The following expresses considerable research by the Pew Research Center in what makes for a meaningful life in 17 various advanced economies. Based on the prevailing worldview. Greatly missing what is at the heart of a meaningful life. Granted, some of the things stated below do matter, certainly, but it is predicated on the prevailing worldview. Not people possessing and living their lives with a Biblical worldview. I won’t even write “Christian worldview” at this point since what passes for Christianity today has become so watered down, polluted, and corrupted from true Biblical Bible- preaching, Bible-teaching, Bible-believing true Christianity.
Monday, November 22nd, 2021
ACP — A Crooked Path
What Makes Life Meaningful? Views From 17 Advanced Economies
Family is preeminent for most publics but work, material
well-being and health also play a key role
November 18, 2021
Reprinted from Pew Research Center
What do people value in life? How much of what gives people satisfaction in their lives is fundamental and shared across cultures, and how much is unique to a given society? To understand these and other issues, Pew Research Center posed an open-ended question about the meaning of life to nearly 19,000 adults across 17 advanced economies.
From analyzing people’s answers, it is clear that one source of meaning is predominant: family. In 14 of the 17 advanced economies surveyed, more mention their family as a source of meaning in their lives than any other factor. Highlighting their relationships with parents, siblings, children and grandchildren, people frequently mention quality time spent with their kinfolk, the pride they get from the accomplishments of their relatives and even the desire to live a life that leaves an improved world for their offspring. In Australia, New Zealand, Greece and the United States, around half or more say their family is something that makes their lives fulfilling.
“The most important thing for me is work. I think it is very important to build my career, to build my life, so that I’m doing better and better. And the way to do that is to take a lot of personal responsibility and work hard.” –Man, 25, Netherlands
Publics are also largely united in the relative emphasis placed on careers and occupations. Jobs are one of the top three sources of meaning for people in most places surveyed. Still, the emphasis placed on them can vary widely, from a high of 43% in Italy to a low of 6% in South Korea. And although in Italy as many cite their occupation as cite their family as a source of meaning, in places like the U.S., only around a third as many cite their careers. While some specifically describe their careers and what is meaningful about them – e.g., a cybersecurity worker who enjoys seeing his contributions in practice or a teacher who enjoys helping to inform children about history – others more generically mention enjoying their work or their colleagues or feeling intellectually challenged.
Many also highlight the importance of having one’s basic financial needs met – or even having some level of luxury – in order to lead a meaningful life. In nine of the 17 publics surveyed, material well-being is one of the top three factors people cited and, in most places, around one-in-five or more mention it. In South Korea, it even emerges as the top source of meaning. Still, the lifestyle elements respondents cite run the gamut from “food on the table” and “a roof over my head” to “a decent income to support my family” and “no debt” to “enough money” to enjoy riding motorcycles or other activities like travel.
“Being comfortable and stable with basic needs (food, shelter, health care and public education for my child) and a little extra (maybe going out to dinner or a vacation).” –Woman, 51, U.S.
Health, too, is relatively top of mind, coming up as one of the top three sources of meaning for people in around a third of the places surveyed. Still, the relative emphasis on health can vary widely, from 48% who mention it in Spain – making it the top source of meaning for Spaniards – to only 6% who say the same in Taiwan. For some, specific health problems cause them to value their health – such as one American woman who noted, “God gave me life, He pulled me through cancer. Life is precious and we only have one chance at it.” Others more generally note health as a prerequisite for other sources of meaning, emphasizing “being healthy” or “still breathing” as part of a list of things they value. Exercise and a healthy lifestyle are also touted as sources of meaning.
Notably, for most, this emphasis on health is not tied directly to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although there is a widespread sense in most publics surveyed that the global pandemic has changed people’s lives, in most places, people who mention health as something that gives them meaning are no more likely to mention COVID-19 than those who do not prioritize health. Some people who mention both do so because they have health problems that have been compounded by the disease, causing additional difficulty. One American described her situation in the following way: “Currently, being self-quarantined due to health issues and to keep away from COVID, God is what keeps me going,” while another described their predicament as “years of personal work to overcome anxiety and depression [that] took a hit with social distancing.”
Still, others who mention both health and COVID-19 in their responses are largely appreciative of their health because of the global pandemic. One American woman summarized her experience as: “I had COVID and it was the scariest thing and it really changed my outlook on life.” A Dutch man also emphasized the importance of healthy living even in a pandemic context: “What I find important for a fulfilling life are things like: to do sports, meaning active exercise 2 to 3 times a week; to eat a varied diet … now in this pandemic, you still have to make sure that you get enough exercise and try to bring structure into your life by making day or week schedules.”
In fact, how a topic like COVID-19 comes up – or doesn’t – highlights where the commonalities end and the differences between these 17 advanced economies emerge. Take Taiwan as an example. In Taiwan, society – or the institutions and attributes of where people live – is the top source of meaning, above family, occupation and material well-being. Two women in Taiwan emphasize ease of living on the island: “Food, clothing, housing, and transportation are all convenient. Life is safe and tranquil,” and “There are many convenient stores in Taiwan … The public health insurance system is good; medical service is convenient.” Others note their satisfaction with Taiwan’s political system. One woman claimed she is “fortunate to live in Taiwan, especially in the aspect of public health, democracy, and the rule of law and human rights, because it is very free.” A young man simply noted, “Living in Taiwan is very free, freer than China and Hong Kong.” Some specifically mentioned their government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, like a woman who listed the island’s “stable economy, well-controlled new COVID-19 pandemic, [and] easy access to medical care” as meaningful. Taiwan is one of the few societies – the others are also largely in the Asia-Pacific region – where references to COVID-19 do not tend to coincide with negativity; instead, most praise how well their government has handled things.
