It’s a strange time to be an American.
With a mass shooting happening every other week and a man who got Stone-Cold Stunnered flirting with the presidency, it’s safe to say things are a little… off … in the Land of the Free.
A number of explanations have been proposed for this recent malaise. Truthfully, no one knows what the hell is going on – except that the foundation of everything we used to hold dear is crumbling.
Once upon a time, Americans thought their country was the land of opportunity. With a little grit and elbow grease, any one could rise above his circumstances and achieve whatever his heart desired.
But for young people, this belief in the “American Dream” has declined dramatically over the past generation.
And why shouldn’t it? The average student is taking on $30,000+ in debt to enter a working world where only 1 out of 3 people feel actively engaged. Our once vibrant futures have turned into a monotonous, ego-depleting existence, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy way out.
Fortunately, I’m here to tell you that things don’t have to be this way.
You don’t have to work a job you hate or give up on what you would like to do to live a healthy, fulfilling life. All of the tools are still out there.
But they require a basic deconstruction of what we’ve been taught to believe over the last 100 years or so. Namely, the materialistic preferences of the past few decades are no longer a realistic goal for modern Americans, nor are they key to personal happiness.
In our new world, achieving your dreams requires letting go of previous images of success.
It requires living for less.
A Brief History of How We Got Here
The biggest hurdle standing between Americans and a fulfilling life isn’t the economy. It’s their preferences.
If you ask a typical American what his dreams look like, he’ll probably describe a scene from the Wolf of Wall Street. He’d have a Ferrari in the garage, Versace in the closet, a Rolex for every outfit and Dom Perignon at every party.
All of these luxury brands signal high status. They let people know you are living the good life and serve as a universal indicator for “success.”
However, these materialistic desires are a relatively new phenomenon. Like, less than 100 years old.
Four or five generations ago, people didn’t crave brand-name products. They didn’t even exist. A trip to the store would involve asking the clerk for what you needed and receiving whatever the hell they had behind the counter.
But then the Industrial Revolution happened. Suddenly, businesses were able to churn out goods at significantly faster rates and lower costs. This process created more jobs, more disposable income and lots and lots of shit to sell.
How did companies learn to capitalize on this newfound abundance? Psychological manipulation.
One of the Godfathers of modern advertising, Edward Bernays, also happened to be the nephew of the world’s most famous psychologists, Sigmund Freud.
Bernays applied his uncle’s renderings of the unconscious mind to a new type of propaganda, designed to engineer the consent of the population toward the wills of large corporations.
He called it “public relations.“
One of Bernays’ most famous campaigns involved Lucky Strike cigarettes. The brand wanted to increase its sales with women, but a few hurdles existed. As a whole, the group found the color of Lucky Strikes’ box unappealing. Further, a general taboo existed against the idea of women smoking in public.
To combat these naturally-occurring preferences, Lucky Strikes enlisted Bernays’ help. And boy did he help.
To make Lucky Strikes’ shade of green more attractive, Bernays coordinated with higher-ups in the fashion industry who made it a staple of the next season’s style.
Then, he challenged the social stigma by organizing a large-scale demonstration at a feminist rally. After Bernays hired a bunch of attractive women to light up a smoke while protesting the injustices of 1920s America, the cigarette soon became known as the “freedom torch,” allowing females to challenge societal norms, flaunt their independence and increase their likelihood of dying from lung cancer.
All of these tactics targeted women’s subconscious wants. Bernays tricked them into believing that their desire to be a fashionable, independent person could be achieved simply by purchasing a pack of smokes.
And that, my friends, is how most advertising works today. Marketers tap into our basic emotional wants using carefully orchestrated images, symbols and slogans and train us to associate them with their products.
As a population, we’ve largely bought the message. Our desire to lead a happy and fulfilling life is no longer about our accomplishments, but the type of things we can afford.
Obviously, this trend comes with a few problems.
First, basing your self-worth on the external validation that comes from your physical belongings isn’t a very healthy recipe for self-esteem. Second, these preferences are no longer a realistic goal for Americans in the modern economy.
While our standard of living has steadily increased, the financial health of the average American is hideous. Nearly half of the people surveyed in a recent study by the Federal Reserve said they couldn’t summon $400 dollars if an emergency rose today.
…$400 dollars. That’s probably the cost of the phone or computer you’re reading this on right now. Though we can obtain material comforts with more ease than ever before, we’re throwing ourselves into debt and working jobs we hate just to do it.
