Then and Now: Finding Happiness in the American Dream

Dana WilderImage

     Shortly after the Great Depression, Americans were faced with a remarkable transition in their point of view of what would bring them true happiness. After combating the reality of not being able to get by financially, Americans began to rely on simplistic goals as marks of success when attained and completed. Many American values completely changed, which could be seen inside and outside of one’s household. Now, instead of striving for equality, Americans wanted to make more money in order to provide for their families. This is where the American Dream, an aspiration that every American hoped for, was born. Now, Americans were in a desperate search for happiness and freedom; however, this deviation of an Aristotelian goal for happiness was disfigured as people became greedier over the years and formulated a more Mill-centered view of happiness.

     After getting by during the Great Depression of the 1920’s, Americans were on the search for happiness and a better sense of freedom in their lives. Due to this, the American Dream was imprinted in every citizen’s mind as a goal that must be attained in order for bliss in his or her life. At its start, the American Dream was thought of as a simplistic set of ideal freedoms for the opportunity to prosper and be successful while using one’s special skills after the Great Depression. In addition to this, there was a hope for an upward social mobility by being a full person, meaning that this person uses all of his or her special skills to become the best version of himself or herself. Considering this, the core to this motivating goal was to overcome the Depression, which was on the mind of every citizen; however, this goal wasn’t limited to just Americans. Many immigrants came to America in search for the opportunity to fulfill their dreams of becoming whatever they wanted, while using their unique talents that they were born with. They believed in the freedom that America offered for them to be a full person. This goes hand-in-hand with the American Dream. There is a hope for being able to fulfill one’s life duties by successfully carrying out one’s skills. After evaluation of these goals, it is clear that the people of America had a consonance view on happiness in relation to Aristotle. The incredibly influential Greek philosopher, Aristotle, believed happiness was achieved when someone has been a full person, fulfilling their duty in life with their special set of skills. In the mind of every American, their duty was to provide for their families, which would in turn bring them happiness and a sense of security. By Americans working hard, there was no question that they were, in fact, fulfilling their duties.

     For Aristotle, achieving happiness was, in fact, possible, but this reward does not come immediately as many people would hope.  Every activity that a person performs has a good that it aims for,  which is true; however, Aristotle would argue that there cannot be an infinite amount of extrinsic goods. Considering this, Aristotle states that there must be a highest good that all people ultimately aim for. This goal, which could be called happiness, can be evaluated at the end of one’s fulfilled life responsibility. This happiness is attained by living well. Unfortunately, this happiness cannot be captured by the ordinary notions of pleasure, wealth, or fame because even people who acquire these material goods are not always happy. In fact, they may become greedy and begin to strive for more superficial goods. Considering these tangible goals do not help a person gain happiness in the eyes of Aristotle, there must be something almost spiritual that provides this Aristotelian bliss. For Aristotle, the good for human beings must essentially involve the entire proper function of human life as a whole. Through this, the soul of the person must express genuine virtue and excellence.  A truly happy person will exhibit a personality of balanced reasons and desires, making the virtue of the person one’s own reward; therefore, for Aristotle, true happiness is attained through the cultivation of the virtues that make a human life complete.

     On the surface, the American Dream in the 1920’s sounded extremely moral and well established as it was motivating Americans to better their lives and those around them. Unfortunately and surprisingly, these simplistic goals brought out a much more pleasure-seeking society in America. Eventually, rather than focusing on simply completing one’s duties, people began to have much more pleasure-driven goals, like getting rich. To them, money was accompanied with happiness because it brought them pleasure. As a matter of fact, to them, money bought them happiness. This brought about a much more Mill-centered idea for happiness. John Stuart Mill, a noteworthy British philosopher and economist, believed that pleasure was happiness, or a “freedom from pain.” To Mill, pleasure will cover up the emotional scars that people experience during their lives and, in turn, fill them with happiness. Today, people now spoil themselves with materialistic goods that are thought to satisfy their every need; however, as economics has taught us, a person’s wants are unlimited, while resources are limited. This never ending cycle of wanting more has created a greedier and much more pleasure-seeking America. Virtue seems to hardly play a role in making Americans feel that they have lived a happy life. People, especially Americans, are so focused on receiving immediate satisfaction, while it is also short-lived, that they cannot fathom to strive for a happiness that would later gratify them, even though it would be experienced for a longer period of time. In short, it is evident that the idealistic lifestyle of the 1920’s drastically intensified over the years as Americans, today, have lost sight of what true happiness means with their Mill-centered, pleasure-seeking mindset.

     John Stuart Mill has a hedonist view on happiness. Mill believes that the only truly good thing for a person is pleasure, and with this comes the absence of pain. Similarly, the only bad thing for a person is pain and the absence of pleasure. He explains all of this with his utilitarian theory. In his theory, he encourages people to act in ways that would bring the most pleasure and least amount of pain for the greatest amount of people. Considering his straightforward view on happiness, which in this sense parallels with Aristotle, it would seem that not only do people desire happiness but also they never desire anything else. Obviously, people may desire things that are distinguished from happiness, but there’s a catch to this. If a person was to desire virtue and the absence of vice, this would be because he or she knows that virtue will lead them to pleasure, which is his or her main goal. Similarly, they would choose virtue only when it leads to pleasure and avoid vice only when it leads to pain.  In this case, virtue and pleasure go hand-in-hand. Considering virtue can bring happiness, it can be inferred that there are many ingredients that make up Mill’s idea of happiness. Each of these ingredients is desirable by itself because it brings pleasure. However, Mill’s principle of utility does not mean that any form of pleasure or absence of pain can be labeled with the term happiness. The ingredients are desired in and for themselves, and they are part of the end, which is similar to the Aristotelian view. In regards to virtue, it is not originally part of the end, like the other ingredients to Mill’s view; however, this does not mean that virtue is completely cut off from the possibility of becoming a part of the end. This is a part that contradicts the Aristotelian view of happiness. Virtue is a key contender in making a person happy in the eyes of Aristotle, but Mill would disagree. Pleasure is the key for Mill in making a person happy, which is something that many Americans would agree with as they have become a part of a much more mundane society.

     Obviously, many Americans would disagree that they have become greedier over the years, but this is because they would rationalize their actions, not knowing that they are in fact selfish. The simple virtuous lifestyle is now gawked at as people believe that it shows weakness or insufficiency. It’s embarrassing to think that Americans only feel happy when they have a tangible object to bring them happiness. It seems as though America has lost sight of what true happiness is. It is not money. It is not fame. It is the followed by the hard work completed by a person when she offers all of her special talents to the world. No, it may not come to one immediately, but it is surely worth the wait. America needs to wake up from its greedy haze and be open to a much more virtuous society. 


Work Cited

 Huggins. “USA in the 1920’s.” School History. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2013.


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