The American Dream…Nightmare

What is the American Dream? Is it a dream of opportunity and wealth? Is it a dream that is still attainable? Is it even a dream and not a nightmare in disguise? I always saw the American Dream as the ability to reach any goal in life. America was and still is the land of entrepreneurship, innovation, and Cinderella stories. Great men and women came to this country for a better life – many times from places where dreams were never mentioned. My wife and I are blessed to be on the right side of the American Dream (read on to know what that entails), but many people do not have the same position. For a majority of Americans, the dream is no more realistic than an episode of Leave it to Beaver. 

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Everyday people struggle to meet their bills, pay for food, find employment, save for retirement and notice optimism in the nightly news. It is even worse for minorities who not only struggle to find well-paying jobs but also worry about harassment and unfair treatment on an institutional level. To better understand the nightmarish side of America, I read Death of a Salesman by Arthur MillerDeath of a Salesman won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1949 and is one of the greatest American plays of all time. It follows the downfall of Willy Loman – an exhausted salesman who is losing his mind in the rat race of business. It is a gut-wrenching ride that requires you to question the very foundations of success.

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On the surface, Willy Loman looks like a prime candidate for the American Dream: He has a beautiful wife, two sons, a suburban house, a successful traveling sales job, and friends who admire him. These surface level attributes quickly fade away with reality: He regularly cheats on his wife, his one son is a womanizer while his other son is a wandering thief, his house constantly requires repairs, his job no longer pays the bills, and his supposed friends are nowhere to be found. By the end of the play, Willy is completely lost in the past reminisces of “better” times and his dreams of being a respected businessman. Arthur Miller paints a sad picture of what the American Dream can look like – a lifetime of sacrifice only to be fired and thrown to the curb of American capitilism.

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In the end, Willy kills himself so his family can collect the life insurance – his funeral is only attended by a few people. So what should we take away from this anecdote of the American Dream? I think Arthur Miller was pretty spot on. The American Dream is not for everyone and success is as elusive as a fleeting mistress. We should reframe the American Dream from one of material/prideful success to one of relational/altruistic success. Let’s not dream of being loved by everyone and impressing others with our possessions. Let’s dream of lives filled with close relationships that are synergistic – fostering self-actualization. A life well-lived is in our grasp, but we have to reframe our dreams – less external pridefulness and more internal peacefulness.

“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.”
-Arthur Miller

Destroy Your Life Timeline

Have you ever been depressed or saddened by your life course? Have you ever wanted to go back in time and change previous decisions? I play that game a little too often; “If only I would have stuck with pre-med…I could be a doctor right now,” “If only I would have enjoyed that stage in my life and not have rushed through it,” “If only I would have been more patient I wouldn’t be in this current predicament.” This game can be both good and bad depending on whether you learn from your mistakes or just continue sulking in a theatre of regrets.

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Another dangerous game to play is making a timeline for your “life.” By 22 I will have my college degree. By 25 I will be married. By 30 I will have my first baby. By 35 I will be a manager at work. This all too familiar timeline can be an excellent guide for our life goals, but many times it becomes a barbed-wire measuring stick. If your life goes off the tracks, you can feel lost and frozen with fear of the unknown. “What am I going to do now…I’m already (fill in the age)!” Age controls us more than we like to think and I am by no means immune to the pressure; just the other day I was thinking about going back to school but thought myself too old for the endeavor. So what is one to do if they find themselves flying off the tracks of their ideal timeline?

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The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
-Albert Einstein 

One of my most favorite things to do is to read about what other people have experienced in past lives. For example, what if you were really stressed out about not getting pregnant? Did you know Marie Antoinette took SEVEN years to consummate her marriage and the whole time she was freaking out about not having a baby? What if you stressed about not having the career you dreamed of? Did you know the first time Winston Churchill ran for office, he lost and subsequently became a war prisoner in South Africa? Or what if you think love will never come knocking on your door? Did you know Queen Victoria, thinking life was over after the death of her husband, fell in love with a Scottish servant?

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The point is that whatever you are worried about, someone has already lived it and come out of the situation better than ever. We are not on an isolated island; the past is there to help us as if it were an experiment – all different problems and scenarios tested over and over. We need to put this historical knowledge into practice by fostering patience and hope. What if Winston Churchhill had just given up hope? What would the world look like today? Your timeline might look like crap but do you really think it will never get better? Do you really think anyone has a perfect timeline as if life were a conveyor belt at Disney World?

