What is the American Dream?

Once upon a time I woke up and realized the American Dream was… not quite what I thought it was? An illusion? Unattainable?

What is the American Dream anyway?

American Family Insurance performed a survey on their site to determine if the American Dream is still alive. When I took the survey I felt it was most definitely still alive and I defined it as:

  • Defining success on my own terms
  • Pursuing my passion
  • Being my own person

That sounds about right to me. The dream we all have (or so I thought) is to be able to do what makes us happy. To be free from tyrannical governments dictating religion or career choices. To be free to live the life we want rather than the one someone else forces upon.

America was founded on the idea of freedom and the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

For centuries, America was the land of opportunity and a place where people could go to escape the difficulties they faced in their home countries. It was a place where people were free to be themselves.

But then I looked at the results of the American Family survey. The top three definitions of the American Dream today are:

  • having money
  • owning a nice car
  • owning your own business

Wow. That scares me.

When asked what it was that kept people from living their dream, the top answers were work, parenting, too lazy, too busy, chores, worry, financial reasons, too old, love, and shopping.

The most important things needed to be able to live their dream were money in the bank, family, and a fancy job title. At least they’ve got the family right.

I’m starting to wonder about this American Dream. For centuries the dream was one of personal fulfillment and happiness, now it appears as though it’s morphed into something unrecognizable. The white picket fence used to stand for being happy with your family, but now it appears to be something else. It’s having a big fancy house, an expensive car, a prestigious job, and bucketloads of money in the bank.

Will all that money in the bank and fancy job title truly make us happy? Will reaching “success” by today’s definition lead to personal fulfillment?

I think back to the ranch hand I met near Drewsey, Oregon a few years ago. “This is the life,” he exclaimed when we stumbled into his tiny cabin in the middle of eastern Oregon. I had knocked on his door to beg for water. He swept his arm around to show off his humble abode. “I wouldn’t give this up for anything.”

I looked around and thought, “It’s the life alright. A tumbledown shack in the middle of dusty nowhere.” If you’ve ever traveled the desolate, wide open spaces of the eastern Oregon desert you’ll know exactly what I mean.

“My wife and I have been here five years now. Wouldn’t trade it for all the gold in Midas’ chest,” he explained. “I’m convinced Drewsey is heaven on Earth. I used to be a marketing exec for a manufacturing plant in Portland, but somewhere along the way my wife and I decided the long hours and stress just wasn’t worth it.

“People thought we were nuts — selling our 40-acre plot of land and huge house in the city and moving out here to be ranch hands. But we’re convinced this is God’s country, pure and simple. We’re living our dream — and that’s a good place to be.”

I’m convinced that ranch hand was living the American Dream. He had figured out that what made him happy wasn’t the fancy job title or piles of money. It was the wide open spaces of the godforsaken desert of Eastern Oregon.

I totally understand where he’s coming from. There’s a peacefulness and serenity about the desert that one doesn’t find in busier places. There is beauty in the vastness of it all, and it didn’t take me long to understand the people who love it. I can say with certainty that God’s country is a good place to be.

So what is the American Dream? My definition may be different from the American masses, but I still stand by my definition – it’s the freedom to pursue your passion and live your dreams. And I’m living it.

This post is part of a group effort about the American Dream. Check out these posts by other family travelers:

Lisa from New Life on the Road – Living the Australian Dream
Lisa from Around the World in Easy Ways – An American Dream Fairy Tale
Brandon from Fullness of Life – The Global American Dream
Talon from 1 Dad, 1 Kid, 1 Crazy Adventure – The American Dream
S King (aka Mom) from A King’s Life – Redefining an American Dream
K King (aka Dad) from A King’s Life – Livin’ the not-so-American Dream
Lainie from Raising Miro – Erosion of the American Dream
Kimberly from Fulltime Families – Trapped in the American Dream
Mary from Bohemian Mom-The Illusion of the American Dream
Susan from Family Travel Bucket List – Bye Bye Miss American Dream
Justin from The Great Family Escape -The Real American Dream
Melissa from Break Out of Bushwick – Good Morning, America, Let’s Occupy Wall Street!
Amy from Livin on the Road – To dream a little dream of … travel
Alisa from Living Outside the Box – The American Dream

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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34 Responses to What is the American Dream?

