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How We (as Americans) Define Success

Success in AmericaIndividual hopes and dreams comprise the collective notion of the American dream. It’s the idea that by working hard everyone has the potential to succeed and generally includes a list of goals. During the last century, the definition of the American dream would have included home ownership, secure employment, a car and a happy family. No one knows why it began to expand, but it now includes less tangible ideals like hope, inspiration, freedom and personal fulfillment and is no longer static but changes over time.

An independent report commissioned by American Express of its card members shines a light on how Americans define success and fulfillment. The ‘Life Twist’ Study exposes the non-linear road, the twists and turns of events that often lead to achieving the American dream. Americans are reexamining their definition of success and happiness through a lens that is less about material wealth and more about satisfaction and future comfort. The Life Twist study shows that money is less of a factor in judging success, not only for themselves but when judging the success of others. Less than a third of those surveyed determined success as financial worth.

How We Define Success

Americans are generally optimistic about their lives with nearly three-fifths of those surveyed considering themselves a success and 94% of those are open to change. Of all those surveyed, attributes that contribute to their success include finding time for what’s important, having a good relationship and living a balanced life between work and play. Just as important but to a lesser degree, as reported in the survey, are embracing new experiences, having children and volunteering to give back to the community. Near the bottom of that list of 22 factors, coming in at the 20th slot, is 27% of people who thought having a lot of money contributed to their success.

The top attribute for personal success doesn’t come as a surprise – health (85%) – followed by satisfactory employment, free time to pursue hobbies, continuing education and experiences and making a difference in the life of others. Once again, being wealthy is down the list with only a third of respondents seeing money as an important contributor. According to the study, more than two-thirds (72%) of respondents would rather spend money on experiences than things.

The “Life Twist” study found that people fall into one of four distinct groups.

  1. Life Twisters – A majority of respondents (52%) who have a plan for their future but are open-minded about veering off that path as life changes.
  2. Passivists – One quarter of the population lack a life plan, are more passive and generally roll with the punches.
  3. Traditionalists – Thirteen percent of those surveyed have a specific plan that they plan to stick to.
  4. Reinventionists – Nearly 10 percent look for new experiences and challenges to reinvent and improve their lives.

A Break from Tradition

The MetLife Study of the American Dream conducted at the end of 2011 confirms much of the American Express study finding that the American dream is less conventional than in the past with more Americans personalizing and making it up as they go along. In this study, a college education was no longer a factor for 65% of those polled and nearly three quarters of the respondents reported already having all that they need. They also reported that while most Americans acknowledge the importance of having a safety net, building one has proven to be extremely difficult. Living paycheck-to-paycheck was the top issue standing in the way of saving for the future.

The old paradigm for a successful life followed a well-traveled road with a common starting point and a straight path to success. Today, the journey is more sporadic and may include twists and turns. But as is often the case, it’s not so much about the destination as the journey and the companionship along the way. Change is to be expected and embraced as goals evolve over the course of a lifetime.

*Research for the AMEX Life Twist Study was completed online among a random sample of 2,184 US adults 18+ (conducted by Research Now) between April 3 and 12, 2013. Data analysis for the study was conducted by The Futures Company. The Life Twist Study Foreword authored by The Futures Company, an award-winning, global strategic insight and innovation consultancy that tracks American attitudes and values, including their definitions of success and fulfillment.

*The MetLife study was conducted by Penn Shoen Berland in partnership with Strategy First Partners. From September 26th to October 10th 2011, 2,420 online surveys were completed among the general population as part of the 2011 MetLife Study of the American Dream. This is the fifth annual edition of the Study.

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