Friday, December 18, 2009

#118 - Rethinking the American Dream

The American Dream. It is still the quintessential aspiration, yet each of us has a unique vision of just what it is. For some, the dream is a chance to build a successful business. For others, it's a home of their own. And for still others, it's the opportunity to buy the very latest gadget or shop until they drop. As alluring as any of the visions are, however, they are outcomes of the dream and not the dream, itself. The American Dream is actually a state of mind.

We all know that the American Dream exists because we live in a nation founded on certain extraordinary principles. Much as we take them for granted, deep down, every one of us knows that we are especially fortunate to live in a land where we are accorded an enduring right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. While most of us are very clear about what Life and Liberty mean, there still seems to be some confusion about the pursuit of Happiness. And it's causing some of us to misperceive the American Dream.

Our founding fathers inadvertently put us in this situation when they used capitol letters on Life, Liberty and Happiness, when what they really meant for us was a commitment to "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness." In other words, what the American Dream promises is not our right to happiness, but our right to the chance to achieve it on our own.

What does that mean for the workforce?
Over the past decade or so, social scientists have been trying to figure out just what happiness is and where it comes from. While some feel the answers are intuitively obvious, it turns out that we may be selling ourselves short. Humans have the capacity not only to experience happiness, but to experience joy, as well. And the two states are very different.

Joy is an emotional state. It is derived from our relationships with our families and friends. When those interactions engage and satisfy us, when they enable us to be ourselves best with others in our Life, we experience joy--the human species' greatest gift.

Happiness, on the other hand, is a cognitive state. It occurs when we are tested by meaningful challenges that stimulate us to express and experience our fullest natural potential, our talent. These challenges can occur anywhere, but they are most prevalent in our workplaces. In other words, our best shot at Achieving happiness is to find a position where we can excel at what we love to do.

That is the essence of the real American Dream. It is a personal commitment, a determination to devote Life and exercise Liberty to the accomplishment of two tasks:
  • To discovering our natural talent (or what we love to do and do best); and,

  • To working where we can use that talent to achieve satisfying goals.
The outcomes of each task will be unique for each of us, but the tasks themselves are the same for all of us. These two missions are the key to a successful job search, a rewarding career, and a happy life. Whether you're in transition or currently employed, having these goals empowers you to control your own destiny, to shape it to an end that is fulfilling to you. This is our inalienable right, yes, but it is also our responsibility. For only we can take the first step, only we can decide to set off on a quest for happiness.

Should we bother?
Absolutely. And we should strive to realize as much joy as possible in the journey itself. Still, as wonderful as our relationships and our joy may be, we deserve even more. We spend at least one-third of our lives at our jobs - at work. The work experience should offer more than frustration, anxiety and despair. It can (and should) be a source of profound fulfillment. Or, what our founding fathers called "Happiness."

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