Author: Pew Research Center
Economic, religious and political divides shape where Americans find meaning - but family, career and friendship emerge as common themes.
What makes life meaningful? Answering such a big question might be challenging for many people. Even among researchers, there is little consensus about the best way to measure what brings human beings satisfaction and fulfillment. Traditional survey questions – with a prespecified set of response options – may not capture important sources of meaning.
To tackle this topic, Pew Research Center conducted two separate surveys in late 2017. The first included an open-ended question asking Americans to describe in their own words what makes their lives feel meaningful, fulfilling or satisfying. This approach gives respondents an opportunity to describe the myriad things they find meaningful, from careers, faith and family, to hobbies, pets, travel, music and being outdoors.
The second survey included a set of closed-ended (also known as forced-choice) questions asking Americans to rate how much meaning and fulfillment they draw from each of 15 possible sources identified by the research team. It also included a question asking which of these sources gives respondents the most meaning and fulfillment. This approach offers a limited series of options but provides a measure of the relative importance Americans place on various sources of meaning in their lives.
Across both surveys, the most popular answer is clear and consistent: Americans are most likely to mention family when asked what makes life meaningful in the open-ended question, and they are most likely to report that they find “a great deal” of meaning in spending time with family in the closed-ended question.
But after family, Americans mention a plethora of sources (in the open-ended question) from which they derive meaning and satisfaction: One-third bring up their career or job, nearly a quarter mention finances or money, and one-in-five cite their religious faith, friendships, or various hobbies and activities. Additional topics that are commonly mentioned include being in good health, living in a nice place, creative activities and learning or education. Many other topics also arose in the open-ended question, such as doing good and belonging to a group or community, but these were not as common.
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