The topic of faith, religion and spirituality is also one where some societies notably differ. Outside of the U.S., religion is never one of the top 10 sources of meaning cited – and no more than 5% of any non-American public mention it. In the U.S., however, 15% mention religion or God as a source of meaning, making it the fifth most mentioned topic. For some, the emphasis on religion is about their personal relationship with Jesus: “I follow Jesus so my faith and hope is based on how he plays a role in my life. I don’t rely on any human to benefit my life.” Others note the benefits that come from being part of organized religion, such as camaraderie in a tough time: “My husband just died, so life is not very fulfilling right now. The support of family and friends, church, and his coworkers have helped me find meaning, as well as thinking about the good things we shared.” Evangelical Protestants in the U.S. are much more likely than mainline Protestants to mention faith as a source of meaning – 34% vs. 13%, respectively. Across all U.S. religious groups, those who attend religious services more often are much more likely to cite their religion in their answer than those who are less frequent attendees.
“I find [living] within [New Zealand] satisfying. We live in a country which has natural beauty and has a great deal of respect for nature which in turn helps us get a better connection to the country. I like going outside, going for a run every day, and seeing blue skies, forests and the wonderful people and it has a positive impact on my mental health, and especially compared to other countries I’ve been to.” –Man, 18, New Zealand
The United Kingdom, Australia, France, New Zealand and Sweden also stand apart for the relative emphasis they place on nature compared to many other places surveyed. In each of these countries, nature is one of the top eight sources of meaning. In the UK, too, hobbies and activities are revered by many: Around one-in-five mention their hobbies as something that gives them satisfaction in life, ranking only behind family and friends. (To explore more about how each society is similar – or different – and to read about where people get meaning in their own words, please see “What people around the world say about the meaning of life.”)
When discussing what makes life meaningful and fulfilling, a median of 10% across the 17 publics surveyed also mention challenges or difficulties that have interfered with their search for happiness. Once again, this varies substantially across the publics surveyed, with around one-in-five mentioning hardships in Italy, but only 5% or fewer saying the same in New Zealand and the UK. In some places surveyed – including Italy, the U.S. and Spain – those who mention their society, places and institutions are also more likely to mention challenges or difficulties. In South Korea and Taiwan, the opposite is true: In both of these publics, those who mention their society are less likely to mention negative things. People who find meaning in their family or their friends also tend to be less likely to mention difficulties or challenges, and the same is true of those who mention education and learning or their hobbies.
Why this report focuses on topic rankings in addition to percentages
There is some variation in whether and how people respond to the open-ended question. In each public surveyed, some respondents said that they did not understand the question, did not know how to answer or did not want to answer. The share of adults that did so ranged from 23% in the U.S. to 1% in Spain.
In some publics, people also tended to mention fewer things that make life meaningful in their response than did people surveyed elsewhere. For example, across the 17 publics surveyed, a median of 34% responded to the question about what gives them meaning in life by mentioning only one of the topics researchers coded (e.g., family). The shares in South Korea and Japan are much higher, with at least half only bringing up one source of meaning when providing a response.
These differences help explain why the share giving a particular answer in certain publics may appear much lower than others, even if the topic is the top mentioned source of meaning for that given public. To give a specific example, 19% of South Koreans mention material well-being while 42% say the same in Spain, but the topic is ranked first in South Korea and second in Spain. Given this, researchers have chosen to highlight not only the share of the public who mention a given topic but also its relative ranking among the topics coded, both in the text and in graphics.
These are among the findings of a new analysis of an open-ended question about meaning in life, which was part of a Pew Research Center survey conducted Feb. 1 to May 26, 2021, among 18,850 adults in 17 advanced economies.
In addition to similarities and differences between the publics surveyed, the analysis also reveals broader patterns in where people find meaning based on their age, gender, income and political ideology, among other factors. Some of these additional key findings include:
- Younger people tend to emphasize their friends, education and hobbies as sources of meaning more so than older people. For their part, older people are more likely to discuss retirement and health than younger ones. Older people are also somewhat more likely to discuss challenges and negative things when discussing what gives them meaning than younger ones.
- In most respects, men and women are quite similar with regard to what gives them meaning. But women are somewhat more likely to mention family as a source of satisfaction in their lives than are men in most places surveyed. Women are also somewhat more likely to emphasize their health than are men.
- People with higher levels of education and higher incomes tend to be more likely to mention their family and career as things that give them meaning than are people with lower levels of education or lower incomes, respectively.1,2 Mentions of service and civic engagement tend to be higher among those with more education. Those with lower incomes are also somewhat more likely to cite challenges in their lives when discussing what gives them meaning than those with higher incomes.
- Those who place themselves on the left of the ideological spectrum are more likely to cite nature as a source of meaning than those who place themselves on the right. They are also more likely to mention their friends and hobbies, whereas those on the ideological right mention religion more often.
- In the U.S., partisanship also sometimes plays a role. For example, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are about twice as likely than their Democratic counterparts to bring up freedom and independence. Americans today – and especially Republicans – have also become more likely to mention freedom and independence as a source of meaning in life since 2017. For more on this and other changes over time, see “Where Americans find meaning in life has changed over the past four years.”
1. Finding meaning in others
In almost every public surveyed, substantial shares identify others in their life as a source of meaning. Family is most frequently mentioned in almost all survey publics and appears within the top five sources of meaning in every place surveyed. Some people also cite romantic partners and their friends and community. When mentioning finding meaning in others, not everyone limits themselves to the humans in their lives – some also make a point to cite their pets, too.