Despite what we’ve been manipulated to believe over the past century, we don’t need nearly as much as we think.
Our 4 Basic Psychological Needs
Have you ever wondered how a supermarket employee can lead a happy and fulfilling life while a wealthy celebrity can be suicidal?
Psychologists have been studying this type of thing for decades, and they’ve basically boiled down the components of well-being to four requirements: security, belonging, self-esteem and control.
No matter where you’re from, how you look, or how much money you have, every single person has those four basic needs. If they’re being met, you’re gonna feel pretty good about your life. If they’re not, you’ll suffer.
That’s why a bagger at a grocery store who can afford his rent and has a few close friends can feel better than a celebrity who is surrounded by sycophants and bases her entire self-worth on her appearance. His psychological needs are being met while hers aren’t.
The key to living a happy life lies in fulfilling these needs. If you’re suffering, you should either try to improve your relationships, self-worth, sense of freedom or security.
But in the present state of affairs, that’s not always the easiest thing to do.
Namely, the individual’s lack of control in the American economy is contributing to our broad sense of disillusionment. To pay for her rent, food, car and material possessions, the average American must find a job which requires her to work 40-50 hours per week for 50 weeks out of the year.
To land one of these jobs, she’s forced to take out loans to fund her education. Then, she’ll need to pimp her resume during job interviews and convince employers that her performance will satisfy their clients. Finally, she’s expected to devote her utmost loyalty to the company in order to get promoted, increase her income and pay off the debt she assumed just to enter the process.
Most of us have to go through this cycle. And it requires us to surrender a large amount of the control we have over our lives.
Want to leave the office at 4 o’clock every day to spend time with your friends or family? You’re not working hard enough and don’t deserve to advance within the company.
Want to take a few months off to hike the Appalachian Trail or explore Southeast Asia? You’ll leave a big gap in your resume and will likely have to start from scratch somewhere else.
The recipe we’ve been given for success requires us to surrender the very sense of freedom that makes us feel successful. We can obtain a bunch of nice shit, but we don’t have any control over the process that lets us get it in the first place, which leads to our collective suffering.
How can you escape this viscous cycle?
You Need to Live for Less
Fulfilling your basic needs doesn’t actually require that much money.
When you can learn to live for less, you gain the autonomy necessary to achieve what you actually want out of your life, i.e. the American Dream.
Adopting frugal habits like getting a roommate, moving within walking distance of your job, avoiding name-brand products, and cooking your own meals can allow a single person with no debt to live on as little as $1000 per month.
Don’t believe me? Check this guy out.
He and his wife spent around $20,000 annually for 8 years. Meanwhile, they invested the rest of their money in an index fund, which allowed them to retire at the ripe age of 30.
Now, these people had some of the well-paying, freedom-limiting jobs I criticized earlier, but the distinction is that they were working for a purpose. Their goal wasn’t to buy a mansion, eat at lavish restaurants, or own a Ferrari. It was to liberate themselves from the necessity of work altogether through a few years of low spending and high savings.
You don’t have to have these goals. Yours could be entirely different.
Maybe you’ve always wanted to be an artist. Or start your own business. Or travel the world. All of these things are possible. But they require you to live for less.
The only problem you need to figure out is how you can make enough money to pay for your food, rent, social activities and miscellaneous fees. Your other needs (self-esteem and autonomy) will be achieved through working for a higher purpose.
Because when you live for less, you can cut back your hours at work to spend more time on that book you’ve always wanted to write. You can save heavily for a few months and spend the rest of your year backpacking through Europe. You can volunteer at a hospital, religious institution, or any social cause that moves you.
It doesn’t matter what the fuck you do. Just make sure you want to do it.
Because at the end of the day, it’s your life. The only one you are ever going to get. Do you want to spend your numbered days working a career you hate to afford the stuff marketers say will complete you? Or would you rather spend your time actually doing things that make you happy?
Fair warning: this mindset requires you to go against the grain. A lot of people may think you’re inferior because you don’t live up to the material standard we’ve been taught to associate with success.
But people are going to judge you no matter what you do. Your goal is to look through that judgement, say fuck it, and arrange your life in a way that brings you the most enjoyment.
As long as you’re happy, you’ll have all the abundance you’ll ever need. When you live for less, you live with more.