The American Dream and Materialism

Categories: PhilosophySociety


The modern Western dream is created and maintained by the fraudulent concept of materialism—the tendency to uphold material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values. A philosophy that has not only been discredited but has also been proven to lead to a degradation of the human experience by damaging our relationships and self-identity (Kasser). The vital mythology of materialism is so pervasive that it has historically shown to affect all areas of our culture with the faulty promise of happiness in the form of self-indulgence.

Contemporary commentary upon philosophical materialism tend to lie between two major divisions: assessments of American ideals that express that we are exceedingly obsessed with the accumulation of wealth, or self-help manifestos that promote readers to fall down a spiral of continuous consumer spending. The idea of human greed has been present since the dawn of existence, although in recent years it has become the defining illness of our age (Gupta). This philosophical monism has led to an ambition of the promise of wealth, which is predominantly seen in adolescents and young adults, otherwise known as Generation Z: a group of individuals born the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.

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The philosophy of materialism has historically proven to work towards destroying our identities, however, in recent years has shown more provident in influencing our future leaders.


In 1776 the United States of America was finally born. However in the same year one individual activated America to begin its reign with the encouragement of materialism.

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In his book The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith argued that self-indulgence would essentially work as an economic driver that throughout hard work would make everyone wealthy, however his theory was based on false materialist assumptions (Arsenio). Smith provided America with a model for a system that would soon take over the mindset off millions of young Americans aspiring for great wealth. Smith’s ideas contributed to the fate of the Industrial Revolution as the growth in private industry promoted an unparalleled economic boom in personal wealth (Tinerella).

The continued emphasis of accumulated wealth and “material objects” caused the Industrial Revolution to become a major influence on the philosophy of materialism, which later served to become part of the American culture. Mountains of manufactured goods came to appear as a society now demanded giant factories to provide luxury goods—goods that were now cheaper and affordable for the “common man” (Tinerella). This served as a turning point as aspiration now began to show negative signs of materialist values as many began to abandon basic human relationships with the natural world in their attempts to feed their “materialist” appetite. The growth in industry then leads to an increase in consumer spending as shopping now became the replacement of a relationship with nature. The Industrial Revolution caused shopping to became the American trademark, a trend that has continued to rise to unprecedented highs from the 19th century up to the modern day 21st century (Arsenio).


To understand the modern American Dream, it is first important to analyze its roots and reason for being. Essentially, the creation of the American Declaration of Independence protects everyone’s opportunity to improve life circumstances as it specifically states “all men are created equal,” and thus have the ability of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. At the time this statement promoted a spiritual value of life as individuals were promised the idea of “equality”. However, in the 19th century, the same statement promoted a different approach as society’s idea of the “pursuit of happiness” has suffered a drastic shift in perception of what “happiness” was. The American Dream now became the “dream of the opportunity to the acquisition of material objects”. This is best described by the literary commentary upon society, written by the American fiction author Scott Fitzgerald, in his book The Great Gatsby (Ferriss).

At the time, Fitzgerald warned that this new pursuit of happiness was mainly driven by human greed and simply put was not attainable nor realistic. However, society decided to ignore Fitzgerald’s commentary upon this complex social issue as society still continued to show similar materialist tendencies throughout time, and eventually the same greed driven mindset has infected individuals in modern-day America. History has a pattern of repeating itself which is exactly what is happening with our modern day “American Dream”. Young individuals of Generation Z are becoming obsessively concerned with attaining lavish and flamboyant lifestyles, lifestyles which show similar patterns of individuals in the early 19th century (Gupta). The level of obsession at which our young generation of society has with “things” and “money” is becoming a trademark issue in America. The new American Dream is creating a new generation of similar engineered individuals, ones who not only think the same but value the same materialist view that physical commodities will lead them to happiness (Kasser).


Most individuals from Generation Z in America are “exposed to similar cultural messages encouraging materialism” so essentially this leads to the question of how “some of us internalize these values more than others?”. And how these values either positively or negatively impact the psychosocial state of these young developing individuals? (Tim). Many are confined within a mindset that the more money you have is equivalent to the level of happiness that one obtains. Historically, this mindset has been shown in various eras of American history and the pattern continues to prosper through time. This has created a historical attitude that was coined by the American entrepreneur, Malcolm Forbes, that says “the one who dies with the most toys wins” (Kasser).

However, people do not sit back and critically think about what it actually is that they are winning. Humans “have basic needs that must be satisfied” in order to have a quality life. “Materialistic values become prominent in the lives of some individuals who have a history of not having their needs well met”, therefore, materialists are highly associated with a low quality of life regardless if they have a “six-figure salary” or not. Materialistic ideals contribute even more to people’s misery, in a study conducted by the Institute of Social Sciences Master of Arts in Psychology, its findings showed that materialism was “negatively associated to and influences self-esteem” and showed effects of depression and high anxiety. As young adolescents in America begin to value material culture their happiness and overall emotional health is declining (Gupta).


The pattern of the material culture of America is negatively impacting our young generation of leaders. Throughout the 1960s people began to understand the issue that materialism was creating in society and many tried to rebel against the “norms” of materialistic idealism. This was known as the Counterculture of the 1960s or more commonly referred to as the Hippie Movement (Peñaranda). It was a rebellion of materialism to the opposite extreme, the extreme of Minimalism—a lifestyle that is characterized by extreme simplicity and abandonment of unnecessary materials. However, history proved swaying the complete opposite direction of a problem does not necessarily solve the initial issue, it simply just ignores it.

Changing the behavior of a group of people is much harder to do than it is to say, history has already proven that as when the 1960s was over individuals once again fell towards the same material trend. (Peñaranda). However, an attainable solution would be for the parents of our young generation to not feed into the black hole of allowing their developing children the ability to have anything they ask for. This is the combination with realistic minimalism approaches, such as interacting with nature and critically thinking instead of using technology for all questions you need answers to, would create a trend to end materialism in the future of our American history.

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The American Dream and Materialism. (2021, Oct 13). Retrieved from

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