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How We Dream of Our Future

Seven misconceptions we hold.

We all dream of the future. This is especially true for Americans. Dreaming, one might say, is in our DNA. Indeed, it is arguable that we Americans recognize dreaming as a right. Not only do we have a right to dream, but we are also often encouraged to let our future imaginings be unrestricted. Dream big, or go home as the saying goes.

In the U.S., dreaming is often equated with the “American Dream.” It is a phrase that is commonly used to express a universal in American culture—something common to both those with long-established roots as well as those just arriving in our nation. Indeed, the American Dream is frequently cited as a reason for the success of individuals and our nation. It is widely thought that pursuing the American Dream makes us and the country better.

The American Dream is iconic and is typically summed up in terms of personal achievement—owning a house with a picket fence and a happy family within. To be sure, the “idea” of the American Dream is one of the great symbols associated with our nation. But it may also be a generality that does little to capture the actual dreams that Americans embrace about their futures.

In our research, we talked to many Americans across an array of social situations and life circumstances and we discovered some interesting things about our future imaginings. The iconic image of the American Dream does not really do justice to how we envision future possibilities. To capture those findings, we review some common misconceptions or misunderstandings about Americans’ future imaginings:

Misconception #1: All of us are chasing the classic American Dream.

To be sure, optimism characterized the dreams our study respondents reported. And while some reported pursuing rather grand dreams—learning all the languages of the world, achieving peace in the Middle East, being a prizewinning athlete, or becoming a Broadway star, many reported rather ordinary or strikingly simple dreams such as reuniting with an estranged child, growing old together with a spouse, winning a national Scrabble championship, or saving animals. To our surprise, none of our respondents offered the iconic American Dream as the carrot dangling in front of them.

Misconception #2: Everyone’s dreams are really unique to the individual.

Many believe that our dreams are highly personal, a reflection of an individual’s private worlds or unique experiences. Yet, we learned that a person’s social location (i.e. his/her age, gender, race social class, or life circumstances) structures one’s future imaginings. In fact, we were able to sort our respondents’ dreams into some common categories. Over and over, we found that people engaged in the same, very limited number of dream themes: adventure; career; fame, wealth and power; family; philanthropy; and self-improvement. This narrow subject matter resulted in enormous overlap in what conventional wisdom would have us believe are unique imaginings of the future. Moreover, we found that one’s social location seeps into an individual’s mind’s eye, quietly influencing what they dream, whether they embrace or abandon dreaming if they believe their dreams—even the fantastical—can come true, and whether they try to realize them. We found for instance, that women were more optimistic about dreaming than men. We found that aging had a liberating effect on dreaming such that the dreams of older respondents were more expansive or daring than the future imaginings of our younger dreamers. A dreamer’s race and social class inform whether they hold positive versus negative views about dreaming. Our research also showed notable similarities in many of the ways in which people dreamed. In nearly all cases, people’s dreams were detailed and clear, individualistic in scope, and something that people hoped to pass on to others should they fail to accomplish their dreams.

Misconception #3: American dreaming is essentially some version of upward mobility and success.

Given the American Dream theme is so prevalent in our culture, we expected to frequently hear about economic or social advancement reported in dreams for the future. Instead, one of the most surprising findings of our research was how few of our respondents envisioned great monetary success or great social climbing as part of their dreaming. For example, winning the lottery or social notoriety were sometimes mentioned, but just not popular dreams for our respondents. When dreams of monetary gain were identified, they were more likely to be reported by younger age groups or relatively modest in scope. People dream of having the resources to take family vacations with extended families. They dream of having the resources to open a small business. Millionaire or billionaire status is not the stuff of the majority of people’s dreams. Similarly, a minority of people reported future imaginings where they enjoyed the high or admired status of social elites.

