American Restlessness

“They were all kinds of men—literate men and ignorant men, clean men and dirty men—but all of them had restlessness in common.”

John Steinbeck. East of Eden

Restlessness and discontentment seem to be very American attributes. Many people came to America in the days of British Colonialism in hopes for something different than their life before. They risked death coming to a hostile, unknown, and extremely distant land for that. This restlessness germinated itself into American culture from the beginning. Succeeding generation’s discontentment with their lives would lead to some of the most rapid mass migrations in human history. Manifest Destiny had a lot of cultural baggage attached to it, but it was also a continuation of the nearly unbridled expansion that had already been going on for over a century. What was considered the frontier in America was constantly shifting westward as settlers always assumed that better land and prospects were just beyond that next hill. Americans could not wait for the gears of government to settle new lands so they did it themselves, often at the ill-fortune of both settlers and Natives.

“It’s like getting up. I don’t want to get up and I don’t want to stay down. I don’t want to stay here and I don’t want to go away.”

“You make me itch,” said Charles.

“Think about it, Charles. You like it here?


“And you want to stay here all your life?”


“Jesus, I wish I had it that easy. What do you suppose is the matter with me?”

John Steinbeck. East of Eden.

This restless nature did not end when America reached from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. It still manifests itself today in the minds of Americans. It has helped drive America to become the largest economy in the world and discover new scientific breakthroughs. It also drove America to become a country that serves the interest of a few at the expense of the many. As Ronald Wright put it, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Americans like to believe that once they work hard enough or that golden opportunity presents itself that they will be part of that top economic tier and all their dreams will be fulfilled. Of course, for the vast majority of people, this will never happen.

This restlessness is moving away from attempted economic antidotes. Younger generations are feeling increasingly exploited by crony capitalism. Perhaps this is why Americans have been on a downward trend for happiness for the last few years (Happiness Report). Will this trend stick or will the younger generations “buy-in” to the system as the baby boomers continue to move out? What effect will this have on our culture, economy, and way of life? It is probably too early to tell.



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