We will not have failure – only success and new learning.
-Queen Victoria

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To Hope and Wait is to be human. We are most human in groups, and we must always look to others for wisdom. To be human is also to be present. What does the “future” have to do with the current moment? Your age is just a number but more than that, the future is just an imaginary pretext. The future is something in our heads, and there is truly nothing besides this moment in which these words are being read. That is a hard concept for people to grasp but when it is correctly understood life becomes disentangled from a timeline.

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An example of this is whenever old people get married. I think this is one of the best ways to tangibly understand the “present.” A 90-year-old bride doesn’t care about her timeline. She gets married so she can enjoy the here and now. Of course, this is all easy to write about, but it ‘s hard to put into practice. Again I remind everyone to Hope and Wait. Enjoy today and believe that tomorrow will be even better. Appreciate your timeline and be grateful for what you have instead of what you do not have. You will get through this stage in your life and one day smile at how far you have come; maybe your shaky timeline will provide wisdom and motivation for someone else.

 

Guaranteed Happiness

Do you want to be happy for the rest of your life? Do you want to live each day as if you were a overly-positive camp counselor? Do you want to wake up Monday morning feeling like you could wrestle a bear or win an argument against a jerkhead? I do! Who wouldn’t want to best a pachyderm or better yet crap glorious poops on a regular basis? To get closer to my goals of blissful happiness, I read Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. Most of you know who Daniel Gilbert is because he is the slightly older gentleman on all those Prudential retirement commercials; “How much is in your pocket, go put it on that board so you can see how big it will get in 5000 years when you can finally stop working.” Gilbert is a frick after my own heart and I really like his style of writing. This book was not an easy read and honestly it could be a semester long course with how many research studies it cites. However, because of Gilbert’s explanations of how we think, I now understand happiness much better than before.

To truly understand what makes us happy we must first understand how we perceive the world around us. We have flawed thinking about the past, present, and future.

  1. We look into the past and only remember high points and low points which doesn’t give us an accurate history of events. For example, we remember the highlights of the vacation but forget the mundane parts like sitting in the car or eating ham sandwiches.
  2.  In the present, we naturally compare our emotional state with others seeing only the things that reaffirm our beliefs. For example, we want a new car so we note to ourselves every time we see someone who appears happy with a new car-while disregarding all the unhappy people.
  3. We imagine the future without exact detail, which fools us into thinking that our emotions will be stronger then they actually will be. For example, we imagine that our sadness would be extremely high the day after our team loses the big game but in reality we are not that sad because we didn’t include in our imagination all the other things we would do in that day like have sex or eat a big cheeseburger.

In addition to our lack of accurate past, present, and future perceptions, we have an excellent knack to defend against negativity. We have an emotional immune system which helps us rationalize negative stimuli. For example, you find your best friend in bed with your woman. You will be mad but eventually your emotional immune system will rationalize the event in your head: “She was a whore, I’m so glad I figured this out sooner then later…she wasn’t good enough for me anyways…she did always have a weird cat smell.” We also surround ourselves with people who reaffirm our beliefs and this further helps the emotional immune system do its job of keeping us positive.

So what the frick does all this crazy psychology have to do with happiness? To put simply, our perception of the world is influenced by our own world view and we will seek to reaffirm this view at all costs. Since our views of past and future are fuzzy at best we really can only reference the present for accurate indicators of happiness levels. How the heck do you reference the present if you are trying to figure out your future happiness? The best way is to look at people who are experiencing your imagined future in the present. For example, you are wondering whether having children will make you happy, or whether having a new car will make you happy, or whether getting that weird hipster haircut will make you happy. You need to find someone who currently is in that state and glean information from them regarding their state of happiness. Daniel Gilbert calls this “Reporting Live from Tomorrow.” I told you this book was a difficult read and hence a difficult subject to sum up. In addition to these tips on happiness, I want to add my own small opinion on the subject. Guaranteed happiness can only come when you appreciate your blessings that have already come to be while having the mentality that no blessing in the future is guaranteed-making every new experience an awesome surprise gift. Life-long happiness is not expecting much from life but relishing whenever you do crap glorious poops on a Monday morning.