Family and children
With few exceptions, family is by far the most frequently mentioned source of fulfillment in life for people in these 17 publics. A median of nearly four-in-ten adults (38%) mention finding meaning in their immediate or extended family, children or grandchildren, parenthood or other aspects of their familial relationships. In places like Australia, Greece, New Zealand and the U.S., roughly half or more mention family when discussing what gives them meaning.
“I think family is very important in my life. You practice what you preach. And contributing to society and instilling strong values and a sense of respect in my children to treat others as they want to be treated.” –Woman, 52, Australia
While many people offer more than one thing that gives them meaning in life, in responses where people mention just one source of meaning, family appears more commonly than any other topic. For example, in Greece, 20% of responses are only about family and nothing else. As one older man in France observed, “My family is something that satisfies me, family is everything.” A young person in New Zealand echoed a similar sentiment: “For myself I believe that family is a very important part of my life. If anything else changes I wouldn’t mind as long as family is around.”
While family is the top source of meaning across most publics – the notable exceptions being South Korea, Spain and Taiwan – it is considerably more important for those ages 30 to 49 in most places surveyed – an age group that is especially likely to have children at home. For example, in Australia, 70% of those ages 30 to 49 mention their family as a source of meaning, compared with 60% of those ages 50 to 64 – and fewer than half of those either under 30 or ages 65 and older.
More affluent people are also somewhat more likely to mention family as a source of meaning in many of the publics surveyed. In New Zealand, for example, around two-thirds of those who have incomes at or above the median cite family in their answers, whereas fewer than half of those who are less well-off say the same. To a lesser extent, mentions of family were also higher among more educated people in most places.
Women are also often more likely than men to mention their families or children. In New Zealand, for example, around two-thirds (64%) of women mention their families, while fewer than half (45%) of men say the same. Notably, this gender gap is not as prominent in Spain and Italy or in Asian publics where family is mentioned less frequently overall (South Korea, Singapore, Japan).
Spouses and romantic partners
Though references to the family or children are far more common, some people specifically mention their spouse or romantic partner as an important source of meaning, or make some sort of reference to marriage, dating or romantic love in general. Many emphasize companionship with their partners, like one French woman who enjoys “playing Scrabble and other board games with my husband every night.” Laughter and humor are also a theme. As one Japanese man mused, “I laugh together with my wife at least once a day.” A Dutch woman similarly reflected, “I am not alone, [I] have my husband, and I am very happy about that, especially in these times.”
“My wife gives me a reason, not just to survive but to thrive … Her questions and views make me think (and laugh).” –Man, 67, United States
Others describe how their relationships help them overcome difficulties and inspire them to be better. As one American man explained, “I recently became a husband and I derive meaning every day from trying to be a better partner to my spouse – to learn how we can grow together as a couple and how we can try and make the world around us a better place.” Another woman, also in the U.S., said of her husband, “He is thoughtful and supportive and gives me ground to stand on when everything else falls apart.”
Relatively few (4%) mention their spouse or partner in the median public, but the U.S. and Taiwan stand out as notable exceptions. Nearly one-in-ten U.S. adults (9%) mention their spouse or partner, and it is the ninth most commonly mentioned source of meaning there. By contrast, it is among the least-mentioned topics in Taiwan, where fewer than 1% of the public mention their spouse or partner.
Friends, community and other relationships
Substantial shares also mention relationships with friends and community when identifying sources of meaning in their life. For instance, one Italian woman said, “[M]y family, being together with my loved ones, my wife, my son, being at peace with myself and my friends, acquaintances, and all those I can spend time with,” and another woman in Greece said she finds meaning from her “personal life and social life with friends and people we are close to.” Some mention these connections in the context of COVID-19, such as a German man who said, “I find it remarkable how the COVID crisis affected our behaviors. I, for one, appreciate very much personal contact with those around me.”
Australians are the most likely to bring up ties to friends or community (28%). About a quarter also mention relationships with people outside the family in the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the UK. In each of these countries, too, community and friends are one of the top four factors mentioned.
“Having a rapport with others. Even if my friends have a different way of thinking than I do, we talk about it and communicate, and foster an understanding.” –Man, 18, Japan
East Asian publics, on the other hand, are the least likely to mentions friends or community; no more than one-in-ten bring up these relationships in these places. In Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, community is not mentioned as a top source of meaning.
In many survey publics, younger adults – those ages 18 to 29 – bring up their friends and community more frequently than older counterparts. The age difference is greatest in Greece: 37% of young adults talk about their friends or other relationships outside of their family, compared with just 5% of those 65 and older.
Friends and community are also mentioned more frequently by those with more education in five of the surveyed publics. In the U.S., for example, 31% of those with a postsecondary education or more speak about their friends or community when discussing what brings meaning to their lives, while 13% of those with less than a postsecondary education say the same, a difference of 18 percentage points.
Those on the ideological left also tend to be more likely to mention friends or community than those on the right. For example, 29% of left-leaning Canadians mention finding meaning in their friendships or community relationships, while just 11% of right-leaning adults in Canada say they do so. Similar differences also appear in six of the other surveyed publics.
Although not commonly mentioned in any of the surveyed publics, pets are a source of meaning for 4% of adults in New Zealand and for 3% of Americans, Australians and Britons. Outside of these particular countries, very few in most places – and none at all in both South Korea and Taiwan – mention their animals as a source of meaning.