  1. lisa September 28, 2011 at 7:51 am #

    Don’t think I’d want to live in the desert of Eastern Oregon but it sure sounds like he’s got the right idea. Or, now, maybe the American Dream is just having healthcare :o )

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @lisa,
    That’s how I’m feeling these days!

    [Reply]

  2. walkingon travels September 28, 2011 at 7:57 am #

    Could not agree more. Whenever I think of our dream, it’s to do what we love without hinderance. I’d also include a healthy body to my American dream. Sometimes it doesn’t listen to me and in the US, health care is such a huge issue, I think it’s many people’s dream just to have it so they can take care of their families and watch them grow for many years.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @walkingon travels,
    That’s very true. Although there are many aspects of health we can’t control, we should be able to control we can. Health care is a HUGE issue for me right now!

    [Reply]

    walkingon travels Reply:

    @Nancy, Oh boy do I know how big healthcare is for you guys. My extended family has had some pretty intense health scares in the past 10 years too. Without some decent healthcare many of them may not be here or be able to live their own American dream. Let’s hope the system starts to work for you so you all can continue to healthily live your amazing dreams!

    [Reply]

  3. Amy September 28, 2011 at 7:58 am #

    Love the idea of the dream being to follow your passions. I much prefer that to the nice belongings.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Amy,
    No kidding!

    [Reply]

  4. Melissa Banigan September 28, 2011 at 8:43 am #

    Yep, living the dream is so important! Dropping out to live in a desert might not be my cup of tea, but being allowed the freedom to do it certainly is! I’d say it looks as though you and your family have certainly been living your dreams. But to reiterate what someone else said in a comment- shame we can’t get the country to cooperate with decent health care!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Melissa Banigan,
    We are totally living our dream – and I’m so thankful that we can! I was asked today what my dream job would be and I said, “Exactly what I’m doing now – writing and being a bead artist!” Now if only we could solve the health care issue…

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  5. Justin September 28, 2011 at 10:17 am #

    Nancy – I soooo agree with you!

    Doing this post made me refocus on how lucky we are just to have the chance to dream and live in shacks or cities.

    Very happy I can dream and put MY dreams into action.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Justin,
    No kidding! It’s truly a blessing that we can choose to live as a ranch hand out in the middle of god-forsaken eastern Oregon if we want. It’s that choice that’s the American Dream.

    [Reply]

  6. Susan September 28, 2011 at 2:04 pm #

    Funny how we often (used to) think that people who live like that ranch hand MUST be longing for something more. What a twisted view we tend to have when our pursuits are NOT for things that truly make us happy. What a treasure for him to share his dream with you!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Susan,
    I will always remember him. He loved his simple life out on the ranch. I could see the old CEO in him – but he was so happy in his tiny cabin!

    [Reply]

  7. Anna September 28, 2011 at 4:11 pm #

    You know, I don’t actually think the “great job, big house, nice car, lotsa money” crowd are *that* different from you – I think they’re merely phrasing it differently; subconsciously they’re identifying the means rather than the goal.

    When people say they would like to have a “great job”, I think most of them are actually saying they’d like to spend their time doing something they love to do – aka pursuing their dreams. And they’d like to make a lot of money, because money gives you the freedom to whatever you want – aka pursuing your dreams. There are many other ways to obtain that freedom, however, money is like the universal access key and it’s simply the first “solution” that comes to mind when people are asked what would make it possible for them to pursue their dreams.

    As for the big house and the nice car, I think to most people those are symbolic identifiers of the “nice life” – aka living your dreams. In a big house you don’t have spatial restraints – whether you love to read or cook or play dart, there’ll be room for that in that big house. It’s the equivalent of a magically weightless pannier dedicated entirely to beads! And the car is symbolic of freedom to be able to go where you would like to go – aka pursuing dreams.

