into the fabric of everyday life. It plays a vital, active role in who we are, what we do, and why we do it. No other idea or mythology- even religion, I believe- has as much influence on our individual and collective lives, with the Dream one of the precious few things in this country that we all share. You name it- economics, politics, law, work, business, education- and the American Dream is there, the nation at some level a marketplace of competing interpretations and visions of what it means and should mean. A search of “American Dream” on Google in October 2016 turned up over thirty-six million hits, a crude but still impressive measure of its ubiquity.

Part and parcel of the American Dream is the notion of upward mobility, the idea that one can, though dedication and with a can-do spirit, climb the ladder of success and reach a higher social and economic position. For many in both the working class and the middle class, upward mobility has served as the heart and soul of the American Dream, the prospect of “betterment” and to “improve one’s lot” for oneself and/or one’s children much of what this country is all about. Work hard, save a little, send the kids to college so they can do better than you did, and retire happily to a warmer climate has been the script we have all been handed, with any major deviation from that a cause for concern if not an outright assault to our national creed.

While in recent years study after study has shown upward mobility to be even a greater myth than the Dream itself, most Americans refuse to believe such a thing, as the concept of class fluidity is so engrained in our national ethos. This feeling of entitlement, that if one plays by the rules one will in time reap his or her just rewards, had led many an American astray, our mythology mistaken for a promise. The loss of faith in both their country and themselves that millions have no doubt experienced is the saddest part of the American Dream, every bit as tragic as the heroic stories of success that we love to celebrate. Besides having a happy ending, the latter remind us that we are a land of opportunity offering all citizens an even playing field and, on a grander level, that we are a chosen people assigned a unique and special purpose.

Regardless of the reality, the American Dream plays an important role in our psychic wellbeing on both a collective and individual level. Anything is possible, the Dream tells us, a comforting belief that counters the many obstacles and limitations we all face on a daily basis. The idea that each of us can realize whatever it is we hope to in our lives is reason enough to get up in the morning and do whatever we have to in order to try to make that happen. The American Dream is an optimistic, motivating force that propels people to achieve and accomplish things that we might otherwise not strive for. Its elusiveness makes it that much more compelling as, for many, one’s dream always seems to be out of reach, but still very much worth pursuing.