General Question

JonnyCeltics's avatar

Is the "American Dream" an ideology or a cultural myth?

Asked by JonnyCeltics (2716points) November 9th, 2010

…or both?! (is that even possible?)

If you look at the American Dream through the lens of “happiness” marketed through advertising, is the American dream now an ideology when it was once a myth, or…? I’d prefer to keep this academic rather than dogmatic, but I understand the nature of this site, too.

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28 Answers

cockswain's avatar

I’d say it is getting much harder to achieve each decade, but attainable. Not a myth yet, just an increasingly difficult to obtain ideology.

JonnyCeltics's avatar

…in that it has been so ingrained by advertisement that it is near to carving out a myth?

MissAnthrope's avatar

What is the difference? I am not being snarky or snide, I’m being serious. They’re essentially the same thing. A false idea that doesn’t match up to reality.

marinelife's avatar

It is not the basis for happiness although it has been sold as such.

Coloma's avatar

I think it is an ideology that was once more attainable than it is now.

Also, part of the ‘story’ of what ‘should’ be for one to attain perfect happiness.

So yes, a myth in many ways….along with many other myths, stories of how things should be.

Babies die of cancer, not everyone can buy a house, not everyone will get married, raise a family, buy a Mercedes, live to a ripe old age. If one attaches to any of these idealizations and does not attain them they are setting themselves up for misery and suffering.

I do not subscribe to any particular mandates as to how my life ‘should be’ and I am quite content living rather unconventionally.

Allie's avatar

I think it’s a bit of both. Ideology is “a set of beliefs, values, and opinions that shapes the way a person or a group such as a social class thinks, acts, and understands the world.” Using the definition (found by Googling define Ideology), I think it’s part ideology because some people think, “Well, if I do A, then B will happen.” Like, if I work hard, I’ll get the job I want. If I save a bit of my paycheck every month, I’ll be rich when I’m older. And so on. They make certain choices in life and do (or don’t do) certain things with the notion that this will all help them reach their goal.
I think it’s part myth as well because for so many people, the American dream is so unattainable. It’s based on so many varying circumstances that have to work out just right. Sure, it works out for some, but for that one person, there are millions to counter them.

YARNLADY's avatar

It’s no more or less a dream than asking what is the meaning of life? There is no such thing.

cockswain's avatar

They could just put an asterisk next to it, that means “especially if you are born into a wealthy family”

jrpowell's avatar

Bartlet : “It doesn’t matter if most voters don’t benefit, they all believe that someday they will. That’s the problem with the American Dream, it makes everyone concerned for the day they’re gonna be rich.”

From the West Wing.

CMaz's avatar

It is dead. Unless you are currently living it. And, ideology.

Trillian's avatar

It’s sort of Masolw’s hierarchy of needs. One needs somewhere to live, regardless of advertising. As a preference many dream of ownership, perhaps as a safety net against pissy landlords, perhaps for other reasons. One takes care of bottom rung needs first and as they become more attainable one raises one’s sights ever higher. This could be said to be mistaken for advertising, but if we accept the premise that our human needs are based upon this heirarchy, and the highest need is for self actualization, then what we are striving for is the financial freedom or independece to pursue that goal. I think that it is possible that we may have lost sight of that along the way, and that financal freedom became a goal rather than a means to a goal….

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

The American Dream is a noble aspiration as is the Declaration of Independence.

Ivy's avatar

The American Dream, as I understand it, was a post WWII idealogy that gave birth to the suburbs and America’s love affair with the automobile. It has since become a cultural myth.

lillycoyote's avatar

I can’t really give an academic answer but I can give one that is hopefully non-dogmatic. I think I have told this story before here but I’ll do it again. It think the American dream is a reality, or more precisely, the possibility of it is a reality.

