Is the American Dream Changing?

Why that might be particularly good news for you!

The past week has produced a wide range of emotions from devastation to celebration, relief to terror. One thing is clear—the American dream is changing. So much for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Setting politics aside, the research is compelling.

For decades, the American Dream has been measured externally. “Making it” was measured by fixed or quantitative accomplishments: a home, a car, a family (2.3 kids) and the opportunity to retire in leisure. Apparently, the American Dream might need an upgrade.  Focusing on material pursuits and accumulating wealth creates a negative return on one’s mental health. Once basic needs are met (or after $75k), money doesn’t materially change your happiness.  In fact, the desire for material goods can even have the opposite effect. Some studies have found that focusing on the pursuit of material goods breeds anxiety, isolation and even alienation.  

This brings us to the American Dream 2.0, which shifts the focus from the quest for things to the quest for personal fulfillment. In this dream, happiness is more important than accumulating material wealth. In this dream, happiness also does not come from accomplishments alone but rather from the sense that you are making progress and moving towards things you have identified as personally important.

Reassessing the American Dream

I’m not alone wondering about the changing nature of the American Dream. Met Life recently conducted 1000 interviews as part of their study on the current status of the American Dream. This is what they concluded:

Americans are less concerned with material issues…life’s traditional markers of success—getting married, buying a house, having a family, and building wealth—do not matter as much today. Rather, achieving a sense of personal fulfillment is more important toward realizing the American dream than accumulating material wealth.

The Center for a New American Dream surveyed nearly 2000 Americans who agreed.  When asked about their individual version of the American dream, individuals identified personal freedom, security, achieving personal potential and having time to enjoy life as important.

Tim Kasser, the author of The High Price of Materialism, has analyzed over a decade of empirical data on materialism and well being. Similar to the Met Life research, Kasser found that a higher value on material goods was associated with insecurity and lower levels of social and empathetic behavior.  Said more simply, looking out the window at what is owned by the Jones next door (and wanting what they have) doesn’t breed well being.  But if that is the case, what does breed happiness?

Embracing the American Dream 2.0

The best way to increase your sense of well being is to embrace a growth mindset and to organize your life around intrinsic values—those things that you have decided are important and fulfilling.

The good news is that with a growth mindset, we are much more in control of this process than most of us realize. After all, you decide what matters and what is important. You are in the driver’s seat moving towards your internal sense of well being. The bad news is that intrinsic well being is much more abstract than the accumulation of goods. This means it can be more difficult to assess when you are making real gains, but this doesn’t mean that this is impossible work.  

Like building a magnificent skyscraper that has the potential to house many people and create a view where one can see for miles, building well being means having a strong foundation. In this case, the foundation is not about bricks and mortar but rather about conviction—deciding that you’re commitment to seeking fulfillment. Now the only challenge is to make that initial step and then to develop the discipline to realize yournew American dream.  

Creating More Flow to Heighten Well-Being

Create More Flow (CMF) is about feeling and performing your best. It’s not opposed to the accumulation of material wealth. Indeed, people who experience the most flow are often phenomenally successful in their work, but they also feel happier and report greatest fulfillment at work and play.  

To be in flow, however, you need to first make a choice—a choice to live in the learning zone where you are growing and developing things that matter to you. To be in flow, you need to believe in new possibilities—to believe that there is another way to be in the world. Being in flow means connecting with what is vital and making it real, personal, and powerful. It is about building the habits essential to give you the bandwidth needed to breathe, think about what you want, and build relationships that will help you move along this pathway to well being.

While this may sound totally overwhelming, in my experience, there are some simply hacks that can make creating more flow enduring, sustainable and fun.

Rethink Success and Happiness

Ask yourself, what matters most? Relationships, values, beliefs, knowledge, insights?Think deeply and consider your external influencers. Have a clear picture of your priorities, whatever they may be.

Downsize

Move away from the "should haves" and towards what truly feeds your soul. Separate yourself from relationships, things, and responsibilities that don’t move you towards fulfillment. Not sure how to do this?  Read The Magic Art of Tidying, but don’t stop with material things! Once you’ve shed those mismatched socks and the hoodie you’ve had since college, start shedding more ephemeral things too, including any relationships (professional or personal) that are no longer feeding you or never were.

Prepare Proactively

Anticipate that others will be uncomfortable with your decision. After all, there was consensus for decades that we all wanted the American dream. Challenging this assumption will make some people uncomfortable.

Re-Define Your Needs

The gig economy makes it possible to earn what you need to be happy (about 75k) and spend more time creating the life you want and seeking fulfillment. In The Gig Economy, Diane Mulcahy tells you how to do this step by step.

Focus on the Journey not the Destination

The Constitution promises us “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As CEO of Spartan Race, Joe DeSena, said so eloquently, “the American Dream 2.0 realizes that happiness is the pursuit.” Said another way, what matters is the journey and not the destination.

What is the take away? If you embrace a growth mindset and take pleasure in the pursuit, you’ll be happier.  And, in all likelihood, you’ll also be more productive and accumulate more over time. Why? Because rather than burning out, which is precisely what is happening to too many Americans today, you’ll finally be experiencing the flow needed to return to your passionate pursuit day after day with an open heart, open mind and complete focus.