The 6 Fraudulent Schemes We Mistake as Dreams

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The Great American Dream – anyone can rise up from poverty to become rich and beautiful.

These dreams come from our culture – work hard, get a great education, work even harder, make lots of money, become attractive, marry a beautiful spouse, have kids, retire in a beach house.

Generally, our culture is good. It motivates and humanizes. It’s what says, “having an affair is wrong” when we come too close to losing control. It’s what says, “give back to your community” when we get too greedy.

But in the spirit of cohesion, patriotism, and lazy thinking, we often forget that culture is a work in progress, full of many mistakes.

Gays are gross? Yes, let’s kill 27 of them! Introverts are weak? Yes, let’s become extroverts! Muslims hate freedom? Yes, let’s spend $1 trillion and 3,542 American lives to kill over 100,000 Iraqis! Iraqis aren’t human, so who cares!

I believe the American Dream is one of those cultural mistakes, nothing more than a convincing scheme.

Despite the cries of Occupy Wallstreet, it’s still possible to rise up from poverty to become rich and beautiful. But I think the reason that most people are too lazy to achieve that dream isn’t because they lack ambition, but because it just isn’t worth the effort.

Below I look at six dreams which I believe all of us have held at some point in our life, but which I believe deserve a second appraisal. Dreams which we are told will make us fulfilled and happy, but which may actually do very little besides use up our time.

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Money often costs too much.                           -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Money buys happiness and increases life satisfaction. Just take a look at the graph below – as income increases, so does happiness.1

Ah my apologies, that’s the wrong graph. I forgot the first rule of statistics: mislead, mislead, mislead.

That’s better – now we see a clear relationship. More money = more happiness.

The average person with a family income of $60,000 is about 20% happier than someone with a family income of $15,000.

How can the difference be so small? So small that I had to manipulate the graph? The poor are more resilient than we think. The rich are too ambitious and overworked.

In my previous life as a wall street consultant, the high pay came with long hours and high stress. I was working 60 hours a week.

It’s the same for all high-paying jobs. Lawyer, doctor, investment banker, or consultant – if you’re getting paid above average, you’re also working longer than average.

Was the extra 20 hours of work each week worth a 20% increase in life satisfaction? No.

A five minutes a day, 30 minutes a week gratitude journal could have done the same. More even.

Let’s get geeky.

When evaluating a decision, estimate the potential benefit and the potential cost. If the benefit is high and the cost low, great. If it’s the other way around, stay away.

In everyday life, this is called common sense.  In the world of business, this calculation is called return on investment (ROI).

A high paying job will cost about 20 extra hours each week in additional work and stress. Its potential reward is about a 20% increase in life satisfaction and happiness.

A gratitude journal will cost about 30 minutes each week. Its potential reward is a 10 to 20% increase in life satisfaction and happiness – let’s say 15% for this calculation.

In other words, the ROI of a gratitude journal is 30 times the ROI of a high paying job.

In other words, you should quit your stressful job and start spending some more time being grateful. Or don’t quit. It’s just 30 minutes a week.

Takeaway: Materialism is inefficient.

Click below to read about another scheme.


There are no universal truths – just averages. You may be the exception that finds bliss from becoming rich or moving to a California beach. I hope you are – because those goals are easy compared to the true paths to happiness, which require changing our personality.

But as much as I hope and as much as you hope, you’re unlikely to be that exception. So remember – just because society encourages you to be excited about something, just because you listened and now feel excited, doesn’t make that something a good idea.

People are exposed to many messages that encourage them to believe that a change of weight, scent, hair color (or coverage), car, clothes, or many other aspects will produce a marked improvement in their happiness. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.                           -Daniel Kahneman, founder of Behavioral Economics

Culture is humanizing. Culture is also often stupid.

Think I’m wrong about one of these ideas? Did I miss a happiness scheme? Tell me with a comment below!

References (17)

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