I had the following experience when I lived in Austin, TX. I was open up a checking account at one the smaller local banks and while I filling out the paper work the bank officer pretty much told me the story of her life. I don’t know how we got started on it but I think the woman was just so proud of her daughter. The woman was the daughter of Mexican migrant farm workers who worked in the fields in Texas. She and her brothers and sisters sometimes worked beside them but she said her parents made sure that their kids took advantage of the education opportunities in the schools that were sometimes provided for the migrant workers kids. And when her parents weren’t working in the fields they were out collecting bottles and cans for a little extra money for the family. Then, obviously, when she grew up, she was able to getting a pretty nice middle class, white-collar job at a bank that allowed her to send her kids to college. Her daughter had graduated from college and had been accepted into medical school and between loans and scholarships, what the mother could provide and some assistance from her employer, the bank, her daughter would be able to go.

So in a couple generations the family went from being migrant farm workers to producing a doctor. That’s sounds a lot like the “American Dream” to me.

I saw that kind of thing with a fair number of third-generation Mexican-Americans in Texas. I had a friend with a similar story. Her grandparents emigrated to the U.S. with next to nothing. Then her parents started a small tortilla business out of their home that grew into a large and very successful tortilla manufacturing business. She used to call herself the “tortilla princess.” Her parents were able to send all their kids to college and they’ve all been pretty successful. My friend is in the process of getting her Ph.D at U.T. Austin now.

Can or will the “American Dream” happen for everyone; for every family? No, I don’t think it will, but I don’t think that it’s a myth. I think it’s still a really possibility for many people. And that’s what makes it uniquely “American” I think. That it is always at least possible here. There are a lot places in the world where it isn’t even a real possibility that things will be much better for your children and theirs than it is for you. And certainly there are other places where the same kind of thing can happen, I just don’t think the notion is built into the fabric of the culture the way it is here and that believing that there really is the possibility of attaining the “American Dream” makes people more willing and motivated to strive for it.

I love not being cynical about everything, all the time.

SquirrelEStuff's avatar

“They call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” George Carlin

youcancallmemoonman's avatar

Anyone that says its dead gave up on themselves. I am living proof of the dream. Never give up or let anyone else tell you what you can and cant do. Its hard enough not being limits on yourself. Remember weather you say you can or cant your right.

LostInParadise's avatar

In the present state of the economy, the American Dream is looking like a myth. I think we are at a transition point. Our current standard of living is unsustainable. The American Dream is due for a tune up. Eventually, even advertisers will catch on.

josie's avatar

In the span of my middle aged lifetime, the American Dream changed. When I was young, the American dream was that you could be free to attempt to achieve anything you reasonably wanted to. Somewhere along the line, it became that you were entitled to expect everything to conform to your wishes.
Big difference.
If the American dream has evolved into the latter then it is a lie that cannot be sustained forever.

CMaz's avatar

American Dream

A Job. That ONE paycheck plenty to provide for your family.
A home, and a car
A partner to grow old with and a retirement fund to boot.
2.5 children

Coloma's avatar


You forgot the Cocker spanial or Golden retriever.

The american dream has to include the run o’ the mill flavor of american family dog. lol

CMaz's avatar

LOL Ya know. I was going to include a dog on that list. lol

And the Saturday Evening Post cover art is complete.

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HoneyBee's avatar

I think it depends on perspective and the lens your viewing the world through.
For some the world looks rosey. For others it is dark and grey.

mattbrowne's avatar

It’s an attitude and a social order. Nobility as a state-privileged status is not required to rise to the top.

Ivy's avatar

I found where the term originated:
“The term was first used by James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America which was written in 1931. He states: “The American Dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

I found it interesting that in 1931, “too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it.” There’s dreams and there’s dreams. One requires staying awake and the other requires staying asleep. And sometime between 1931 and 1951, America’s masses fell into a big sleep, with dreams of new appliances and cars (keeping up with the Joneses), communist witch hunts, conformity, and increasing use of mood elevators and experimental surgeries. Pedophelia and domestic abuse was rampant but living conditions improved exponentially after WWII and pride became based on what you had .. all courtesy of the Junkmen, Dealers of the Junk (corporations, banks, etc.)

So based on the definition of the original term, coined by Adams, the ‘happiness’ you asked about in the question is part of the Big Sleep, and seems to me not an idealogy but a complete cultural myth that denies any responsibility of the individual or the collective citizenry, other than in the words of our last president following 9/11 ~ “Go shopping!”

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