Is the American Dream eluding young people?

A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found a ginormous shift in American values:

Among American teens, 95% say that finding a job or career they enjoy would be extremely or very important to them as an adult; 81% said that about “helping others in need”; 50% said “having a lot of money” would be important; 39% thought having children would be important.

Ted Olsen summarized it in Christianity Today: “Two decades ago, Americans of various ages overwhelmingly said that patriotism, hard work, belief in God, and having children were the values most important to them. ‘Hard work’ remains strong, but the other three values have dropped significantly.”

Olsen added, “For their part, many millennials are buying into the ‘work 80 hours a week for us because we’re changing the world’ rhetoric popularized by Silicon Valley. But even those skeptical of it are working their tails off. As Anne Helen Petersen put it in a popular Buzzfeed article earlier this year: ‘We put up with companies treating us poorly because we don’t see another option. We don’t quit. We internalize that we’re not striving hard enough. And we get a second gig.'”

Derek Thompson echoed something similar in The Atlantic, “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable.” In it, he concluded, “For the college-educated elite, work has morphed into a religious identity – promising transcendence and community, but failing to deliver.”

Thompson answered, “What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

“We’ve created this idea that the meaning of life should be found in work,” says Oren Cass, the author of the book “The Once and Future Worker.” “We tell young people that their work should be their passion. ‘Don’t give up until you find a job that you love!’ we say. ‘You should be changing the world!’ we tell them. That is the message in commencement addresses, in pop culture, and frankly, in media, including The Atlantic.”

I love Thompson’s conclusion: “But our desks were never meant to be our altars. The modern labor force evolved to serve the needs of consumers and capitalists, not to satisfy tens of millions of people seeking transcendence at the office. It’s hard to self-actualize on the job if you’re a cashier – one of the most common occupations in the U.S. – and even the best white-collar roles have long periods of stasis, boredom, or busywork. This mismatch between expectations and reality is a recipe for severe disappointment, if not outright misery, and it might explain why rates of depression and anxiety in the U.S. are ‘substantially higher’ than they were in the 1980s.”

It seems every generation has to relearn this lesson: As Thompson put it above, as great as a strong work ethic is, “our desks were never meant to be our altars.” Transcendence and the American Dream is a bigger experience and goal than what we do for 40-60-80 hours a week.

In 2017, Yale University offered its most popular class ever: “PSYCH 157: Psychology and the Good Life.” Nearly one-fourth of all Yale undergraduates registered for it.

Dr. Laurie Santos, the psychology professor who teaches the course, said that she “tries to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life,” the New York Times reported.

No surprise why the university started offering the course. A 2013 report by the Yale College Council discovered that “more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university” while enrolled. More than half? (So much for an Ivy League education quenching a soul’s desire for meaning and purpose!)

In 2017, the New York Times Magazine ran an article titled, “Why are More American Teenagers than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety?” It cited the annual survey of students by the American College Health Association, which discovered a significant jump of 62% in 2016 from 50% in 2011 of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in life. A huge reason for the increase seems to be heightened concerns from pursuing things that really don’t satisfy inner human needs.

A 2015 American Freshman Survey asked thousands more of incoming students in colleges and universities across America about their goals and aspirations. The highest proportion (81.9%) checked “becoming very well off financially” as an “essential” or “very important” life objective.

However, Dr. Santos said that the things undergraduates most associate with achieving happiness – a high grade, a prestigious internship, a good-paying job, more money and material goods – do not increase happiness at all.

Dr. Santos explained: “Scientists didn’t realize this in the same way 10 or so years ago. Our intuitions about what will make us happy, like winning the lottery and getting a good grade, are totally wrong.”

So, why don’t they bring lasting happiness?

As Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor explained, our brains tend to miss-predict what will actually bring us happiness. We assume that if we achieve certain things in our life, we will find happiness.

“I’ll be happy if I get admitted into the right school.”
“I’ll be happy if I find the right partner.”
“I’ll be happy if I make vice president.”
“I’ll be happy if I have my dream house.”

Dr. Achor observed that “this ‘if-then’ perspective cannot be supported by science, because each time our brain experiences a ‘success,’ it moves the goalposts of what success looks like. If you got good grades, you have to get better grades. If you have a good job, you now have to get a better job. If you hit your sales target, now you have to raise your sales target. If you buy a home, now you want to have a larger home.”

That’s true even for the alleged happiness source of increased wealth. Researcher Jonathan Haidt observed: “Wealth itself has only a small direct effect on happiness because it so effectively speeds up the hedonic treadmill. … As the level of wealth has doubled or tripled in the last 50 years in many industrialized nations, the levels of happiness and satisfaction with life that people report have not changed, and depression has actually become more common.”

Hedonic well-being is based on the notion that increased pleasure and decreased pain leads to happiness. According to the theory of the Hedonic Treadmill, for example, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. The Hedonic Treadmill states that regardless of what happens to someone, his or her level of happiness will return to a baseline after the event(s) – high or low.

Kelly Anne Smith, a personal finance reporter at, speaking of millennials, said, “They are the generation most likely to spend the most. It makes a lot of sense: That generation is tapped into social media, which influences consumer spending.” Not to mention that previous generations have handed down to them the values that more money and stuff equates to more happiness.

Randy Alcorn, the author of “Happiness,” was right: “Anyone who waits for happiness will never be happy.”

Charles Spurgeon gave the solution: “It’s not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness.”

The truth is, all good things (including romance in relationships) come down from God, but those good things were never intended to fill up our hearts or bring ultimate satisfaction.

I think America’s founders knew that. That’s why they connected a Creator with our happiness in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is not coincidental that Thomas Jefferson’s original rough draft of the Declaration, which is on exhibit in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., began with the words: “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable …” Sacred and undeniable truths? Yes!

Scholars believe one possible source for Jefferson’s thought and phrase comes from the “Commentaries on the Laws of England” published by Sir William Blackstone, from 1765 to 1769, which are often cited in the laws of the United States.

Blackstone argued that God “has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter.”

That is why in my New York Times bestseller, “Black Belt Patriotism,” my closing chapter is on “Reawakening the American Dream,” or helping people to really understand how America’s founders intended us to enjoy life, liberty and happiness.

The one constant in life is also the source of all things in the Declaration: the Creator. Our founders trusted not in the supply but the Supplier to acquire life, liberty and happiness, and encouraged us to do the same.

There’s a verse in the Bible that summarizes it for me: “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.”

When you’ve got God, you’ve got the gold – and all you need to achieve and experience true love, happiness and the American Dream. Maybe it’s time we (again) remind younger generations of that fact.

(For more on this important issue, I recommend my friend and prolific author Randy Alcorn’s amazing book on “Happiness,” which just happens to be half off at his Eternal Perspectives Ministry website)

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This article was originally published by the WND News Center.

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