Living the American Dream and the Pursuit of Happiness

The children were outside, laughing and playing with a gently used soccer ball that was given to them by a recent group of visitors. Their clothes that they were wearing were dirty and mismatched, their hair was lacking any kind of style, and their shoes were not any special brand name specifically designed for the sport. Their home was cramped with very little furnishings inside. The cupboard only stored a few basic items and the village’s water supply came from a well a few miles away. The father worked extremely long hours every day for just a few dollars each week, the mother weaved baskets by hand so that her children could have the required uniform for school, and they walked everywhere as their only means of transportation in this family of seven was a dated bicycle. One day an American woman visited the area on a mission’s trip to share her Christian faith with these people along with her church. At first sight, she immediately began to comment to the others about how terrible she felt for these poor children and their families. They were lacking so much stuff; she was in such disbelief in that people could actually live this way. It was through her American cultured eyes that she saw an issue with the fact that they had no cars to drive, no paved roads, no telephones, no beautiful decorations filling their homes, and no televisions. These people knew no different in their way of life, just as when we were children, we too knew no different. It is only when we were introduced to the American culture through advertising and the media that we begin to believe these things that we need in order to be happy and it is then that we begin to pursue living the alleged American dream. Although advertisements and the media will have one believing otherwise, happiness is not gained when we have everything we want, it is found when we have discovered that we have everything we need.

Watch a program on television, drive down the highway, listen to the radio, read a magazine, turn on the computer, walk down the store aisles, and there they are. Advertisements that are trying to appeal to us consumers to the point that we feel that this American dream is not just a luxury, but it is an absolute necessity. One writer for the New York Times states that “an average American living in a city sees up to 5,000 advertisements a day”(Story). Each one of them, the manufacturers that create the products, the companies that buy them and the marketers that are selling them, are telling us what it is that we should be eating, what we should be drinking, what we need to be wearing, what car to be driving and even the kind of things we should be thinking about. In an interview with Sut Jhally, the professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst she points out: 

Our culture has simply become an adjunct to the system of production and consumption.Its job is to sell us things, and as it does that, it impacts how we think about the world and ourselves. For example, if you think about the ritual surrounding courtship and marriage, and the role of diamonds in those rituals. The idea that “diamonds are forever,” and how they are connected to engagement is now almost universal in the West. Yet, where did this idea come from? Well, it emerged as an ad slogan in 1947 from Madison Avenue. So “diamonds are forever” is perhaps the most famous advertising slogan ever invented. That slogan, that idea that comes out of Madison Avenue, now defines the way that we think about rituals that define our most personal activities, marriage and courtship.

Advertising & the End of the World

Although we are consciously unaware of many of these advertisements and do our best to ignore them by using commercial times for bathroom breaks and making snacks, changing the radio station after the song is over, passing over the full ad page in a magazine or closing the pop-up windows on the computer screen, these ideas and beliefs still have a way of manipulating their way into our lives through the television programs and movies that we are intently watching. Television shows like Sex in the City and Friends are two examples of many that display young people living life to its fullest and way beyond their means with no consequences. Carrie Bradshaw, a character on Sex in the City, is a columnist writer living in downtown New York City with an incredible closet filled with the cutest clothes in the latest of fashions and the best shoes, who never misses an opportunity to be eating at a fine dining establishment or partying with her friends in one of the most popular night club’s. Rachel and Monica, two characters on Friends, shared an extremely large apartment in Manhattan. Instead of working to take care of themselves, they spent a majority of their time at the downstairs coffee shop, Central Perk, socializing with their friends. It is extremely easy to wrap oneself up in a dream world watching these shows each and every week, what young woman would not want to literally be in Bradshaw’s shoes?

Advertisements and the media are now “inside our intimate relationships, inside our homes, inside our heads and inside our identities” (Jhally), yet all too often Americans find themselves working overtime to pay the bills, stressing about how to make it to the next paycheck, living in debt with several credit cards maxed out, and yet they are still continuing to search for happiness. Even though they want us to believe that having all this stuff is the answer to all of our dreams and woes, trying to live the American dream can be exhausting and at the end of the day we find our homes to be full of clutter and we are full of low self-esteem, loneliness, boredom, dissatisfaction, and depression. David M. Carter, a graduate of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program at the University of Pennsylvania explains what is happening here:

