One dream does not fit all. The American Dream, that is.
The Growing Myth
Research Shows the Damage
Overcome One Dream Fits All
We’re you led to see the vision of The American Dream? In my lifetime, I sure was. A house, a car, the 2.5 kids, lawn, flowers, and the white picket fence. It seems this myth of being the American dream was sold to us from the 1950’s at the rise of the middle class.
The Growing Myth
Despite the late 1960’s Counterculture, today we see the ideal American Dream houses getting bigger and bigger, the cars getting more and more expensive, the manicured lawns soaking up more and more water and natural resources, and wages not sustaining this portrayed lifestyle.
The truth is research is showing when the term “The American Dream” was coined it had little to do with material stages displayed like a magazine photo to indicate success and more to do with people striving for democratic equality. It is said it was called “The American Dream” due to the fact society had a long way to go in achieving democratic equality and writers doubted we would ever achieve this notion.
What has the myth done to us over the decades? Sociologist, Robert Merton, performed a study and named it Five Modes of Adaptation, or easier to grasp and recall, The Strain Theory. Merton actually used his research to graph explanations for social deviance and crime. These explanations seek to illustrate the gap between the perceived American Dream and the strain individuals feel over the lack of means to fulfill that dream – such as lesser quality of education, lack of opportunity for socio-economic upward mobility, and lack of decent paying jobs.
(Note: All crime is deviance – not all deviance is a crime)
According to Merton’s research, he found there were five areas where people in this society seem to fit. He noted the breakdown between the concept of The American Dream and reality. He looked at it as society having Goals to meet and the Means to achieve these goals. These goals as the career, the house, the car, the kids, and perhaps the preverbal white picket fence. People either accept or reject the goals as prescribed by society. Merton refers to the Means as the Institutionalized Means to achieve these goals – most notably the ability to obtain wealth. He categorized people according to Conformity, Ritualism, Innovation, Retreatism, and Rebellion.
The Strain Theory Model
Conformists – Accept Society Goals and Accepts Institutional Means
Merton described Conformists as having made it. People such as bankers, investment bankers, stock brokers have been identified as Conformists.
I tend to also put people in the category who give the illusion of Conforming, when in actuality they struggle financially to keep up the appearance.
Ritualists – Reject the Goals and Accept the Means
They have worked so hard in an 8 – 5 type job without obtaining the overall goals. Therefore, they have rejected the goals. They continue to go through the robotic like motions of working to make ends meet. Today, we might see these people going to work, coming home, having dinner, do a few chores, watch TV, and go to bed to start all over again.
Innovationists – Accept the Goals and Reject the Means
This is the category where Robert Merton put drug dealers and other career criminals as an example. They gave up on traditional jobs to meet the goals as they perceive and use non-traditional ways to obtain money.
Retreatists – Reject the Goals and Reject the Means
For this category, Merton mentions such stereotypes as severe addicts/alcoholics, homeless, and hermits. They have thrown up their hands to the entire picture and use their time and skills for day-by-day survival.
Rebels – Invent New Goals and Invent New Means
While this might look appealing, remember Merton’s study was about looking at deviance and criminality. He held this new category for members of militias and terrorists who are seeking a revolution.
Research Shows More Damage
Most of us are not going to fall into a life of crime or a deviant lifestyle as labeled by Robert Merton. As many members of our society toil day end and day out striving to achieve this depiction of the American Dream to little or no avail, research is finding more issues among our neighbors.
We are reporting more anxiety in daily living, more rage and envy, less patience, less courtesy and kindness to one another. There has to be a better way.
Overcoming One Dream Fits All
Let’s scrap the notion we have been taught by media and politicians. Let’s get back to the real, original idea of the American Dream which was built on striving for equality and quality of life. The exercise doesn’t end here. There’s more you can do for yourself.
Please realize I am not saying there is anything wrong with having the big, new house, fancy cars, manicured lawns, and picket fences. I’m only urging you to make sure this is indeed your personal dream.
My big ol' house was built in 1925 and needs consistent repairs which would drive some people crazy.
In this pic I am in the process of taking out the lawn for ground cover.
Photo by Kirsten Jackson
Writing and researching for this article has been a very enlightening experience. I’ve had the privilege of asking many adults in different age groups about their concept of the American Dream. I have friends who love apartment living in an urban area. I have friends who live in small and large dwellings out in the country. I’ve talked to a few who only want a modest, structurally sound, maintenance free house so they can travel. Some prefer to rent so they don’t have the responsibility of home ownership. There are even a few who want to be able to live among the love of multi-generations under one roof.
Defining Your Dream
We know before we can get what we want we have to know what we want. In the past I have fell victim to the amazing magazine pictures meticulously decorated by an interior designer. The interiors are so fresh, all the items new, and worst of all trendy. I haven’t chased trends with my cash. I have chased trends with a little envy in my heart only to realize I didn’t love these trends. They’re not me. They don’t represent me or my taste. If you don’t love the trend, chasing the trend is exhausting.
Same is true for any dream we adopt that isn’t our personalized dream.
If we don’t choose the lifestyle that is right for us we will find ourselves wrestling anxiety, being irritable, impatient, and less courteous to others. Maybe even worse, we will find ourselves unable to feel satisfied. When we are unable to feel satisfied we chase unhealthy habits trying to fill these holes. We are in danger of becoming Ritualists living in a rut as Robert Merton described.
Take some time and write out your dream lifestyle. Try to steer clear of fantasies which are not truly you. Are you living your personal dream? It’s important to define what you have achieved. Is there more you can add to your life? Is there something in your life you can subtract which is robbing you of your joy?
Make it your own! Photo by Kirsten Jackson
In writing this article I realized in many ways I have achieved the American Dream. Pell grants allowed me the blessing of acquiring a higher education. Higher education gave me a bump in upward mobility from living in low-come. I raised my two sons in an old house I love. My car is paid for and in good condition. Where I am now is defining my personal dream for this new chapter in my life.
A few exercises I have used which has helped me are Dr. Demartini’s Value Determination Process, Jack Canfield’s visualization techniques, and Marth Beck’s One Degree Turns in her new book The Way of Integrity.
Now it’s your turn! Tell us about the turnaround of your Personal Dream and Get Free with Me!