    Having a nice car, rather than just any car – I think to most people (minus motorist enthusiasts) the essence of this is reliability. A shoddy car that breaks down all the time is like a bicycle with a troublesome rim – you don’t quite trust it but you wish you could – and who wouldn’t want to not having to worry about that sort of things? And finally, the nice car is another common symbol of having money – subconsciously, when people identify a nice car as a measure of success, I think they’re imagining themselves in a situation of financial independence… aka having the means to pursuing dreams.

    Food for thought!?

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Anna,
    Interesting thoughts for sure. I just see so much materialism in the USA. People balk at the idea that the four of us are moving into an 1100-sq-ft house. I’ve had many, many people tell me it’s way too small, there is no way four of us can manage with only one bathroom, that the boys NEED their own bedrooms,etc… I just don’t see that.

    When I look at the 4000-sq-ft homes many people live in I just shake my head – I don’t get why they need that much space. It seems crazy to me that someone would value a structure enough to put themselves into the type of debt they do in order to buy that. And the heating and air conditioning! And – aye, aye, aye – the cleaning!

    The car issue… Yes, it is nice to have a reliable car and I would pay more in a heartbeat for a reliable car over one I can’t trust. But I don’t understand why people need a $50,000 Hummer when a simple car works just fine. I think they buy them for the status symbol – big fancy car = higher status. Not in my eyes though.

    I do think that a certain amount of money helps tremendously with living your dream, but too many people turn the dream into making money and don’t have the time to do what they truly enjoy.

    [Reply]

  8. Lisa Wood September 28, 2011 at 5:12 pm #

    Its funny how I used to want the big house, the white picket fence, gorgeous cars, lots of money and lots of nice furniture.
    Now I want my family close to me, travelling choices, my motorhome and lots of money!
    I guess the money part will never change – but I never ever want to be boxed in. I dont want to own a home again – too much housework.
    I want to travel, to wherever when ever.
    I want to live a life of dreams.
    To me that is the American Dream (Australian Dream)
    It was amazing how you meet that man in his cabin, and that for him was his dream.
    Whatever your dream, as long as you are happy.
    Cheers
    Lisa

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Lisa Wood,
    It is nice to have a bit of money, but it’s also possible to live the dream creatively with very little of that commodity! I think there is a lot to be said about going back to a simple lifestyle.

    [Reply]

  9. Living Outside of the Box September 28, 2011 at 8:28 pm #

    Wow…that IS scary that the top 3 American Dream definitions are so superficial!

    I love that each one of us has the opportunity to define the dream for ourselves. Your friend in the desert defines it as his ability to live where he lives, and do what he does, and be happy doing it. Or for others that may be hitting the road, instead of settling into one place.

    The important part is focusing on the REAL priorities that are achieved through each individual’s dream-seeking!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Living Outside of the Box,
    Exactly – the American Dream means we have the freedom to truly decide what happiness means for us and then doing it.

    [Reply]

  10. Rita Pepper September 30, 2011 at 5:28 am #

    Hi Nancy,
    I so love the freedom to be able to have (for me) The Australian Dream, Travel has always been part of that dream, My children are all healthy with families of their own. I am now doing what I want and enjoying life like never before. Its Never Too Late

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Rita Pepper,
    It’s never too late – and it’s never too early either :) I think a lot of people feel they have to “put in their time” before living their dreams. I say go for it now!

    [Reply]

  11. Lainie Liberti September 30, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

    Defining life on your own terms! That’s the American dream!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Lainie Liberti,
    YUP :)

    [Reply]

  12. gabi klaf October 20, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

    hi nancy. love the article. thanks for sharing.

    [Reply]

