Waking Up from the American Dream
How to Live a Happy, Satisfying Life in Our Unhealthy Consumer Culture
Dr. Anderson’s new book is being considered by several major publishing houses.
A Brief Description of Waking Up from the American Dream
Consider the Joneses. They’re an upscale, with-it family, living the good life in a suburb of Los Angeles. They own a beautiful home in a new subdivision, with winding streets and beautiful landscaping. Their house is full of technological toys. They drive expensive foreign cars, and their kids are in expensive private schools. They seem to be living the American Dream.
But beneath the surface, things don’t look quite so rosy. Mr. Jones works from 55 to 60 hours a week at an extremely high-pressure job, plus a two-hour commute. Mrs. Jones works full time, runs the house, and ferries the children to and from their various schools and manifold activities. The kids are under great pressure to participate in sports and to excel academically; they almost never have any really unstructured time. The family is deeply in debt, with a huge mortgage and a crushing credit card balance. Mr. Jones hardly ever sees his kids, while Mrs. Jones sees all too much of them. Both partners are chronically stressed out and exhausted, and the marriage is under pressure. Mr. Jones drinks quite a bit, while Mrs. Jones has been seeing an agreeable doctor for prescriptions for pain medication. What looks like, from the outside, a privileged existence, is really a grinding poverty in virtually every area of life besides the material.
Closer to Los Angeles live the Smiths. They own a modest home in an older but conveniently located section of the city. Mr. Smith works full time as a teacher, while Mrs. Smith works part time as a registered nurse. They have a relatively new car (new for them, at any rate—it’s only four years old). The kids go to public school, and they play on the block where they live. There’s a television and a computer, but not too much in the way of fancy gadgets. Material affluence seems to have passed them by—they have enough, but not much more than enough. The American Dream, this isn’t. In fact, many people would say that the Smiths live on the verge of poverty.
Like the Joneses, though, the quality of the Smiths’ lives doesn’t really correspond with appearances. Being a teacher or a nurse is not the most glamorous of jobs, but not the most stressful either. Both Mr. and Mrs. Smith can get to work in about ten minutes, and neither ever has to work more than 40 hours a week. Because he’s a teacher, Mr. Smith gets the summers off. The Smiths spend a lot of time with each other, with the kids, and with their parents and friends. They’re physically healthy, eat well, and get a lot of exercise. They’re relaxed and happy, and still in love with each other after many years of marriage. And in contrast to the Joneses, they’re financially solvent and secure, even though they make half as much money as the Joneses do. They’ve paid off their mortgage, and they have practically no debt. The Smiths aren’t living what we commonly think of as “the good life,” but they’re certainly living well.
Living a happy, healthy life in an unhealthy consumer culture—that’s the challenge facing families in the United States and, increasingly, around the world. The Smiths and the Joneses are having different degrees of success in meeting this challenge because they live on opposite sides of a fault line in American culture. Over the last half-century or so, the consumer economy has changed fundamental values by exaggerating the normal human tendency toward materialism. Affluence has become more important and self-indulgence more legitimate, while family, community, security, leisure, and serenity have become less important. Those who’ve bought into the consumer culture, like the Joneses, are suffering from financial insecurity, time pressure, ever-increasing stress, loneliness, and anomie. Those who haven’t, like the Smiths, are relatively better off in terms of quality of life, but they feel disenfranchised and isolated because the culture in which they live doesn’t value or support their lifestyle.
Most people in America find themselves somewhere on the Smith/Jones continuum, and most share at least some of the same problems. More important, demographic research—as well as sales of books on the negative aspects of consumerism—indicates that there’s a vast discontent and uneasiness with the consumer culture, as well as a hunger for alternatives. In fact, as many as ten million Americans are already reducing their level of consumption and seeking a different direction for their lives, and books suggesting how they can do so have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Waking Up from the American Dream: How to Live a Happy, Satisfying Life in our Unhealthy Consumer Culture is intended to provide all those who are questioning consumerism with a new way of understanding the forces that are distorting their lives and values, and a new direction that will lead to security, serenity, health, and happiness.
While its subject matter is serious—and sometimes profound—Waking Up from the American Dream is in its essence a self-help book, a work designed to help readers understand how dysfunctional cultural beliefs affect their lives, and how they can adapt and thrive nonetheless. In form, the book is an extended essay. It is brief—25,000 words—but its briefness is a deliberate feature, meant to overcome buyer resistance to heavy tomes. People will purchase it both because the topic is interesting and because it appears to be short and easy to read.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part, “Can’t Buy Happiness,” shows readers how the consumer culture came to be in the first place, and describes the negative impact it has on virtually every aspect of their lives. Here readers see how the consumer economy distorts fundamental cultural values, and they learn how choosing to value the truly important things in life can open the way to a more satisfactory way of being in the world. The second part of the book, “Opting Out,” shows readers how a change in values can help improve financial security, reduce time stress, improve connections with other people, make work more rewarding, and provide a deeper sense of spirituality. The third part of the book, “A New Definition of Success,” weaves the various elements of the earlier chapters into a unified vision of a way of life that places health and well-being before material affluence.
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