It was in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where I was volunteering as an English teacher for an NGO called Feeding Dreams, that I began to look at the American Dream differently.
These children live in impoverished villages in the city's outskirts and receive government-approved very basic educations. However, these particular children were also lucky enough to be accepted to this highly sought-after non-profit to learn English.
With this opportunity, they believed they were given a rare chance to succeed. With fluency in English, they believed doors would open.
In part, they were right; they will have opportunities to participate in the local hospitality industry, which thrives from international tourism, and can possibly run their own guest homes. That is their version of the American Dream.
However, I looked around at these children, so smart and so eager to learn, and I thought to myself, is that all? Didn’t we, as children, have dreams that saw no boundaries? We dreamt of becoming doctors, lawyers, movie stars, ballerinas, princesses and comic book heroes.
No one told us to curb our imaginations. I realized that most of them, even with the knowledge of the English language, will end up working alongside their families, within their local villages and most certainly, the majority will never leave Cambodia on a dream for a "better life."
Few had running water, enough food to eat, a bed on which to sleep or shoes that fit. Yet, they all had smiles. Happiness, was theirs.
The American Dream
As I jog my usual loop on the Battery in downtown NYC, I round the southern-most tip, give a wink to Lady Liberty and a nod to Ellis Island, and am reminded of what they both symbolize.
The sunlight reflects off the Hudson River and twinkles like a magic blanket that has long protected this sky-scraping island, while providing an entryway to a new beginning and the hope and promise for a better life to generations before us.
The stories of the voyages that came through this Harbor are all quite similar. It was a fresh start that, with hard work, sacrifice and a minimum reward, came endless opportunities to create a life of health, wealth and happiness. This was the American Dream.
I am always in awe of the stories I hear of our ancestors who emigrated to the United States and worked tirelessly to achieve the American Dream. Making it to America meant they had luck. But, making it in America meant sacrifice.
Entire families lived in closet-sized tenements while others came alone. Husbands and fathers left behind wives and children and worked relentlessly to stash away enough money to send for their families.
Bussing tables, sewing ties and polishing shoes for mere pennies were all in a day's work. But, the value of the American dollar was priceless.
All they needed was enough money to put food on the table, a roof over their heads and the hope that doors would open for their children to have better lives than they had.
The American Dream still exists, but looks very different today.
Does Success Equal Happiness?
I have always been a strong proponent of a capitalistic society and a believer in the American Dream. I believe that the opportunities here, in America, are endless if you chase them. If you work hard, you should be able to reap the benefits of your success.
I, like so many of us, have become a product of my environment and believe there is always hope for a better tomorrow... a better job, a better house, a better opportunity, a better way of life. But, is it ever enough to satisfy us and will it bring us happiness?
The American Dream has a dark side. Currently, many in our society tend to make a direct correlation between success and happiness and the pursuit of wealth and possessions. That perspective may be damaging to our collective well-beings.
The more we achieve, both personally and professionally, the happier we should be, right? But, is that how it works? With so much influence and pressure from reality TV, movies and of course, social media, I wonder if we find happiness extrinsically or intrinsically.
With everyone’s private life so accessible through social media, we are constantly comparing our lives to others and live in a materialistically-competitive environment. We see pictures of shoes, handbags, cars, boats and jet-setting lifestyles and we assume that the lives into which we are peeking are accurate portrayals of the other lives.
More notably, if a picture is worth a thousand words, we assume those lives are happy. But, we aren’t privy to the pictures of the layoffs at the office or the blaring sounds of silence in the bedroom.
Through comparison, are we seeking our peers' "likes" and approval in an attempt to achieve happiness? Comparison is the thief of joy, as the saying goes. So, whether it’s a pay raise or a promotion, the Louboutins, the Ferrari or the McMansions, can happiness be quantified? If so, what is the value?
Tangible Or Intangible
Happiness is a word that means something different to each of us, which subsequently makes it very difficult to define. The dictionary defines it as good fortune, pleasure, contentment, joy.
Over the last few weeks, I've asked friends, family and coworkers what makes them happy. I then asked, "Assuming we all have our health, if you could have anything in the world that could make you happier, what would it be?"
I wanted off-the-cuff responses, and in return, I promised to be free of judgment. As you would expect, the answers varied, but each answer fell under two categories: tangible and intangible.
The dreamers and the romantics wished for unconditional love. The hopeful wished for more tolerance in the world. The frustrated wished for more integrity and loyalty in our society. The vain wished for food that wouldn’t make them fat and the realists wished to be free of social media to lessen envy and increase self-acceptance.
But, many more than I anticipated were surprisingly honest and directly linked financial success with happiness such as, “an extra zero on my paycheck” or “to be able to afford to not work so I can spend more time with my children during these formidable years” or “running my own company and not having to work for The Man.”
Others believed more travel is the answer, but followed up with, “I would travel more if I had more money.” According to a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, in New York City, people were even willing to trade happiness for better wages or lower living costs.
But, one of the most interesting and honest answers was, “I don’t know what would make me happier, [I guess] I would want to have less thirst for always wanting more [and] maybe find the place in the world where I could say ‘this is it’ or ‘I’m good here’. ”
Maybe it is not in our nature or in the nature of the American Dream to say “I’m good here.” Perhaps being content is not satisfying and should not actually be symptomatic of happiness. It has been instilled in us to always continue to reach for our dreams.
I am not personally comfortable with being just content or fine, but maybe happiness comes from grasping the art of appreciation. All the "stuff" can complicate things.
Conceivably, without the excess, the easier it is to find happiness with the intangible. After all, maybe it’s in the simplest moments and experiences that we find the greatest contentment, free from a desire for something more.
Could you live in the figurative cardboard box?
I watched Cambodian children playing a game similar to the Limbo. However, instead of bending under a pole, they would jump over it without touching it. With each successful jump, the pole moved higher.
But in this case, there was no pole. Instead, they had tied numerous rubber bands together to form somewhat of a bungee-type rope, pulled tight on either end by two children. They didn’t need toys.
I took stock of the things that make me happiest, none of which could be bought. Yes, financial security or an expendable income would make my life easier and would allow me to worry less and enjoy more. And maybe, with an "extra zero on my paycheck," I could enjoy experiences to which I would otherwise not be privy.
Sure, a new bag or new pair of shoes would bring me momentary pleasure, but that feeling is fleeting. I find it’s the simplest things that bring me the greatest joy and none are for sale: memories, laughter, music and love.
Memories make me smile. Belly laughter is contagious. Music makes me sing (albeit, not very well). But most importantly, I want an open heart to love and be loved — a love of where I am, a love for whom I’m with and a love of what I have.
Photo Courtesy: Paramount Pictures/Wolf of Wall Street