“I find being around my family and animals, especially my dog, my cat and my horse, very fulfilling, and they give me peace of mind. They make my day feel good. If I did not have them around, I would be bored out of my tree.” –Woman, 60, New Zealand
2. Finding meaning in the bigger picture
Outside of their personal relationships (and pets), many people in the 17 publics surveyed find meaning in their surroundings and the broader world around them, including society, the natural environment and spirituality. People’s own society, places and institutions – ranging from the specific area where they live to their government at large – appear within the top 10 most commonly mentioned topics in every public surveyed. Others describe finding a deep sense of meaning in their relationship with nature. And spirituality and faith also serve as a key pillar for some – though this is particularly the case in the U.S. relative to the other publics.
Society, places and institutions
When asked about where they find meaning in life, some people bring up the area where they live or their broader society and public institutions. These references include mentions of their country, the social services available, the state of their country’s economy and any patriotic or nationalistic sentiments. For some, this includes expressions of appreciation for their country’s health care system, such as one German woman who said, “I am grateful for our health care system. I am grateful that I can travel the globe and that we have the euro. Overall, I am content,” and a woman in Taiwan who stated, “The public health insurance system is good; medical service is convenient.”
Others speak more generally about the opportunities available where they live. This is the case for a French man, who said: “We’re happy to live in France, where you can achieve anything you want. French people are lucky to live in a country where people are happy. Even those who have difficulties are able to get the right help.”
“The fact that we live in paradise. If you want to have a go in this country, you’re given a go. We’re lucky, if we want work, we can get work, if we want to go to a beach we can go to a beach. We can do whatever we want. We’re very lucky.” –Man, 39, Australia
Some in Europe refer more specifically to the European Union. For instance, one Belgian woman explained, “Despite the coronavirus pandemic, we can still travel in the Schengen area. The European Union is advantageous for working and studying abroad.” A Spanish man similarly mentioned his “freedom to travel the world, ease of movement between countries, not only between European Union countries but also others.”
Of all respondents, adults in Taiwan bring up where they live most frequently; 38% of responses mention the respondent’s surroundings, making it the top factor mentioned. Many people in Taiwan expressed appreciation of the convenience afforded to them by their local infrastructure, such as one woman who said “food, clothing, housing and transportation are all convenient.”
About a quarter in Singapore also mention society and place in their discussions of meaning in life, which makes it a top-three factor there. In Singapore, some specifically reference public safety, including one man who explained, “I have job security in Singapore … and Singapore is a safe place,” and another woman who reflected, “I think is the daily life, the security, in Singapore, like I mean there’s no wars, is like the security in Singapore, is like the safe environment you don’t need to worry about going home late.”
In the U.S., 14% mention society and place when talking about meaning in their life. For some, these references were tied directly to the U.S. president or 2020 presidential election. Describing where she finds meaning, one U.S. woman responded: “Not too much because Revelations [is] playing out in front of my eyes. We are in scary times with Biden as President.” By contrast, another woman said she was “relieved at the outcome of the last presidential election,” expressing her support for President Joe Biden’s victory. Notably, Americans who mention something negative in their response are nearly 30 points more likely to bring up American society or where they live. Nearly half (41%) of those mention something negative in the U.S. mention society, compared with just 12% of those who do not mention anything negative.
Nature and the outdoors
Whether it be personally getting outside for activities, admiring natural beauty in the form of “a beautiful sunset [or the] first bloom of flowers,” or concerns related to the environment and preservation, nature is a key source of meaning for some people. One German respondent even highlighted how nature helps her cope with frustrations with humanity: “It is good to be alive. I am woken up by birdsong which makes me so happy and glad. I am, however, horrified by all the people in the world.” A man in France similarly noted that even if other parts of life are bleak, nature can hold promise: “No particular aspect of my life is significant but I’m lucky to be able to get around and enjoy nature. It’s fulfilling to look at nature and cross the road.”
The degree to which people value nature, though, varies quite a bit across the publics surveyed, from a low of 1% in Japan to a high of 14% in New Zealand. And, while it factors into the top 10 most common sources of meaning cited by publics in Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, Sweden, Taiwan and the UK, nature ranks relatively low in Japan, Singapore and the U.S.
“I may not have much economically, but I’m blessed by the abundance of Mother Nature.”–Man, 79, Japan
One Australian tied together the personal meaning she gets from being outside with more general concerns about the environment and climate change, citing the following as what gives her meaning: “Climate, being able to enjoy my lifestyle outdoors, security that comes with having a relatively stable climate and resources, having clean air and clean water, which will be effective at increasing climate impact, and being able to enjoy the high biodiversity of plants and animals because that’s an overlap of my job and my life.” Similarly, after describing a variety of things that make her happy, one New Zealander concluded her response on a note of concern: “Really one of my main concerns is that people aren’t taking climate change seriously.”
Those on the ideological left are more likely to reference nature than those on the ideological right in five survey publics.
Spirituality, faith and religion
For some, religion plays a significant role in giving their life meaning. Mentions of religion include direct references to God, as is the case for a German man who said, “My faith in God and Jesus gives my life meaning – I am content,” and references to religious communities, church attendance, and more general notions of spirituality and connectedness to a higher power. For example, one American woman identifies her “strong faith in God (with a church family to lean on when needed)” as part of what gives her life meaning. In other instances, responses also reference the impact of the pandemic on religious practices. As one American woman explained, “Attending church is important to me and I haven’t been able to attend since the virus.”
With 15% of all U.S. adults bringing up religion, Americans stand out for mentioning religion most frequently, and it is the fifth most frequently mentioned topic there.
