The notion of the American Dream isn't as old as you might think. David Kamp, in an excellent article in the April issue of Vanity Fair magazine, points out that the Founding Fathers never used the phrase. He traces its origins to 1931, when a book called "The Epic of America," by James Truslow Adams, left an indelible mark on the nation's psyche.
"The Epic of America," Kamp explains, was an effort to document "what makes this land so unlike other nations, so uniquely American." Adams tracks the birth of the American Dream to the Puritans and the Declaration of Independence, and he defines the phrase as revolving around the concept of equal opportunity.
President Franklin Roosevelt built upon this theme during the Great Depression by arguing that the American Dream was not just an individual goal but a collective one, that we all must work together to achieve it. Roosevelt identified "four essential human freedoms": freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
Neither Adams nor Roosevelt characterized the American Dream in strictly economic terms. That's a modern phenomenon. Today, achieving the American Dream is not about living a rich life, it's about becoming rich.
Since the 1950s, Americans have increasingly defined achievement of the American Dream as earning wealth and accumulating things. Television in particular enticed people to covet things they wouldn't otherwise have desired, and easy access to credit made it possible to acquire them. Houses got bigger, cars got faster, clothes got fancier.
Our expectations ballooned, and the bar to achieving the American Dream became more difficult to reach. This made many of us unhappy, dissatisfied with a lifestyle that previous generations would have envied. Many of us had exceeded the American Dream as defined by Adams and Roosevelt, yet we didn't feel like we had.
"The American Dream was now almost by definition unattainable, a moving target that eluded people's grasp," Kamp writes. "Nothing was ever enough."
Now, the national economy is a wreck. Home foreclosures are rampant. Unemployment is high. The government is bailing out banks and auto makers. Businesses are closing. What are we to think about the American Dream today?
I think we need to return to the American Dream as it was originally defined -- before the postwar, media-fueled consumer frenzy in which most all of us got caught up.
Let's acknowledge, first off, that poverty sucks. Nobody who is hungry, who can't afford health care, who lacks a decent place to live can be expected to be satisfied with his life. "Up to a certain point, more really does equal better," Bill McKibben wrote in 2007 in Mother Jones magazine. This is what FDR referred to as "freedom from want."
But studies show that once people reach a certain level of comfort, their happiness level flattens out. In other words, an Amish person in Pennsylvania is just as happy with his life as a McMansion owner in Southern California.
Now let's bring it all back home: I like watching professional football. I've been a fan since I was 6 or 7 years old. For years, I watched the games on a conventional TV, anywhere from a 19- to 36-inch screen. A couple of years ago, I finally splurged on a big-screen LCD model. Forty-six inches of vivid, high-def eye candy. I like having my new TV, and I do notice the difference in picture quality. But has this new device notably enhanced my enjoyment of pro football? Not really. If I had not purchased the fancy set, I still would be enjoying the games every Sunday.
Fortunately, I could afford to purchase that big-screen TV, but thousands of people who can't have bought them anyway, on the premise that they need them. Modern life dictates that once other people have something, we feel we must have the same thing or we are missing out, falling behind.
McKibben argues that in striving to escape the poverty of the distant past -- an admirable ambition -- we have built up so much momentum that now we don't know how to stop. We have far surpassed the point at which our prosperity correlates with a commensurate degree of well-being.
But amid what some are calling the Great Recession, a growing number of us are being forced to recalculate our expectations, to recognize a "new normal." This is a frightful reality for, say, Tiffany & Co., which reported a 75 percent profit drop in the fourth quarter of 2008. In the new normal, the Tiffanys of the world are in for a rough ride.
But the economy will recover eventually, giving us the opportunity to jump back into the race for the unachievable American Dream. I, for one, hope we will learn a lesson and strive for a rich life instead of a rich bank account.
"The middle class is a good place to be," Kamp concludes. "The American Dream is ... not an all-or-nothing deal. ... It is not, as in hip-hop narratives and Donald Trump's brain, a stark choice between the penthouse and the streets."
Geoff Schumacher (email@example.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday.