You Didn’t Build That: Why Remembering Your Good Fortune Can be Good for You and Others

Understanding the Factors that Shape Your Life and the Your American Dream Score

Photo by Balazs Gardi

Photo by Balazs Gardi

What’s Your American Dream Score? Take the quiz. Share your score and story.

Editor’s Note:

Paul Piff is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, where he also directs the Morality, Emotion, and Social Hierarchy lab. He studies the origins of human kindness and how inequality impacts individuals and groups.

Angela Robinson is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on the psychological causes and consequences of social stratification.

We’re all so familiar with this kind of story it has become a comedic punch line: “Back in my day, I walked fifteen miles to school in the snow! Barefoot! Uphill! Both ways!” Hearing this, you might roll your eyes and comment on the impossibility of the scenario. But the storyteller is communicating something that many of us have felt at one time or another: that we have experienced unusual difficulties in our lives, persisting despite innumerable odds stacked against us.

When people tell such stories, they are not simply showing off by emphasizing their hardships and downplaying their advantages. Nor are they just looking for sympathy. Research suggests that it may actually be due to a quirk of the human mind: It is easier for people to remember the challenges and obstacles they have faced than the advantages and help they have received. We remember hardships because we spend more time working to overcome them. Easy tasks are quickly conquered, their ease soon forgotten.

These blind spots are common in the stories we tell about ourselves, and yet we perceive other people through a different lens—typically viewing others as crafting their own destinies, without regard for their external circumstances, hardships, or challenges. When something bad happens to someone, or when someone’s life takes a turn for the worse, we often blame the person and not the circumstances that may have led him or her there. In our research, we find that people who experience more advantages in their own lives are even less likely to recognize how external factors––and not just personal efforts––shape other people’s lives.

How can the Your American Dream Score calculator address these biases? By helping people recognize and acknowledge their own advantages alongside the factors that they themselves have worked for, like their education and professional success. Many Americans tend to believe that their own behaviors—particularly personal effort and hard work—are the most crucial components underlying their success. But people’s lives have also been shaped by factors outside their control––things like the state of the economy, their race and gender, a stable home life, the presence of loving parents and mentors. Your results might also highlight certain advantages that are more difficult to recognize, such as your access to quality public schools, or the luck of a chance encounter with someone who made a big difference in your life. The results bring into focus some easy-to-overlook but significant advantages that you did not personally control but that have helped get you to where you are.

Recognizing your unearned advantages may also encourage you to reflect on other people’s undeserved disadvantages­­­­––their uncontrollable hardships. When people acknowledge that hard work and effort are not the only determinants of success, they more readily acknowledge that discrimination and unequal circumstances can make it difficult for some to get a fair shot. Research out of our own lab is finding that recognizing other people’s unearned disadvantages can help us see that other people may not always get what they deserve—that sometimes others work hard, yet still fall on hard times. Recognizing others’ disadvantages can trigger greater understanding, empathy, and willingness to help.

Increasing awareness of the uncontrollable, hidden factors that shape others’ lives might also address one of society’s biggest problems: inequality. By acknowledging our unearned advantages, we can overcome our very own biases and recognize that personal efforts and hard work are just a small part of the bigger picture, that circumstances and help from others have contributed a great deal to our own success, that we alone “didn’t build that.” Acknowledging oneself as a small part of a bigger whole is one way to cultivate the gratitude and compassion that motivate understanding, generosity, and equality, and the Your American Dream Score calculator can help us get started.



Your American Dream Score is an initiative of Moving Up, an online platform designed to create a new conversation about what it takes to get ahead in America.  Both were created by Bob McKinnon, author and founder of GALEWiLL, an organization that designs social change programs. Digital design for the tool was done by Sol Design.

Your American Dream Score asks respondents to answer 13 questions about their life. Each question represents a factor that research shows correlates to social mobility and/or happiness in life. Similarly, all of the options within each question are also based on specific research related to mobility or positive life outcomes.  Once completed they receive a composite score and a list of factors working for and against them.  The higher your score, the more you had to overcome.  The lower the score, the more you had working in your favor. People are also given a link to a song that symbolizes their journey (i.e. gratitude, struggle, pride). With score in hand, people are then encouraged to take an action —  including sharing it with others, thanking those that helped them get ahead, diving deeper into each factor and connecting them with organizations that help people move up in life.

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