Class / Culture / Internet / Religion

Lifehacking and the American Dream

Lifehacking is super popular, but studies suggest that it’s largely an American phenomenon. Lifehacking is not new. It actually has a long history of different iterations before hackers, or the idea of hacking, even existed. To understand the popularity of lifehacking, we must first understand the Protestant work ethic.

Puritan Baggage

puritans farming

The Protestant work ethic (or Puritan work ethic) is a theological, sociological, economic, and historical concept which encourages hard work and diligence with the promise of religious salvation. The desire to self-improve in all aspects of our life—the idea that we can achieve the best versions of ourselves, and overcome individual hardship through positivity and self-determination—is deeply ingrained in Americans because it is deeply ingrained within the Protestant tradition. Academically, it’s common to draw a direct line from the Puritans that founded the colonies to Americans in the present day. Even if you don’t identify as religious, chances are you are culturally Christian. America has become far less puritanical since the early 1600s, but we still suffer from what remains, like our 60 hour work weeks, and our weird relationship with sex. So it’s really interesting to see how the Protestant work ethic has shifted and molded into American attitudes over hundreds of years.

The American Dream

the draper family

The California gold rush was met with an influx of immigrants and frontiersmen looking for instant success, and just like that the American Dream spread west. Historian, H.W. Brands notes the following:

“The old American Dream … was the dream of the Puritans, of Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Poor Richard’… of men and women content to accumulate their modest fortunes a little at a time, year by year by year. The new dream was the dream of instant wealth, won in a twinkling by audacity and good luck. [This] golden dream … became a prominent part of the American psyche only after Sutter’s Mill.”

Over time, the two dreams (the old dream and the new dream) conflated until America adopted the idea of salvation and advertised itself as a land of opportunity. It asserted that anything was possible through the upward mobility achieved from hard work, and a little bit of luck—that essentially, you could “make it.” Stories from how someone’s uneducated immigrant grandfather worked his way to success were common. In a less traditionally Puritan country, salvation is American freedom, and American freedom within a capitalist society is, by and large, economic freedom. Economic freedom in a capitalist society that has a long history of eating its people, is greater success, faster.

Enter Self-improvement Culture

4 self-help titles "Much Ado About Loving," "Emotional Equations" "Tiny Buddha" and "The Willpower Instinct."

Do you ever get frustrated? Feel like you’re in a rut? Trouble making money? Trouble meeting women? Trouble making friends? Afraid your colleagues look down on you? Can’t stop eating that amazing Trader Joe’s granola? Obviously, the answer to these universal problems is not to look outward, but to look inward!

Culturally speaking, self-help and self-improvement culture is very broad. It encompasses everything from diet plans, to get-rich-quick schemes, to more subtle approaches like “winning friends and influencing people,” to pickup artistry, to untapping human potential through seminars that promise extreme emotional breakthroughs, higher understanding and self-awareness, and becoming a greater service to the world. But culturally speaking, it is also strikingly American, with self-help being an $11 billion a year industry in the United States. Just as the American Dream is deeply entrenched in the Puritan tradition, self-improvement is deeply entrenched in the American Dream, and even if you feel jaded about its achievability, the dream is seductive.

Of all the people who successfully change their behavior, 75% have done so on their own or without any treatment, and yet the self-help industry exists without regulation and without scientific research. So for an industry so expensive, it helps to look at why it thrives in the US. In most of these self-help and self-improvement organizations, there is little financial transparency, and most organizations are privately-owned companies. 80% of self help customers are repeat customers, and others have pointed out that the existence of self-help increases the demand for it. People who participate in it think they need it. The more others tell you your life sucks, the more you’re going to think it sucks. The more people tell you that you can easily make it better, the more you want it to be better. Christopher Buckley in his book God is My Broker asserts: “The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one.”

The industry claims to remedy the dissatisfaction or failures of people living in a society where that dream is the aspiration. The promise of salvation is a steroid to capitalism in such a way that capitalism hijacks the idea of salvation to make self-improvement a thriving business. What is already good at making money becomes extra good at it when you’re promised something so abstract as a way out of the rut that is your life. By the way, did I mention that you are in a rut?

Lifehacking and Empowerment

The lifehack of wearing a sweatshirt backwards and putting greasy-ass popcorn in the hood part of your sweatshirt so you can eat it out of a cloth basket that you are essentially wearing around your neck....

Like its predecessors, lifehacking is really just the latest extension of self-help and self-improvement, which is an extension of all the greater and grander ideas before it. It’s self-help for younger generations of people who feel jaded by the unequal ratio of work input to success output. Younger people are less likely to buy cars, put down payments on homes, or start families, all because they were once told they would be able to do these things but have not found themselves in a financial situation to do them. There are few people more suspicious of capitalism and the American work force than young buyers today.

Ah, how our standards have fallen. We went from eternal salvation, to economic mobility and opportunity, to transformation of the self, to eating popcorn out of a hoodie. How did this happen? People are not interested in looking inward when it’s becoming clearer and clearer that so much of the problems we face are outward, what with NSA surveillance, the terrible job market, the state of banking, housing, loans—the odds are forever stacked against us. In addition to economic helplessness, young people often feel politically helpless.

A lifehack is clever. It’s a shortcut. It requires little effort. It doesn’t promise total mind/body/bank account transformation, but what it does promise exceeds our expectations from the beginning. And it’s a solution to the everyday problems that we actually do have control over. No wonder they catch on so well. But we should be suspicious of lifehacking too. Because most lifehacks are stupid. Lifehacking is all about using ingenuity to make your life easier and simpler, though when they do work, some even suggest that they can even be harmful and make life more complicated.

Lifehacking is the last pathetic vestige of the American Dream. As our values and our outlooks change, we adjust our expectations accordingly. Young people are skeptical of the American Dream and the old way of living, and lifehacking is evidence of it. Not only do we feel dissatisfied, but we aren’t even participating in the rituals of the dream. It’s not that younger generations are special, or that we’re finally “waking up.” It’s just that the decline has been going on for so long. We’re now at the point where we actually feel empowered when organizing our charging cables with tiny bread clips. The dream is dying a slow, buttery, popcorn flavored death, and who knows what our aspirations will be then.


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