I took a film class where a whole section was on the American Dream. We talked about how, in film (and other mediums), the American dream is represented by a working father, children, a cute house with a yard and a white picket fence. Even after identifying those symbols and how they are a ridiculous representation of the American Dream, I still had those ideas ingrained in me as the symbols of success.
After being unemployed during the Great Recession, we were able to move to Alaska and buy a small house (thanks to our unemployment game). The house we purchased was literally the only one on the market that fit in our price range and had the amount of bedrooms we wanted. We finally felt much more secure than we had before and we loved our new area, but things didn’t feel settled. It was the first time we had to ask ourselves “now what?” We had the job, the house, the family. What’s next? We felt stagnant in our finances. We were saving, but no more than basic retirement savings. I wanted to figure out how to motivate us to change and save more. At this point, I defaulted to that oft-portrayed vision of the American Dream.
You would think that moving to Alaska would be enough to break me of the “American Dream” mentality. We just moved to this amazing place, bought a house after being unemployed for nearly a year, and we were comfortable. Also, the stereotypical vision of the “American Dream” is nearly impossible in Anchorage. There is a housing shortage, but also, the houses that are here aren’t arranged in classic neighborhood formations. There are a few of those around town, but most are just smashed in wherever there happened to be an open lot. New constructions are often in shady neighborhoods. And the houses are weird looking. You can find a standard, cute house that’s up to lower-48 cuteness standards, but they aren’t the norm. And the white picket fence? Those are even harder to find! A moose can jump right over those! But, guess what? I found a house that fit the specs perfectly! I drove Mr. T over there and he was on board, too. It was adorable. No, it wasn’t for sale, but I just needed to know it existed to motivate me toward it. I printed off a picture of it and put it on our bedroom door with a thermometer-type savings chart. I was ready to save!
A funny thing happened during the next year. Mr. T and I didn’t talk about that house and we ignored the savings chart. We let our finances stagnate. I thought about that house a lot because I saw it multiple times a day, but it didn’t motivate me to save. Every time I thought about moving there, I felt trapped. A bigger house would mean more time maintaining it. It would mean more chores, more stuff, and more responsibility. But that was all good, right? Everyone wants more stuff and more responsibility!
This past year, when Mr. T’s company started threatening lay-offs, we took the time to have a real discussion about what we would do. We admitted we didn’t want to be tied down. We want to pay off the mortgage we have, build a savings, and do our own thing… whatever that may be. As soon as we realized that’s what we really wanted to come next, our behavior changed. We’re motivated to save and we’re motivated to make daily choices that lead toward that future because we want it so badly!
The American Dream is not about a big house with a white picket fence; it’s about freedom! I recently came across the non-profit The Center for a New American Dream that strives to change that ingrained idea of ridiculousness. Founded in 1997, New Dream “seeks to change social norms around consumption and consumerism and to support the local movement of individuals and communities pursuing lifestyle and community action. We want to cultivate a new American dream—one that emphasizes community, ecological sustainability, and a celebration of non-material values, while upholding the spirit of the traditional American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. New Dream envisions a society that pursues not just ‘more,’ but more of what matters—and less of what doesn’t.” How awesome is that?
We only changed our behavior once we defined what mattered the most to us. Someone else’s idea of what our dream should be didn’t work. It even made things worse. Neither of us wanted to admit that we didn’t want what we were “supposed to” want.
Consider your dreams. Are they just visions of what you’ve seen in films? Are they dreams society tells you are the ones you should be pursuing? Or are your dreams YOURS? Have you figured out what matters and tried to seek more of that instead of the stuff the matters less? That’s what we’re attempting. Let’s redefine this American dream and seek what matters most.