“I have religious belief[s] and moral values, so I have the wisdom to solve the difficulties in life.” –Woman, 70, Taiwan
In comparison, New Zealanders, who mention religion with the second highest frequency, only bring up religion 5% of the time. No more than 1% in France, Sweden, Belgium, South Korea and Japan reference religion when defining meaning in life. For Swedes, this makes faith the least mentioned topic, while for South Koreans, faith is the 11th most mentioned topic.
People generally mention religion with the same frequency regardless of age, income, education or gender. In the U.S., however, older adults ages 65 and older and Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are more likely than their younger and Democratic counterparts to bring up religion. Mentions of faith are also slightly more common among those on the ideological right in five other publics, but nowhere are the differences as large as in the U.S.
3. Finding meaning in what one does
From work to travel to personal hobbies, people across the 17 publics surveyed draw meaning and fulfillment from the activities that make up their daily lives. This is particularly the case when it comes to people’s occupations and careers, which are a top-three source of meaning in many publics. People mention finding meaning in myriad aspects of their work, such as the mission of their own profession, their coworkers, or the sense of personal growth it provides them. On the other hand, some people – particularly older adults – find meaning in the absence of work: retirement. People also rely on their personal hobbies, education, volunteer work and travel for a sense of purpose, referencing everything from listening to music to international trips.
Occupation and career
Work is one of the most common sources of meaning for adults around the world: A median of 25% across the 17 publics mention their job, career or profession. In 12 of the 17 publics surveyed, work is among the top three most mentioned topics – and in Spain, it ranks even higher than family and children.
As one Italian man put it, “In accordance with the Italian Constitution, to have a job and dignity. Most of all to have a job, because without a job it is difficult to have dignity.” “I have a job I like and that is fundamental for a person,” explained one Spanish woman.
Many emphasize how work provides them with a sense of accomplishment and personal growth. As one man in the Netherlands explained, “The most important thing for me is work. I think it is very important to build my career, to build my life, so that I’m doing better and better. And the way to do that is to take a lot of personal responsibility and work hard.” Another man in Japan remarked, “I got the job that I wanted, so being able to keep doing that. I’ll have left my mark when I look back on my life.”
On the other hand, some people mention difficulties or challenges in their professional life. “In my job I don’t feel satisfied because they don’t give me personal days,” explained one Italian woman.
Like with finding meaning in family, people between the ages of 30 and 49 are typically the most likely to find meaning in their job or career. For example, in Italy, 59% of those ages 30 to 49 say work gives them meaning, while roughly half or fewer of any other age group agree. Still, mentions of work are quite prominent among most other age groups, though notably lower among those 65 and older.
“I run two companies and work as a salesperson. I work with producing and selling groceries. Work is what is most satisfying right now. I find it very fun and work about 100 hours per week.” –Man, 21, Sweden
Wealthier and more educated adults are also more likely to mention finding meaning in their work. In many cases, higher earners are twice as likely or more to mention their jobs as lower earners. For example, 28% of those earning above the median income in the UK mention their job or career, compared with 11% of those with incomes at or below the median. Similar differences also appear between those with and without postsecondary degrees. In the U.S., work was brought up by roughly a quarter (26%) of those with college degrees, but just 11% of less educated adults mentioned work.
When describing what gives them meaning and satisfaction in life, some mention enjoying – or looking forward to – their retirement years, though in no public surveyed do more than 4% mention it. Those who do focus on retirement tend to emphasize how it affords them the freedom to do more of what they enjoy. “I have more time for me. I’m exploring new options, new things, and I’m enjoying the next chapter in my life,” explained one Australian woman. “[I] don’t have financial stress. I can go traveling and visit around. Life is very convenient,” said another woman in Taiwan. Others enjoyed the slower place in life, like a man in New Zealand who explained, “My lifestyle is very slow these days so I am satisfied.” And some responses were more succinct, like the man in the UK whose entire response was simply the remark, “The fact that I no longer work.”
“I’m retired so I don’t have to get up early, I’m free and can do whatever I want. There’s nobody to tell me what to do.” –Man, 62, Belgium
Unsurprisingly, retirement is more commonly mentioned by older adults in nearly all of the publics surveyed. In Germany, for example, 9% of those ages 65 and older mention their retirement, while almost no one ages 64 and under brings it up.
Hobbies and recreation
Across the 17 publics surveyed, a median of 10% mention finding meaning in personal hobbies and recreational activities, ranging from a high of 22% in the UK to a low of 3% in South Korea. In the UK, hobbies are the third most commonly cited source of meaning, following only family and friends. In Greece, Japan and Taiwan, hobbies rank in the top five sources of meaning.
Respondents highlight myriad types of recreational activities. One Briton, for example, explained that he enjoys “watching movies and having access to internet, football, music, entertainment and museums.” Others reference things like reading, playing music, attending cultural events or simply relaxing and spending time at home.
Many people cite pastimes that allow them to spend time outdoors, often connecting their hobbies with an appreciation of nature. One Canadian, for example, replied that she gets meaning from “… being able to go outside [and] going on walks” while others highlight the benefits of being able to surf, ski or bicycle in the beautiful surroundings.
“Creating books, writing, I do particularly enjoy capturing what I see and it’s quite [fulfilling] for me. Having something to collect as well. I collect cameras and electronics, I find that an [interesting] hobby.” –Man, 23, Singapore
In eight publics surveyed, young people are significantly more likely to cite personal hobbies as meaningful parts of their lives. This difference is greatest in Greece, where roughly three-in-ten 18- to 29-year-olds reference recreational activities, compared with 7% of those ages 65 and older. In five publics, men are more likely to mention their hobbies than are women, including Australia, where 14% of women do so compared with 23% of men. In some places, those on the ideological left and those who are more educated are also more likely to mention hobbies than those on the right and those with less education, respectively.
Travel and new experiences
Occasionally, people mention traveling and having new experiences as part of what gives their life meaning. One French man, for example, explained, “I have a full and meaningful life, and I have traveled a lot and had lots of experiences, so compared to others I think I have a wonderful life.” Likewise, a Japanese woman explained that “I think I have a pretty good life traveling to many countries with my husband, kids and grandkids.”
In all publics surveyed, travel is mentioned infrequently. These mentions show up most often in Australia and New Zealand, with 4% in these places bringing up traveling and having new experiences. Only 1% in Japan, Singapore and Taiwan do the same, and virtually no one in South Korea brings up travel. This makes travel the least frequently mentioned source of meaning in South Korea (along with pets). For other publics, travel does not make it into the top 10.
Some people indicate they find meaning from travel within their own country, and others specify international travel and encountering different cultures as something they find satisfying. One man in Spain said that he finds it meaningful “to have more freedom to travel the world, [with] ease of movement between countries, not only between European Union countries but also others.”
“… I travel around the world and have been to a lot of places. I can see different things in different countries.” –Man, 24, New Zealand
In four countries, including the U.S., those with higher incomes are somewhat more likely to mention travel as a source of meaning than those with lower incomes. For example, in the U.S., 6% of people with incomes at or above the national median mention travel as something meaningful, compared with 2% of those with lower incomes.
Some respondents also mention travel in the context of COVID-19, bemoaning the inability to travel given current restrictions. One woman in the U.S. declared, “It’s been more stressful at work because of the pandemic. What keeps me going is hope, hope that one day I will be able to get on a plane again for vacation and leave this country.”
Education and learning
Some respondents also mention education and learning when discussing what provides meaning in their lives. In these cases, people mention attending university, staying informed and the pursuit of knowledge more generally. For one German woman, meaning in life comes from continuous learning: “Life is about learning new things, about progress, and staying curious.” Another Dutch man instead referenced his formal education: “I started university in the Netherlands. I am very happy about that. Because I am a refugee, I didn’t think I could go to university, but it turned out to be possible. It’s great that it’s possible.” In a handful of places, those on the ideological left are also somewhat more likely to mention learning than those on the right.
Fewer than one-in-ten bring up education in all publics surveyed. Education comes up most frequently in Australia and Sweden, where 8% refer to learning in the context of meaning in their lives. Similar shares also bring up learning in New Zealand. In most places, education is roughly the 10th most mentioned source of meaning.
“I view life as an endless opportunity to learn and be informed. Self-discovery. We can do little for the world, so we should start by working on ourselves first. I find this journey of discovery fulfilling.” –Man, 54, Italy
Across all places surveyed, younger adults ages 18 to 29 are more likely than older adults 65 and older to bring up education. For instance, 31% of Swedish adults under 30 bring up learning while only 1% of Swedes 65 and older do the same.
Service and civic engagement
Service to the community and civic engagement are part of a meaningful life for some people, ranging from a high of 7% who say this in the U.S. to a low of 1% in France, Germany, Greece and South Korea. Only in Singapore, Italy and Taiwan did service rank as a top 10 source of meaning.
Some people speak in general terms about the benefits of service and trying to make the world a better place. For example, one American man stated, “I feel it is important to treat people with kindness and respect, to work to correct injustices, to encourage people to use their talents in a positive way, and to bring good cheer into people’s lives. In short, to have a positive impact on the world.”
Others explicitly focus on the types of service that they do, like specific volunteer activities or work with particular causes. One Australian woman shared that she “started off doing a lot of volunteer jobs looking after the farms during the drought, so giving the farmers respite and at no charge whatsoever.” A man from France said, “Volunteering during the pandemic brings me a lot of satisfaction, it’s my way to contribute.”
“I raise my grandkids to be aware of how to avoid wasting food, and to recycle. I volunteer, giving mothers guidance about buying local and cooking their own meals, instead of buying industrial products.” –Woman, 70, Belgium
In some countries, people with more education tend to be more likely to say they draw meaning from some type of community engagement or service. In Australia, 8% of people with at least a postsecondary degree include community service in their answer about what gives them meaning, compared with 4% of those with less education.
4. The conditions that enable meaning
Certain conditions allow people to lead fulfilling lives. Most notably, in nearly all of the 17 publics surveyed, material well-being, stability and quality of life collectively rank as one of the top five sources of meaning – with people noting the importance of everything from basic necessities (food, a roof) to luxury (good food or wine) as part of what enables them to find meaning. People also cite the importance of physical and mental health as well as freedom and independence.
Material well-being, stability and quality of life
When describing their sense of meaning and fulfillment in life, many in these advanced economies mention their material well-being, stability or quality of life – including whether they have enough money to live comfortably, their ability to afford necessities, their standard of living and whether they feel safe and secure. Quality of life is among the three most common topics in just over half of the publics surveyed, including Spain – where it outranks family – and South Korea, where it is the most mentioned topic overall.
Respondents often express appreciation for their economic circumstances and their ability to live comfortably. “I work and lead a comfortable life in these hard times without any major worries,” explained one South Korean woman. “I’m living comfortably, well-fed, I’ve got a roof over my head, food in my cupboard, I’ve got everything I need to survive,” said a man in New Zealand.
Others are thankful to have enough to afford what they consider a modest, normal life. “Living a life without luxury, a normal life.
