The ‘American Dream’ has become an ‘everywhere nightmare’.
The first world is facing an existential crisis. People are increasingly out of touch with each other, with nature and even with themselves. Like animals in a zoo, people are trapped in an artificial reality that is becoming more and more alienating. Our culture puts ever-increasing demands on people to perform in a rat race that no-one in their right mind would consciously choose. Consequently, people can’t live naturally, which causes stress, anxiety and pessimism – all symptoms of feeling helpless, overloaded and insecure.
We are conditioned by a system that is out of our control. The system pressures everyone to get a job, work hard, and buy a big house, nice cars, flash clothes, the latest gadgets and so on. This so-called ‘American Dream’ is not really our dream, it is a dream promoted by our particular culture, and it can prevent us from fulfilling our personal dreams. It didn’t use to be this way.
We need to question our cultures because they are not always right. Cultures can be good, and get better, just as they can be bad, and get worse. The American Dream was the dream of a better life for impoverished immigrants from all over the world who came to the land of the free. However, this dream, subsequently exported to all developed countries of the world, has morphed into a mega global nightmare.
“In the marketing society, we seek fulfilment but settle for abundance. Prisoners of plenty, we have the freedom to consume instead of our freedom to find our place in the world.”
― Clive Hamilton, Growth Fetish
The nightmare of affluence
We are swindled by affluence. Many psychologists believe the explosion of anxiety and depression in recent decades is a result of affluence.
For example, the psychologist Barry Schwartz, who wrote the bestseller The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less, provides evidence that too much choice causes anxiety, and can also cause feelings of guilt, regret and loss. Schwartz believes that some choice is better than no choice, but that no choice is better than too much choice. In our produce-and-consume world the number of choices for everything escalates and yet people are left miserable.
Research by another psychologist, Tim Kasser, who wrote The High Price of Materialism, found that people with a materialist mindset tend to be more insecure, have lower self-esteem, have worse relationships and are less authentic than people who aren’t materialistic.
In his book Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough, the author Clive Hamilton provides evidence that even when people have more than enough, they don’t think they do. This highlights the insidious nature of the system of affluence, it forces us to feel dissatisfied, no matter what, so that we keep consuming.
Doing what is right
What is to be done in the face of too much artifice? In the past there were the safety nets of church and close-knit communities, as well as the strong bonds of extended family and friendship groups. However, these have been undermined by the unnatural and competitive struggle to produce and consume.
People generally would like to do the right thing; it’s just that many people don’t know what the right thing is. People are enculturated to do what the culture considers right and not what individuals consider the best thing for themselves. As social animals who crave to ‘fit in’ and be respected, people conform to cultural norms, no matter if they are ultimately good or bad for them. Also, too many people are unquestioning and passive about their situations. Being passive means you think that life is something that happens to you. This is essentially learned helplessness which is a form of pessimism.
The answer is to get off the American Dream rat race. Life can be, and should be, something you make happen, not something that just happens to you. The American Dream conflates well-being with consumption; the more consumption the more well-being. This couldn’t be any more wrong. Whilst too little consumption is bad, enough consumption is better than too much.
The most potent way to get off the rat race is to live simply and more self-sufficiently.
Henry David Thoreau summed up simple living when he said: “…I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary.”
‘What is not life’ is really all of the superfluous trivialities that we unconsciously fill our days and lives with. Also, ‘resignation’ is passiveness. The simple truth is that by being active agents living deliberate and essential lives, we are living naturally without the artificial control of a culture that would suck the life out of us.
“To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment