As traditional stories that help define the norms of a particular society, myths serve an important cultural role. This is especially true in the United States, a society whose national identity is heavily steeped in mythologies that have over time been constructed to serve a certain purpose. Besides revealing key insights into our values and character, myths directly shape how Americans think and act, making them essential components of our individual and collective psychology.
The myths that have bound us as a people have been remarkably consistent as far back as the nation’s beginnings. Some are rooted in the revolutionary vision of the Founding Fathers, in fact, while others were readily apparent to Tocqueville when he made his cross-country road trip in the 1830s. I argue that there have been 10 such myths that have guided and continue to guide how Americans perceive the world and influence our everyday lives. These are listed below, in no particular order.
1. The Pursuit of Happiness
It’s right there in our Declaration of Independence. The pursuit of happiness—a phrase penned by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence—has served as a primary ambition for many Americans in the nation’s history, especially during the past century. Ask any American what he or she wants most in life and the majority will say to be happy, in fact, a clear sign that the “subjective state of emotional wellbeing” is central to who we are as a people.
Americans’ ambitious, perhaps even desperate search for happiness has been a remarkably democratic one. No segment of the population has been excluded, with studies showing time and time again that social and economic divisions such as income, education, intelligence, and religion matter little in determining one’s level of happiness or the desire to increase it.
2. The Land of the Free
Americans’ libertarian streak and resistance against an overly powerful government can, of course, be traced back to the nation’s very beginnings. “Americans love to hate government,” John B. Judis stated in the New Republic in 2009 after assessing the long history of anti-statism in the country.
This wariness of being ruled formed the foundation for the nation being known all over the world as the “land of the free.” Citizens of the United States rely on government but are famously distrustful about allowing it to overstep its bounds, a national trait that Judis felt was a “pattern of belief [that] is deeply rooted in the American psyche.”
3. The Promise of Tomorrow
“You’re always a day away,” Annie sang in “Tomorrow” from the titular Broadway show, a reminder that Americans have consistently had a deep faith in the possibilities of the future. The firm belief that the sun will soon come out, even if it is the cloudiest of days, has guided the American people through some of their darkest periods of history. Optimism and hopefulness have served as a key marker of our national identity, with foreigners often amazed at how we are somehow able to look on the bright side of things even in the toughest of circumstances.
4. The American Dream
Rather than just a powerful philosophy or ideology, the American Dream—“a vision of a better, deeper, richer life for every individual, regardless of the position in society which he or she may occupy by the accident of birth,” as James Truslow Adams defined the phrase in his 1931 book, The Epic of America—is thoroughly woven into the fabric of everyday life. It plays a vital, active role in who we are, what we do, and why we do it.
No other idea or mythology—even religion, I believe—has as much influence on our individual and collective lives, with the American Dream one of the precious few things in this country that we all share. You name it—economics, politics, law, work, business, education—and the American Dream is there, the nation at some level a marketplace of competing interpretations and visions of what it means and should mean.
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5. The American Way of Life
Since the term was popularized in the 1930s, the American Way of Life—a belief or set of beliefs that assign certain attitudes and/or behaviors related to our national character—has served as another guiding mythology or ethos of the United States. Because it is simply an idea open to interpretation and is constantly mutating, it is impossible to say with certainty what the American Way is and what it is not. The American Way has over the years thus represented many things to many people, making it a useful device for anyone wishing to promote a particular agenda that serves his or her interests.
The American Way is essentially whatever each of us wants it to be, a wonderful thing that does justice to the libertarian streak embedded in our national charter. While the term has been attached to everything from farming to baseball to barbecue, a consumerist lifestyle supported by a system based on free enterprise has served as its ideological backbone.
6. The Myth of Equality
Despite the obvious realities of class and race, Americans have long hesitated to assign social and economic position, something that stems from the Founding Fathers’ radical notion that “all men are created equal.” Because the United States was founded on the principles of democracy and equality, it makes perfect sense that “average” Americans are viewed as most symbolic of what makes this country great and different from others.
Our mythology of the “Everyman” is an idea that is central to our national identity, and one that is unique in the world. While most other countries, past and present, are or were structured around the existence of an upper (or ruling) and a lower (or working) class, in other words, the United States has been viewed as a place dedicated to the concept of an equal society.
7. The Fountain of Youth
We now take our youth-oriented culture as a given, but this was not always the case. From the 17th through the early 19th centuries in America, people who lived a long life were venerated, their advanced age seen as divinely ordained. This began to change soon after the American Revolution, however, as the first Americans to be born in the new country distinguished themselves from those who had immigrated to the colonies.
Early 19th-century Americans did not exalt old people as their parents and grandparents had, a major shift in the social dynamics of age. Through the 19th century, older Americans continued to lose social status as the “cult of youth” gained traction, and their “demotion” became institutionalized in the 20th century by a number of social, economic, and political powerful forces.
8. The Triumph of the Self
Almost half a century after the “Me Generation” made headlines with its focus on the self, individualism is well on the way to becoming one of the central themes of the 21st century. Baby boomers did indeed look out for #1 in the hedonistic, therapeutic 1970s, but now individualism—acting in one’s own interests versus those of an organized group or government—is a key theme across all demographic divisions.
It’s important to remember that from a historical view, the idea and practice of individualism is a radical concept. The Enlightenment ideals of the 18th century were in opposition to the all-encompassing power of church and state that had endured for a millennium and laid the seeds for the continual ascent of individualism over the past few hundred years.
9. The Cult of Celebrity
“In the future,” Andy Warhol prophesized in 1968, “everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Warhol was really talking about Americans’ obsession with fame, something he knew more than a little about. The artist took the nation’s fascination with celebrity to an entirely new level; today, we are entirely used to the idea that one can be famous just because one is famous.
10. The Self-Made Man
John Swansburg of Slate called it “America’s most pliable, pernicious, and irrepressible myth” in 2014, and I’m not going to disagree. The self-made man—a phrase coined in 1832 by Senator Henry Clay when describing businesspeople whose success came from their own abilities rather than from external circumstances—does indeed retain iconic status in the nation’s history.
A 2009 survey by the Pew Economic Mobility Project found that 39 percent of respondents said they believed it was “common” for people born into poverty to become rich, and 71 percent said that personal traits such as hard work and drive, versus the hand we are dealt at birth, are the major reasons for an individual’s success.