“I’m married, have a house and a garden, a good car. I am content, what more could I ask for? As long as I can live without having to worry about money.” –Man, 40, Germany
Being able to pay for a home, food, the basics. Being able to go out for a beer and having the right to a home, to a job and to food, rights that should be the same for everyone in the world. Living with dignity,” explained a woman in Spain. “Although I don’t have that much money, it’s enough to live decently. I don’t need to be rich to be happy. I know that one needs money to live, but should not live for money,” offered a woman in Belgium. Others do not consider themselves so lucky: “I would like to feel that food and other necessities will not take over half of my income. The cost of utilities are on the rise and it’s harder for me to pay my bills because I’m on a fixed income,” explained one man in the U.S.
In most publics, less affluent and more affluent people are about equally likely to mention their material well-being when talking about what makes their lives meaningful.
Physical and mental health
Some people point to health as a source of meaning in their lives. These mentions of health include references to both mental and physical health, as well as the respondent’s own health and the health of their loved ones. Also included are references to practices of wellness, such as meditation, working out and various forms of exercise. Typically, people express appreciation for good health, such as one woman in Germany who declared, “I am glad my health is good; for background: I am disabled,” or enjoyment of a wellness practice, like this Belgian woman: “I also work out and enjoy food.”
References to health as a source of meaning in life are generally most prevalent among the European adults surveyed, ranging from 15% of responses in the UK to 48% in Spain. Uniquely, in Spain, health is the top source of meaning among all those coded. Roughly a fifth (17%) of South Koreans also see health as part of what gives life meaning – though this makes it the second most referenced topic there, behind only material well-being. In Germany, too, health is the second most cited source of meaning, and in the Netherlands, Greece, France and Japan, the topic ranks third.
“Mainly to be healthy and then to have a job to be able to live, and logically to live in as healthy a place as possible, which is the most important thing.” –Man, 47, Spain
In eight of the 17 publics surveyed, older respondents are more likely to bring up health in the context of what gives life meaning. The difference is starkest in the Netherlands: While just 17% of Dutch adults ages 18 to 29 reference health, 38% of those 65 and older bring up the subject, a difference of 21 percentage points.
Women also more frequently mention health in six publics. In Spain, for example, 39% of men mention health compared with 56% of women, a 17-point difference.
Freedom and independence
Freedom and independence is commonly mentioned as an important source of meaning. In many cases, people mention freedom in a personal sense, referring to their ability to live the way they want, their work-life balance, or having or wanting free time. For example, one Italian man noted, “A satisfying life is one where there is a good balance between the hours spent on work and free time. At the same time, compensation should be adequate. The last lockdown taught us to relate to ourselves better and to cherish restoring our own minds and bodies.” Another man in Germany expressed satisfaction: “I have more time for my hobbies since working from home. I have more time for my family and even more time for self-care during this crisis.” Freedom of choice stands out for others, like this Dutch man who said, “At present, I find it important that I have the choice to decide what I want to do. I like having the freedom to decide what I want to do.”
In other cases, freedom is brought up in a more general, political sense – highlighting things like freedom of speech and religion. Explained one man in the U.S., meaning comes from “freedom of religion and freedom of the free exchange of ideas, [though] the Democratic Party is systematically dismantling both of these.”
Freedom and independence is mentioned most frequently in the Netherlands, with one-in-five bringing up the topic. At least one-in-ten also bring up freedom in Belgium, New Zealand, Canada, Italy, Spain, Australia, Taiwan and Sweden.
“Freedom, that is the most important thing. Freedom to be able to do what you want without hurting others. People have to be free to do what they want without hurting anyone.” –Man, 61, Sweden
For Taiwan, this makes freedom the fourth most mentioned topic, and freedom makes the top five factors in South Korea. In the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and Spain, freedom is the sixth mentioned factor for meaning.
In six publics, those with higher incomes are more likely to bring up freedom when discussing the meaning of life. The difference is greatest in New Zealand, where those with incomes at or above the median are twice as likely as those with lower incomes to refer to freedom (22% vs. 10%). Similar differences also emerge between the more and less educated in four publics. In Germany, 11% of those with postsecondary educations mentioned freedom and independence, compared with 5% of less educated adults.
In the U.S., Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are about twice as likely as their Democratic counterparts to bring up freedom. One Republican man, for example, pithily explained his sources of meaning as “one word … FREEDOM!!! To be able to live a life with the freedom to choose and to take care of family.” Outside of the U.S., however, there are no differences with regard to how often freedom comes up as a source of meaning between those who support and those who do not support the governing party – except in Taiwan (for more on how the governing party is defined, see Appendix D). And while those who identify with the ideological right are more likely to cite freedom than those on the left in the U.S., the opposite is true in Italy and Spain.
5. The pandemic and other difficulties
Not all sources of meaning are unambiguously positive. Rather, many people in the 17 publics surveyed also mention challenges they have faced – whether they be health concerns, lost jobs, insufficient income or difficult relationships. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic is referenced in each of the publics surveyed, sometimes as the reason for little to no fulfillment and other times as the source of personal reflection and growth.
The timing of the survey – around a year after many places began lockdowns but before vaccines were widely available – meant that COVID-19 was top of mind for some respondents. And, indeed, when asked where they find meaning in life, some made references to the global pandemic as part of their answers. This included any mentions of the coronavirus itself, as well as pandemic-related lifestyle changes such as travel restrictions, mask-wearing or quarantining.
