The term “American dream” is used in many ways, but it essentially is an idea that suggests that anyone in the US can succeed through hard work and has the potential to lead a happy, successful life. Many people have expanded upon or refined the definition to include things such as freedom, fulfillment and meaningful relationships. Someone who manages to achieve his or her version of the American dream is often said to be “living the dream.” This concept has been subject to criticism, because some people believe that the structure of society in the US prevents such an idealistic goal for everyone. Critics often point to examples of inequality rooted in class, race, religion and ethnicity that suggest that the American dream is not attainable for everyone.
The idea of an American dream is older than the US, dating to the 1600s, when people began to have all sorts of hopes and aspirations for what was a new and largely unexplored continent to European immigrants. Many of these dreams focused on owning land and establishing a prosperous business that — theoretically, at least — would increase one's happiness. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, authors often wrote about the idealistic American dream, somewhat codifying the concept and entrenching it in American society.
The dream for Americans is often portrayed as being perfectly average. For example, some people might say that it is being married, having two children and living in a three-bedroom home with a white picket fence. Rather than being based on great wealth or success, this version of the dream might be based more on avoiding things such as poverty and loneliness.
Improving Upon the Past
Some people say that the American dream represents the desire to live a better life than the previous generation did — and that there is a legitimate opportunity for this to happen. The desire among many parents is for their children to lead happy lives. This is especially true among immigrants, because many of them fled extremely difficult circumstances in their native countries.
The idealistic vision of the American dream often disregards discrimination based on a person's race, religion, gender and national origin, which might inhibit his or her ability to achieve specific goals. Critics also point out that many versions of the dream equate prosperity with happiness, and that happiness is possible without wealth or even in poverty. To some people, the American dream might be more about personal fulfillment than about economic success or owning property.