Fight Club Ideas & Concepts
The American Dream, Consumerism, Consumption, and Happiness
The term “American Dream” 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.”
In the United States’ Declaration of Independence , our founding fathers “…held certain truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Might this sentiment be considered the foundation of the American Dream?
Were homesteaders who left the big cities of the east to find happiness and their piece of land in the unknown wilderness pursuing these inalienable rights? Were the immigrants who came to the United States looking for their bit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their Dream? And what did the desire of the veteran of World War II—to settle down, to have a home, a car and a family—tell us about this evolving Dream? Is the American Dream attainable by all Americans?
Some say that the American Dream has become the pursuit of material prosperity—that people work more hours to get bigger cars, fancier homes, the fruits of prosperity for their families—but have less time to enjoy their prosperity. Others say that the American Dream is beyond the grasp of the working poor who must work two jobs to insure their family’s survival. Yet others look toward a new American Dream with less focus on financial gain and more emphasis on living a simple, fulfilling life.
Thomas Wolfe defines the American Dream as follows: “[E]very man, regardless of his birth, his shining, golden opportunity [has] the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him.”
History of the American Consumer-based Economy The stock market collapse in 1929 triggered the Great Depression that engulfed the world in terrible suffering. World War II was the catalyst for economic recovery. America’s enormous resource base, productivity, energy, and technology were thrown into the war effort, and soon its economy blazed white hot. With victory imminent, the President’s Council of Economic Advisors was challenged to find a way to convert a war economy to peace.
Shortly after the end of the war, retailing analyst Victor Lebow expressed the solution: “Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…. we need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”
President Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors chairman stated: “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods.” In other words, the focus since the 50s has not been not on creating better health care, education, housing, transportation, or recreation, or less poverty and hunger, but on providing more stuff to consumers. Today 2/3 of our economy is based on consumption and our capitalist system—and the world economy—would collapse without it.
Not Much Happier—the Irony of Consumption The increase in prosperity is not making humans happier or healthier, according to several studies. Findings from a survey of life satisfaction in more than 65 countries indicate that income and happiness tend to track well until about $13,000 of annual income per person (in 1995 dollars). After that, additional income appears to produce only modest increments in self-reported happiness. In the U.S., the happiness rate has steadily declined since the 1950s—oddly enough the exact time when we shifted to a consumer-based economy. Increased consumerism evidently comes at a steep price. People are incurring debt and working longer hours to pay for the high-consumption lifestyle, consequently spending less time with family, friends, and community organizations. “Excess consumption can be counterproductive,” said Gardner. “The irony is that lower levels of consumption can actually cure some of these problems.” Diets of highly processed food and the sedentary lifestyle that goes with heavy reliance on automobiles have led to a worldwide epidemic of obesity. In the United States, an estimated 65 percent of adults are overweight or obese, and the country has the highest rate of obesity among teenagers in the world. Soaring rates of heart disease and diabetes, surging health care costs, and a lower quality of day-to-day life are the result. Some aspects of rampant consumerism have resulted in startling anomalies. Worldwatch reports that worldwide annual expenditures for cosmetics total U.S. $18 billion; the estimate for annual expenditures required to eliminate hunger and malnutrition is $19 billion. Expenditures on pet food in the United States and Europe total $17 billion a year; the estimated cost of immunizing every child, providing clean drinking water for all, and achieving universal literacy is $16.3 billion.
And then there are social and spiritual costs. Allen Kanner and Mary Gomes write in The All-Consuming Self: “The purchase of a new product, especially a ‘big ticket’ item such as a car or computer, typically produces an immediate surge of pleasure and achievement and often confers status and recognition upon the owner. Yet as the novelty wears off, the emptiness threatens to return. The standard consumer solution is to focus on the next promising purchase.”
Ultimately, it goes beyond pleasure or status; acquiring stuff becomes an unquenchable demand. Paul Wachtel writes in The Poverty of Affluence: “Having more and newer things each year has become not just something we want but something we need. The idea of more, ever-increasing wealth, has become the center of our identity and our security, and we are caught up by it as the addict is by his drugs.”
1. Define these concepts:
2. What is the American Dream based on?
3. What do Americans value? What do we do to “look” successful?
4. Is our “stuff” making us happy?
5. What can materialism do to society?
6. The question is, why does consumption make us so empty? And why might some of the issues discussed here make some people angry, depressed, lonely, suicidal, or even homicidal? Could this kind of society drive a person insane?