Life Lie #1: “The American Dream Will Make Me Happy”

Welcome to my new mini blog series – “Life Lied to Me!”  In this series of essays, I will explore some of the promises I heard from society and adopted as rules to live by.  I picked up these beliefs through television, movies, books, magazines, school, friends and family, and I swore by them for many years.  Over time, I’ve learned that these rules are outdated, incomplete, or outright harmful to myself and others.  They no longer serve me, and I’m learning to let them go.

Let’s start with the first lie:

“The American Dream Will Make Me Happy”

Marriage, kids, a house, a steady job, a car or two and a dog = HAPPINESS.  That’s the formula I was sold on from an early age.  It’s the American Dream!  I was lucky to be born in such an idyllic country where I could make all my dreams come true!  There was a clear path to fulfillment in life, and with hard work and clear goals I could make it all happen.  With opportunity around every corner, all I had to do was get good grades, get into college, land a job, meet a good partner and put down some roots.  Put in an honest day’s work every day, be nice, follow the rules, save some money for retirement, and voila!  Happiness!

I followed this happiness formula to the “T.”  Good grades were a requisite, so I went ahead and got great grades for good measure.  I needed to marry a good partner, so I looked under every rock and pushed every suitable suitor to the breaking point so they could realize I was “the one.”  I needed a good job, so I came in early and stayed late and was so busy that everyone would surely see how valuable I was.  I was nice.  I got a savings account.  I got pregnant right when I was supposed to.  I put my kids in sports and took them to the library.  I got two dogs (two is better than one, right?)  At every turn, I pulled myself up by my metaphorical bootstraps and I did the next thing on my list to propel me toward fulfillment.

At the age of 38 I looked around at my life and realized I had made it!  I had the American Dream!  I had followed the formula and I had gotten everything I needed to be happy.

So … why wasn’t I happy?

I had all the stuff.  I had the house and the husband and the kids.  I had everything I ever wanted, and everything I had been told would make me happy.  But I wasn’t happy.  I felt empty inside.  I felt hollow and alone, even (or especially) when I was surrounded by people.  I smiled and I laughed and I pretended to be happy, thinking that if I followed the cues of other people around me I would suddenly feel the fulfillment I’d been chasing for almost four decades.  Other people seemed content.  Everyone else seemed happy.  What was wrong with me?

I believed so strongly in the promises of the American Dream that I didn’t suspect there was anything wrong with the dream – I thought there was something wrong with me.  I thought there was something inherently flawed in my character or my personality that precluded me from experiencing the freedom and joy that the American Dream was supposed to provide.  I felt an over-arching sense of shame and guilt.  Who was I to feel even a tiny bit unfulfilled, when I had everything that everyone ever wanted?  What kind of ungrateful, entitled, spoiled brat was I?  My guilt and shame morphed into a deeply embedded sense of failure, which manifested as anxiety and depression.  I couldn’t sleep.  I worried all the time.  I replayed scenes from my past and ruminated over my regrets and resentments.

This, I have come to realize, is the shadow side of the promised American Dream.  When we get everything on the outside but we don’t feel the internal satisfaction we crave, we assume it’s because something inside of us is dirty, bad or wrong.

We do this all the time.  We attached our happiness or self-worth to things outside of us.  When those things don’t bring us joy, we assume that we are the problem, not the stuff.

My initial disillusionment with the American Dream wasn’t about the American Dream itself – instead, I became disillusioned with myself.  I thought I was bad.  I was filled with shame.  In addition to anxiety and depression, this shame also manifested as addiction, codependence, people-pleasing, perfectionism, over-achieving and insomnia.  Not exactly the stuff of dreams.

It was a lie!  The American dream does not ensure happiness!  A spouse, a house, a job or a child can not and will not make anyone happy!  Those things are just things.  Something that lives outside of you cannot bring inner peace, joy or self-love.  It simply doesn’t work that way.

Having a nice house is, well, nice – but it doesn’t have any inherent meaning.  What we seek is not the house, but the security and the stability we attach to it.  For most of my life I attached meaning to things and achievements.  I didn’t search for or work for the feelings I really wanted – I just worked to get the stuff.  No wonder I found myself nearing 40 with all of the stuff and none of the contentment I craved.

For the past three years, I’ve been living my life a little differently. Instead of seeking to attain and combine the ingredients for the perfect American existence, I’ve been looking inside of myself for joy and love.  Today, I still have what many would consider the American Dream, but I know that it isn’t the formula that makes me happy.  I have found a serenity and peace inside of myself.  I have found a deep love with the Universe and a relationship with something greater than me.  I nourish my relationship with my husband on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis, and the connection I feel (not the marriage certificate) brings me true love and fulfillment.

It’s an inside job, this happiness thing.  It can’t be found outside of us, but it can be found, by uncovering the joy and peace that was already there.

Joy and peace and fulfillment are already inside of us.  They always have been.  We need to stop pretending that we can find it in the lie called the American Dream.

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