Foiled by the Pursuit of Happiness

Chapter 2, Part 4

Here in the U.S., the American Dream is our very own comprehensive neurotic solution. What the American Dream drums into our heads with commercials and advertisements, with Hollywood movies, with supermarket tabloids, with newspapers and magazines, with the expectations built into us by family and peers, is that we are all entitled. The birthright of every American, judging by the messages fed to us in the media every day, is apparently wealth, fame, glory, possessions, good looks, status, and whatever other dreams we have our hearts set on bagging. You know the list, all summed up in our Constitution as “the pursuit of happiness.” Everybody deserves to be an American Idol. Anyone can grow up to be president. Every ghetto kid can play professional basketball.

American Idol contestants

American Idol: what the American Dream drums into our heads is that we are all entitled

The American Dream encourages us to go “astray into the realm of the fantastic, of the infinite, of boundless possibilities” every day of our lives.

The opposite but corresponding delusion is that everyone who doesn’t live up to the American Dream, by definition, is a failure. If we can’t somehow claim our American birthright, it is only because we lack enough talent, enough motivation, enough perseverance, enough creativity, enough chutzpah to get there. As if the constant negative feedback from our egos isn’t enough, writers and lecturers in the human potential movement hound us to puff up our inhuman potential. If we can’t fulfill our dreams, it’s because we’re not in touch with the “power of intention,” or we don’t follow the “laws of success” laid out in their bestselling books.

In America, there is no such thing as defeat with honor.

Thoreau prophesized the dangers of the American Dream more than 165 years ago in Walden. “His position is really very simple,” wrote American Studies Professor Jonathan Levin of Fordham University in his introduction for a 2003 Barnes & Noble Classics edition of Walden. “Americans are suffering a kind of moral and spiritual depression, brought on by new and increasingly pervasive social and economic conditions that undermine individuals’ sense of material and moral agency…The early chapters of Walden are filled with examples of how men and women are driven by trivial social expectations, and how these ultimately leave them alienated from their surroundings. The movement to Walden was intended to ‘simplify’ Thoreau’s living conditions and so to free him from all such externally imposed designs and expectations.”

Thoreau concluded, as Levin noted, “that sometimes individuals need to position themselves on the margins of social institutions in order to promote their transformation.”

Famous photograph of the Loch Ness Monster

The American Dream is just a Loch Ness Monster

What Thoreau proposed in Walden was nothing short of a Thoreau-ly radical social revolution, perhaps the only kind that can change America for the better; a revolution of rugged individualists, united by their idiosyncrasy, each marching to a different drummer.

The overwhelming majority of people chasing the American Dream never stop to think that the whole concept is based on an ego trip. It demands a bottomless cup of self-absorption. The truth about the American Dream sounds almost anti-American: Anything you ever do for selfish reasons always proves untrue to your self; while anything you ever do for selfless reasons always proves true to your self. The logic behind this self-effacing paradox is self-perpetuating.

In truth, how many self-centered people ever realize the American Dream? What, a few Hollywood stars, a handful of rockers, a politician or two, a trickle of heiresses, a tiny percentage of pro jocks, a gaggle of entrepreneurs, some television personalities? And, out of that number, how many does the dream make happy and content? The answer is none, zero, zilch.

These people might get everything they’ve always wanted, but eventually everything they want leaves them with little more than a vague sense of emptiness and the ultimate existential question. “Okay, what now?”

And those are the lucky ones. The rest of us, the pliant majority, never achieve our modest ambitions and therefore spend our lives feeling inadequate, meaningless, and unfulfilled. For the bulk of our people, the American Dream is just a Loch Ness Monster, a Boy Scout snipe hunt, a Sasquatch, a blob of dancing swamp gas, a Northwest Passage; something mythical and unreachable, which will bring only frustration, pain, unhappiness, discontent, and an abiding sense of failure.

What, then, has the American Dream mutated into? Check out the next section.