  13. Nalliah Thayabharan November 6, 2011 at 5:48 am #

    “Foreclosure of American Dream By Wall Street” – End of an Empire

    - Nalliah Thayabharan

    Wall Street is a confidence trick, a dazzling edifice built on paper promises, gambling, bets and rampant speculations. Wall Street doesn’t manufacture or produce anything. Wall Street , however attractive it may appear, is built on paper.
    Wall Street speculation caused a 70% increase in the price of wheat from June to December 2010 and severed food crisis in more than 35 countries. However, there was no significant change in the global food supply or in food demand. The total value of Wall Street speculative financial derivatives reached more than $600 trillion – about 10 times global GDP. Wall street’s peculative derivatives are virtually untaxed and banks often avoid paying tax on profits from selling derivatives. Every consumer is paying more for commodities including food and fuel due to the excessive speculation by Wall Street.
    Modern day bank robbers are at Wall Street but they wear grey suits and not masks. Rampant speculators, propagandists and financiers of Wall Street are all given some unfair advantage over the average consumers and taxpayers and the cumulative effect of the people watching selfishness prevail over the public interest has been an undermining of the public’s trust in the present US government. There’s no question that Wall Street is rigged against the average consumers and taxpayers. Wall Street has a lot more information. Wall Street jerry-rigged the system so that Wall Street always win. If Wall Street loses trillions, the US Treasury will bail the Wall Street out so it can go back and do it again.
    50 trillion dollars in global wealth was erased between September 2007 and March 2009, including 7 trillion dollars in the US stock market, 6 trillion dollars in the US housing market, 8 trillion dollars in the US retirement and household wealth, 2 trillion dollars in the US individual retirement accounts, 2 trillion dollars in the US traditional defined benefit plans and 3 trillion dollars in the US nonpension assets. Greed, arrogance and incompetence created a massive meltdown, cost trillions, and still Wall Street comes out richer and more powerful.
    There are trillions dollars of new money taken again from Americans to make deals and hand out outrageous bonuses. And when these trillions run out, Wall Street will come back for more until the dollar becomes junk. The value of the US dollar declined very significantly during the last 70 years. The value of the US dollar in 1940 was worth 2,000% more than the value of the US dollar now.
    Many big US manufacturers are outsourcing to Mexico and China to increase their profits, adding more unemployment in the USA. Manufacturing jobs in the USA declined 37% between 1998 and 2010. Since manufacturing industries has declined in the USA, the US competitiveness in the global marketplace has also declined.
    Robust financial markets don’t imperil capitalism. In the early 1980?s Wall Street began to escape reasonable important regulations of the marketplace. The US government gradually adopted a “too big to fail” policy for the Wall Street, saving lenders with failing businesses from losses. The demise of Glass Steagall act helped spawn the credit crisis by allowing the Wall Street to create financial instruments that allowed them to escape reasonable limits, including constraints on speculative borrowing and requirements for the disclosure of important facts. The extremely lucrative hedge funds and other risk management derivatives including credit default swaps don’t fund or invest in successful growing businesses. The credit default swap market was the single biggest cause of the crash 4 years ago.
    Wall Street’s suicidal capitalism built on rampant speculation eventually posed an untenable risk to the US economy—a risk that culminated in the trillions of dollars’ worth of the US government bailouts and guarantees that the US government scrambled starting in late 2008. But in 2008 the US government was compelled to replace private risktakers at the Wall Street with government capital so that money and credit flows wouldn’t stop, precipitating a depression. As a result, these Wall Street became impervious to the vital market discipline that the threat of loss provides. Wall Street lenders of the financial markets continue to understand that the US government would protect them in the future if necessary. This implicit guarantee by the US government harms capitalism and economic growth.
    The top 6 US banks had assets of less than one fifth of US GDP in 1995. Now they have two third of US GDP. The financial crisis was created by the biggest US banks to consolidate power. The big banks became stronger as a result of the bailout by the US Treasury. The big banks are turning that increased economic clout into more political power. Wall Street has undue influence on the US government policies and this situation reflects a failure of democratic representation for the other 99 percent Americans.
    Oligarchy is the political power based on economic power. And it’s the rise of Wall Street in economic terms, that it’d turn into political power.Wall Street will then continue to feed that back into more deregulation, more opportunities to go out and take reckless risks and capture trillions of dollars.
    Wall Street only has the lobbyists. Today more than 42,000 Wall Street lobbyists manipulate USA’s 537 elected officials with huge campaign contributions that fund candidates who support their agenda. It no longer matters who’s the President of USA.
    The political and economical leadership of the US has chosed to cartel profits and transformed the US economy to serve the colluding and unlawful oligarchy. The political and economical leadership of the US is bailing out failed paradigms with trillions of dollars while committing social injustice to its people. The political and economical leadership of the US including the US Congress have now become Wall Street’s “Trojan Horses”. The US banks are borrowing money at near zero interest from the US government, then lending it back to the US government at even mere fractions higher interest than they are paying. The net interest margin made by the US banks by lending the money back to the US federal government in the first 6 months of 2011 is 210 billion dollars.
    Due to the oligarchs’ rapacious looting and their purchase of a politically protected luxurious lifestyle, the people of the US are on the road to permanent serfdom under a police state. The democracy was not given to the people of the US on a platter. It is not theirs for all time, irrespective of their efforts. Either people of the US organize and they find political leadership to take this on or they are going to be in deep trouble.
    The failure of governance to address the current critical issues have already produced catastrophic consequences. Now we are experiencing a major global paradigm shift and it is still unfolding. Thirty-two US states including California, Illinois, Nevada, Arizona, Florida, New Jersey and Michigan are on the brink of insolvency as their tattered and fading economy is now more dire than ever. Inevitably in very near future the US government will order police or military to martial law which may lead to a second American revolution.