Misconception #4: When it comes to dreaming, the sky is the limit

“I can dream, can’t I?” That familiar sentiment suggests that our dreams don’t need to be, indeed should not be, limited. Dreaming big suggests the sky is the limit when it comes to dreaming; we are encouraged to hook our wagons and our dreams to the stars. What our respondents showed us, however, is that dreaming is, for the most part, rather practical and down to earth. Despite our prompting our research participants to express dreams they would have under ideal circumstances—the possibility of failing was taken off the table—very few of our respondents expressed dreams that were not grounded in reality; few stated dreams that were clearly outside the realm of possibility. Indeed, fantastical dreaming—being able to levitate one’s self, buying the Eiffel Tower, bringing about economic equity, becoming invisible, being the next Elon Musk—was relatively rare. When it did appear, fantastical dreaming was much more likely to occur among our youngest dreamers. Older age groups were more likely to express rather ordinary even mundane dreaming: enjoying a long life with a spouse, taking more family vacations, starting a small business in line with their interests or passions, and performing some community service. While many of our respondents recognized that big dreams were OK when one is young, they also advised some caution about toning dreams down over time.

Misconception #5: Dreaming is an equal opportunity endeavor.

One underlying assumption of dreaming is that no matter what your personal circumstances, one is free to dream of any future possibility: any and all can dream of being President of the United States or living on Mars someday. But the notion of endless possibilities in dreaming must confront a harsh reality: Dreaming is not an equal opportunity endeavor. Our research findings indicate that people don’t enjoy a level playing field when it comes to dreaming. What we found instead is that people’s social locations with regard to age, gender, race, social class, and life circumstances clearly impact the nature of dreams. The future imaginings of women and men followed rather traditional gender scripts. Social and economic minorities talked of dreams that were quite reserved in comparison to the dreams of White or wealthy respondents. Youthful respondents were less likely to express daring dreams than their older counterparts. Where one stands in social space informs and often limits future imaginings.

Misconception #6: Unfortunate life events can squash or negatively alter our dreams.

It seems reasonable to expect that those of us who face great personal challenges might give up on dreaming. We were quite interested in seeing if this expectation was true. Our findings indicate that this view needs some qualifying. Surprisingly, some life challenges (a cancer diagnosis, being the victim of a natural disaster, being homeless) prove beneficial to the dreaming process. Many life setbacks seem to encourage more positive or optimistic dreaming. Consider our respondents who were battling cancer. Their dreams for future possibilities were very upbeat. Many were keen on using their experiences to envision futures where they could affect a positive force in other people’s lives: establishing self-help groups or creating motivational podcasts for those facing grave health challenges. And to further dissuade us from thinking that life adversities end up hurting the dreaming process, we found that our health-challenged dreamers expressed great confidence in their ability to achieve their dreams. On the other hand, we did find that one life adversity, unemployment, can undermine the dreaming process. Our unemployed respondents were more likely than those challenged by medical issues to express negative views about dreaming and to feel they could not control or bring their dreams to fruition.

Misconception #7: Deferred dreams “dry up like raisins in the sun.”

So what happens when people stop dreaming? We were once again very eager to learn the answer to this question. And yet once again we were surprised to discover that an answer evades us for one simple but telling reason: the overwhelming majority of people we talked to indicated that they would never give up on their dreams. Dreams we were told are enormously important, even critical to living. Without dreams, most respondents told us, life would be bleak and meaningless. Even when respondents admitted that they did not have the skills or time to realize their dreams, they nonetheless refused to give up on them. Dreaming, our respondents said, was a good thing—that we all get something from dreaming even if our dreams don’t or won’t come true. It was a rare exception when someone spoke of dreaming leading one astray or backfiring.

So, what do we know about dreaming? Something new. A systematic examination of what and how people dream shows that future imaginings look different than we might have guessed. They are not unique to individuals nor are they carbon copies of the American Dream story. Instead, who we are, socially speaking, powerfully shapes what we dream and how we envision our futures. By debunking common myths about dreaming, we offer a new take on the importance of focusing on dreams for the future. In particular, the importance of taking corrective measures to counter socially restricted dreaming.