Monday, 4 May 2009

The Dark Side of the American Dream

The "love it or leave it" mentality that bloomed during the McCarthy era has made it almost impossible for mainstream media to even question the essential wisdom of the "American Dream" (even when disagreeing about what it really means). The globalization crisis has recently legitimized such open skepticism. (See Alfie Kohn's "Money's Dark Side," IHT, 2/3/99.)

"The adage that money cannot buy happiness may be familiar but is easily forgotten in a consumer society. A more persistent and seductive message is beamed from every television screen: Contentment is available for the price of this car, that computer, a little more getting and spending." Kohn adds that a growing and impressive body of research asserts that "satisfaction is simply not for sale."

"Not only does having more things prove to be unsatisfying, but people for whom affluence is a priority in life tend to experience an unusual degrees of anxiety and depression as well as a lower overall sense of well-being. Likewise, those who would like nothing more than to be famous or attractive do not fare as well, psychologically speaking, as those who primarily want to develop close relationships, become more self-aware, or contribute to the community."

Psychology professors Richard Ryan (U. of Rochester) and Tim Kasser (Knox College) have discovered that the news is even worse. They sketch an increasingly bleak picture of people who value 'extrinsic goals' like money, fame and beauty." They are not only more depressed than others but also report more behavioral problems and physical discomfort as well as scoring lower on measures of vitality and self-actualization. They claim their studies provide a look at "the dark side of the American Dream". "Nothing that our culture in some ways seems to be built on precisely what turned out to be detrimental to mental health."

Americans are typically encourage to "strike it rich" yet the more they seek satisfactions in material goods the less they find them there. "The satisfaction has a short half-life; it's very fleeting." Their data hold for every age and level of income; and regardless of how much income one already has. This is not just an American problem; their data extend to twelve countries and the West Bank.

And it's not affluence per se that is the problem: rather living a life where affluence is your goal. Ironically the story appeared in the same issue as the obituary of Paul Mellon whose 91 years were devoted to finding worthy benefactions for the millions he inherited from his banker/industrialist father Andrew Mellon. A further instructive coincidence was the appeal of wealthy philanthropists like Ted Turner and George Soros at the 1999 Davos Economic Summit to give back to the community until it hurts!

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