Experts in the field call it referencing. We reference, either intentionally or otherwise, to lifestyles represented to us in the media that we find attractive. We create a vision of ourselves living this idealized lifestyle, and then behave in ways that help us to realize the vision. The problem with this process is that the lifestyles most often portrayed, and ultimately referenced, are well beyond the means of all but a very small percentage of Americans. We aspire to something that the vast majority of us cannot possibly achieve.And, in this attempt to realize our aspirations, we borrow heavily, feel poorly about ourselves because we just can’t seem to get there, and become addicted to a way of living that gradually and inexorably separates us from the things in life that bring us the most joy 

Get Rich Slowly

What is it that will bring us this happiness? Happiness is found when we begin to discover that we have everything we need. I agree with Shasta Ballard when she stated, “I think as Americans we do take needed things for granted” (Blackboard). In our pursuit of the American dream we seem to look past all that we have right in front of us. It is these simple things food, water, shelter; safety, community, family, and friendships are where happiness lies. When we choose not to recognize the difference in what we need and what we want there is truth in Bill McKibben’s claim, “that we’ve officially run out of things that we need, but even of things that we might plausibly desire” (558). We begin to seek new things to create happiness, buying into all the lies the media feeds us. When one product fails, we move on to the next and we have thousands of storage facilities full of these failed products to prove it. It has been stated by the Self Storage Association that, “the United States has 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space, that is more than seven square feet for every man, woman and child. Storage units were meant to be transitional places to keep belongings while moving, marrying, divorcing or dealing with a death in the family. But one out of every ten households in the country rents a unit simply to store the extra stuff that does not fit in our doubled in sized homes” (Mooallem). We continue to draw into that desire that when we have everything needed we will be happy and since we are not happy we conclude that we do not have everything that we need so we continue to buy more stuff. But it is our perception of a need that is all wrong, according to his hierarchy of needs, a motivational theory in psychology; Abraham Maslow detailed basic needs of all humans. The basic needs identified by Maslow were characterized within five different groups of needs. “Physiological needs which include air, food, water, sex and sleep, these are the most basic and instinctive of our needs, all other needs are secondary until these have been met. Safety needs which include security of one’s environment, employment, resources, personal property and health. Social needs, which include love, friendship, intimacy and family. After the first three needs have been satisfied the esteem needs become increasingly important, these include confidence, achievement and respect. Self-actualization needs, the highest level, which includes morality, creativity and problem solving” (”Toward a psychology of being”). These five needs are strongly correlated with being happy, not all of the stuff on the market, that moment that one can identify this truth, is when everything changes.

After the American woman spent some time with those in the village, she began to notice more things that these people did not have, there was no depression, no boredom, and no low self-esteem. As her American cultured eyes slowly began to come off, she also noticed that everything they needed was within miles of them so there was no need for them to have a car, nor was there a need for paved roads. Family and friends lived within the village so there was no need for them to have a telephone. The homes were full of necessity items instead of clutter, so a larger one was not needed. The children were able to find entertainment with one another in visiting, reading books, and playing games outside so even a television set was not needed. Once she saw that the people were full of happiness and love she stopped looking at what was on the outside and began to look on the inside. She took a moment of personal reflection and began to notice that these people in the village were not the ones that were living without the things that they needed, she realized that it was her that was actually missing something. All of her life, the advertisements and the media had her believing that she would only be able to achieve happiness when she had everything that she wanted, but in that village, she began to discover that she had everything that she needed except the gratitude for all that she had.

Each week, I will share a bit of motivation through quote and/ or story. Until next time, a latte of blessings & sparkles,

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Ballard, Shasta. “Task 8: A New Ethics of Consumption.” BlackBoard. N.p., 17 June 2014.                Web.28 June 2014.

Carter, David M. “The Psychology of Consumerism.” Weblog post. 

Get Rich Slowly. J.D. Roth, 8 June 2011. Web. 28 June 2014.

Jhally, Sut. Advertising & the End of the World. Northhampton: Media Education Foundation, 1997. PDF.

Maslow, A. H. Toward a  psychology of being (3rd ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.

McKibben, Bill. “SkyMall: Pie in the Sky.” Convergences: Themes, Texts, and Images for
. Third ed. Boston, New York: Bedford/St, Martin’s, 2009. 557-59. Print.

Mooallem, Jon. “The Self-Storage Self.” NY Times. New York Times, 6 Sept. 2009. N. page.
Web. 24 June 2014.

Story, Louise. “Anywhere the Eye Can See, It’s Likely to See an Ad.” The New York Times. N.p., 15 Jan. 2007. Web. 28 June 2014.

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