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The American Dream

I sometimes feel remarkably blessed. I live in a lovely cabin not far from the salt water, and I can take my canoe out on a whim into winds and tides. I still read stories aloud to my two teenage children, because a good book is even more fun when it's shared. I have the privilege of editing this magazine and seeking out the most hopeful stories, the most wonderful and compassionate people.

 At times I feel that I am living a good life. But visitors might think otherwise when they note my lack of a television, dishwasher, second bathroom, and other fundamentals of the American Dream.

 So much of our striving, individually and as a country, is aimed at achieving that elusive dream. Television, pop-up ads on the Internet, and magazines keep asking: Have you got it all? Are you having fun yet?

 According to a radio ad I heard recently, if you own a house large enough that your spouse might get lost coming to breakfast in the morning, then you can say you've arrived.

 Whether or not it ever represented the good life, this version of the American Dream is moving out of reach for large numbers of Americans, as well-paying jobs disappear and personal debt reaches record levels (see page 16). Suburbia—that icon of the American Dream—is linked to obesity, depression, isolation, and an undermining of the vibrancy of urban life. Many Americans, especially people of color, never really had a shot at that American dream, and the ecological systems of the planet are being strained by its demands.

Yet the passing of the America Dream may not be too great a loss. As you might suspect when you think about the sources of your own deep pleasures, people actually find happiness in close relationships, a rich spiritual life, and activities that engage us, according to the research cited by social psychologist David Myers. Those expensive, resource-gobbling habits that turn us into passive consumers are not actually sources of happiness, he claims (see Myers

).

 

 In this issue of YES!, you'll meet some people who are creating their own paths to a good life: Portlanders who are “repairing” street corners, transforming them into community spaces (Silha); students who are choosing service over partying for their spring breaks (Brun/Edstrom); worker-owners of a cheese shop who are redefining workplace culture (Cheese Board Collective); and a woman who lives with and for the wilderness (Smith

).

 

Can the quest for the good life be a completely private matter? Contributing editor Jon Rowe says we need vibrant and accessible “commons” in order to live the good life. Among these commons are wilderness; quiet; safe, commercial-free spaces for children; the sharing of knowledge that spurs innovation; and spaces for community and political discourse (see Rowe).

Seems obvious, yet our national policies promote economic growth, often at the expense of the commons, whether or not those growth policies result in job flight or the depletion of the Earth's capacity to sustain life.

The good news is that there do seem to be ways we could choose to live that both bring happiness and require far less of the Earth. Myers' article suggests that I'm not so unusual in finding the good life in a hand-paddled canoe, the book read aloud, and good work. There are as many variations on the good life as there are people, but it appears that giving up on the American Dream does not mean giving up on happiness.

Times of big transitions are nonetheless frightening. In order to reach for the next trapeze, we will have to find the courage to let go of the old trapeze. In an interview with me, author Frances Moore Lappé

shares her experiences during times of major changes in her own life. These are times when fear doesn't mean we should pull back, she says. These are times for courage, fearlessness, even a bit of recklessness in our quest for a way of life that can sustain the planet and bring us joy.

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