    “There is no calamity greater than lavish desires, no greater guilt than discontentment and no greater disaster than greed”
    - Laozi
    “Greedy desire is endless and therefore can never be satisfied”
    - Buddha

    [Reply]

  14. Jane Cabrera December 11, 2011 at 6:08 am #

    Whatever your dream, as long as you are happy. And – aye, aye, aye – the cleaning!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Jane Cabrera,
    We all have different dreams. As long as we’re making conscious decisions about doing what makes us happy, it’s good. I agree about the cleaning – I don’t understand how people can clean these enormous houses!

    [Reply]

  15. jan December 11, 2011 at 6:14 pm #

    The “American Dream” as far as I am concerned pretty much became a nightmare during the Viet Nam War. I have put politics to the side and will never be the owner of a mini mansion, or a business owner, nor will I be any of those things so many people are after. Sometimes I don’t have enough money to pay the bills. I do however have a wonderful marriage, the love and respect of my family, friends that I care about and who care about me I am happy not working and helping my mother and some of my adult children. It is what I love to do, Oh and take pictures, I love to take pictures.

    [Reply]

  16. Dangerous Linda December 12, 2011 at 4:08 am #

    Stopping by way of Holes in My Soles ‘Magnificent Monday’ Best of 2011 Blog Hop ;-)

    I agree with you that the American Dream means Defining success on my own terms
    Pursuing my passion
    Being my own person

    For me that has also evolved to include owning my own business to accomplish those goals.

    I am also a cyclist and LOVE the photos of your family cycling across the desert — great experience for you kids! Way to keep the dream alive!!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Dangerous Linda,
    That’s the beauty of it – we get to define what success means. Unfortunately, I think many people feel they have to meet someone else’s definition of success – and that’s just empty.

    [Reply]

  17. Jim December 13, 2011 at 1:23 am #

    A very thoughtful post Nancy. And yes, from my perspective looking in at the US, I’d have to say you lost the dream somewhere. Perhaps you’ve had it to good, well most, there’s a hell of a lot left behind who can’t share in the dream, whatever it was.
    But isn’t that the thing about being humans? Satisfy all our needs and we get lazy, selfish or don’t really find fulfilment>
    But give us a struggle, give us trials, and we reach our peak.
    Perhaps more of us should realise the greatest enjoyment comes from the struggle- not the obtaining.
    Perhaps USA needs a long period of struggle again.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Jim,
    I have often said this economic crash going on right now is the best thing that could have happened for Americans. It’s bringing them back to knowing the difference between want and need – something many had long forgotten. I think this country will be a very different place in the future.

    [Reply]

  18. Jennie @Medicare Liens December 29, 2011 at 3:26 pm #

    Great post! It is definitely money and worry that keeps me from doing things…and I could say the same for others, but I’m working on not being such a worry wart and just getting out there and doing things!

    [Reply]

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  1. The New Dream Blog - September 29, 2011

    [...] their stories—and be inspired!Nancy from Family on Bikes: What is the American Dream?  "American Family Insurance performed a survey on their site to determine if the American [...]

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