Little Mermaid Materialism

403: The American Dream® Now Looks Different Than You Remember

Over the past several years, The Atlantic, CNBC, CNN, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Forbes, Fortune, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, NBC, Psychology Today, The Telegraph, and Time have all reported on a growing trend in personal finance. Those of us in western culture, especially millennials, are shifting more and more of our discretionary income to experiences instead of durable goods like cars, boats, and the stereo speakers in Back to the Future and The Italian Job.

The consensus seems to be that culture is maturing, growing wiser.

These financial experts are heralding the migration from the conspicuous consumption of the American Dream®. It’s as if the Little Mermaid generation is looking around their trove and singing,

Look at this stuff, isn’t it neat?
Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?
Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl,
The girl who has everything?
Look at this trove, treasures untold.
How many wonders can one cavern hold?
Lookin’ around here you’d think,
“Sure, she’s got everything.”

I’ve got gadgets and gizmos aplenty.
I’ve got whooz-its and whatz-its galore.
You want thingamabobs?
I got twenty.
But who cares?
No big deal.
I want more.

Little Mermaid Generation

But we’re not free of materialism, at least not entirely.

Keeping up with the Jones is still very much alive. In fact, it’s probably a more intense competition than in any time in human history. Instead of our siblings and neighbors and workmates, we’re competing with the world. Facebook, Instagram, and even Pinterest have fueled a comparison game that’s impossible to win. All you need to play is an entry-level smartphone.

To enhance the game, we have access to far more experiences available to us than ever. Every day tourists can helicopter onto glaciers, drive one-man submarines in the Caribbean, and bounce in rafts down raging rivers. Strapped to a professional, we can paraglide, hang glide, and HALO skydive. Tourists by the busload stand in queue lines to commercially jump off buildings or bungee jump into canyons.

You can find a festival for everything. You can join thousands of strangers to throw oranges in Italy, throw tomatoes in Spain, and throw flour in Greece. Any paying customer can live with indigenous tribes for a night, watch the aurora borealis from thermal hot springs, or sail all the way around the world on a container ship. In just my little Blue Ridge Mountains city, I attended a dinner party with expats who brought food samples from 16 nations. You can unite with other nerds at Comic-Con, other mascots at Anthrocon, and other merfolk at Mer Fest. When the endless list of music festivals isn’t enough, you’re welcome at Burning Man. The lists of both pilgrimages and their underlying inspirations grow every year.

If you want to skip the tourist line, you can go the social justice route, racking up points in underdeveloped countries—redeeming them on the occasions when you get back to WiFi. Both religious tourism and secular volunteering, while much more demanding, offer altruistic alibis and enviable blog posts.

Not only have the available options propagated exponentially, but we all have instant access to them online. Gone are the monthly dispatches from National Geographic with a handful of stories from a few far-flung Shangri-Las. I’ve scrolled through Bali, Iceland, Antarctica, and British Columbia in fewer than 30 seconds—while in the restroom. I once initiated an Instagram fast, after I noticed myself speed scrolling past incredible landscapes because they weren’t as photogenic as the ones that got my like tap. #gluttony

It’s true that any of us who’ve seen the basements of the Greatest Generation, the garages of Baby Boomers, or the storage units of Gen Xers want less physical stuff anchoring us. We’re still hoarders, though. Silicon Valley servers are jam-packed with our digital boxes. Few of us do spring cleanings of our online storehouses because those boxes can be quickly re-harvested for affirmation. All it takes is to resurrect their display is a Time Hop share. Just a comment on one item is all it takes to bring a game piece back into the Newsfeed.

The human soul craves significance, and too often we seek for that in comparison. I have. I do. I can almost always find someone not doing as much with their life as I am. Unfortunately, I can just as easily find someone doing “it” better than I do—or ever could do.

So, what’s the cure?

How do we inoculate ourselves from the cancer? How do we shut off the game?

You let others win. Then you celebrate those wins. You congratulate them in the comments section under their amazing vacation photos. You link to their content on your platform. When you’re at that dinner party or brunch, you say, “That sounds awesome! What was the best part?” instead of “That reminds me of when I was in [fill in the blank].” You introduce them to others and brag on them.

Tell a trusted friend, “I’m feeling jealous right now” and have them pray over you. If you’re not the religious type, grab a therapist for an hour or two. Tell them you want to figure out who your competitors are in life and where that game started. I’ve even got friends who’ve dared me not to post online about an adventure. I can tell you from experience that it can be done. (The difficulty of that was brutal.)

Turn off notifications on your phone. If that doesn’t work, delete the apps from your phone. Effectively, the goal is to alter your Pavlovian responses. This will change your dopamine reward system and help you create new neural pathways out of addiction.

Your friendships and other relationships will change. As they do, you’ll find more meaningful, uncompetitive conversations. When you’re chasing your experiential dreams, you’ll be able to sit in the moment longer before you grab your phone or camera. You’ll probably text a few understanding friends instead of hitting the Post button.

You’ll find what Ariel couldn’t store in her grotto: a life well lived.

Stock image purchased from

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