Do we need a new American dream?

The American dream celebrates the relentless drive for productivity, efficiency and material gain. Bill Clinton, promoted the idea that Americans “who work hard and play by the rules shouldn’t be poor”. However, we all know that hard work alone does not lead to upward mobility. A study [i] by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that one of the biggest determinants of your life success is your parent’s income, marriage and location choices. In fact, they have even put a number on it, “Up until a parent-household-income threshold of roughly $150,000, adult children tend to earn another $0.33 for every dollar their parents earn.”

I agree with Robert Sameulson, that the American dream is no more than an exercise in make-believe. Some might argue that it makes people feel in control and encourages hard work which are good things, however as Samuelson argues “it has become a substitute for addressing bigger problems and a collective act of self deception.” [ii]

It is all too easy to blame the conditions of those struggling to achieve the American dream, as being lazy, de-motivated or poor decision-makers, blocking us from seeing the more complicated issues that lie underneath.

On the other hand, has the American dream really delivered on it’s promise of success, freedom and true wealth? I would argue not.

While Real GDP for America has almost tripled since the 1980’s [iii], Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, the 19 Surgeon General of the US, explains that loneliness has actually doubled. Is it not strange that at a time when America’s population is the highest, when we are the most digitally connected, over 40% of American adults report feeling lonely?

And this is not a small issue, Vice Admiral Murthy explains that loneliness leads to many other health problems and is “associated with a reduction of lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” [iv]

David Masciotra [v] explains how America’s results-obsessed perspective have actually overlooked meaning and left little room for creativity, pleasure and true contentment.

So is there a better way? Maybe we can learn something from a tiny country whose GDP equals a mere $2 Billion dollars! Bhutan’s experiment with replacing GDP with Gross National Happiness shows some promise.

Gross National Happiness aims to deliver “balanced progress” which recognizes a person’s spiritual, material, physical and social needs and therefore is a much more holistic approach towards achieving true contentment [vi]. Bhutan’s GNH views happiness as a collective phenomenon where happiness is interdependent on health, ecological sustainability, cultural preservation and equitable social development. For this reason education and healthcare is completely free. Bhutan’s constitution mandates that 60% of the land remains under forest cover for all time. However, Bhutan still has a long way to go in its search for a fairer, more humane society, as senior officials in Bhutan would themselves agree. It is still a poor country, where many regions lack the basic amenities we take for granted in the west. [vii]

In conclusion, I am not stating that Bhutan has all the answers, but their effort to look at a more holistic approach of measuring and aspiring towards human success is very impressive. I think it is important to bring a more holistic approach to what we as a society aspire towards and encourage our future generations to aspire towards. Bhutan’s experiment could hold the beginning steps of a journey towards a more equitable, content and humane world.