For some, the pandemic has provided an opportunity for reflection on meaning in life, such as for a French woman who said, “Lockdown helped me settle down and reflect, and appreciate my life.” Others referenced their society’s pandemic response; for example, one woman in Taiwan said that “Taiwanese people are very united during serious incidents, such as pandemics or earthquakes.” In some instances, respondents said that what gives them meaning in life has also helped sustain them through the pandemic or referred to experiences related to COVID-19 to illustrate what they find meaningful. One such response came from an American woman who said, “Spending time with loved ones. With COVID, that generally means phone calls and Zoom sessions.” Still others – like a Greek woman who said, “Nothing satisfies us. We go nowhere, we do not go outside. We have been locked up for more than a year” – said they are unable to find meaning due to the pandemic.
No more than one-in-ten mentioned the pandemic in any of the 17 publics surveyed. Those in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden are tied for most frequent mentions of COVID-19, with 8% of their respondents bringing up the pandemic. France follows closely at 7%, and the U.S. and Taiwan are next at 6%.
“In the face of recommended COVID restrictions, I have found a new love of nature, outdoor activities and ranch animals; especially horses.” –Woman, 59, U.S.
For the most part, people were equally likely to mention the coronavirus in their response regardless of age, gender, income level, political ideology or educational attainment. In some places, those who mentioned any dissatisfaction in life were more likely to mention the pandemic. For example, 46% of Swedes who mentioned something negative also mentioned COVID-19. In contrast, only 6% of those who did not mention something negative also brought up the pandemic. In most other places surveyed, too, those who mentioned something negative were significantly more likely to reference COVID-19 than those who did not say something negative. The notable exceptions were all in the Asia-Pacific region. In Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand, Japan and Australia, while few mentioned negative things at all, almost none of these references were about the pandemic. Outside of Japan, each of these other publics stands out for their relative satisfaction with how their governments have handled the pandemic.
Despite the context of the global pandemic, in most places surveyed those who mentioned health in their answer were no more likely to mention COVID-19. The U.S., however, is a strong exception: 20% of those who mentioned health also mentioned COVID-19, compared with only 7% of those who did not mention health but mentioned the global pandemic.
In six publics, those who say their life changed at least a fair amount because of the pandemic were also more likely to bring up the pandemic. The difference is greatest in Italy and France, where those who feel at least somewhat affected by the pandemic were 6 percentage points more likely than those who feel not too or not at all affected to bring up the pandemic. The same relationship appears in the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands and Taiwan.
Challenges faced as people search for meaning
Despite being asked about what makes life meaningful and fulfilling in a positive sense, some people nevertheless mention challenges or difficulties that have interfered with their search for happiness.
Some struggle to think of anything meaningful in their lives. “To be honest, it’s hard to find meaning because the things that used to bring joy feel more hollow as I’ve gotten older. Everything seems either frivolous or like drudgery. I try to skateboard when the weather is nice and that’s okay, but still not as fun as it used to be,” remarked one American man. Others are more particular, describing difficulties with their living situation, finances, health, career or relationships. “Once I’ve paid all the bills I don’t have anything left. There should be more support for single-parent families,” complained a woman in Belgium. “I lack basic health care. I can’t find health benefits,” said one man in Greece.
In many cases, respondents’ negative remarks focus not on personal difficulties but rather ongoing social and political turmoil, including the global pandemic. “Between coronavirus, politics and climate change, there is a lot of pressure and it’s hard to see a future … we’re all under pressure, exhausted, stressed and waiting for something [to] happen to make things better,” explained a man in Spain. As a woman in the U.S. put it, “I think our world has gotten more and more troubling and [is a] harder place to live. I don’t think it will ever get better.”
“Almost nothing, I have no job, there is no justice and I am weak because I live with two [people] with disabilities. Nothing is satisfying and fulfilling unfortunately because of the little [economic] aid that I receive for care workers.” –Woman, 59, Italy
People also describe challenges related to the inability to afford things or find jobs, frustrations with their political system, concerns about climate change, worries about the next generation’s ability to succeed, personal loss such as widowhood and more. In some cases, people mention personal difficulties they have faced in the past and describe finding meaning in the process of overcoming them. (While respondents might highlight more than one thing that negatively affected them in a given response, each response was only coded for the presence or absence of a complaint or challenge.)
Mentions of negative situations are not particularly common overall – a median of 10% of people cite them – but there is wide variation across the publics surveyed. In the UK, just 4% of adults mention difficulties or challenges. On the other hand, such responses are notably more common in Italy (21%), the U.S. (17%) and South Korea (14%).
Those with lower levels of education and income tend to cite more challenges in many places. In South Korea, for example, those with less than a postsecondary education are twice as likely as those with a postsecondary degree or more to cite a challenge – and the same is true among South Koreans who have less than the country’s median income relative to those who are at or above the median income.
Similarly, in around half the places surveyed, those who think their country’s economy is doing poorly are more likely to mention a hardship than those who think it is doing well. Once again taking South Korea as an example, 17% of those who think the South Korean economy is in bad shape mention something negative when asked about their sources of meaning, compared with 8% among those who think it’s in good shape.
In five of the publics surveyed, those who say COVID-19 changed their lives a great deal or a fair amount are more likely to say something negative when asked about meaning in their life.
Responses that discuss society, places and institutions also coincide with greater negativity in the U.S., Italy and Spain. For example, in the U.S., difficulties or challenges are brought up by nearly half (49%) of those who mention society, institutions, politics or something about where they live, compared with 15% of those who discuss other topics but not society. South Korea and Taiwan, however, stand out for the opposite relationship: In both of these publics, those who mention society are less likely to mention negative things than those who do not mention this topic.
On the other hand, a variety of other topics are associated with fewer mentions of negative circumstances in the majority of the publics surveyed. One such topic is family, which appears to provide a buffer against personal challenges and difficulties. In 16 of the 17 publics, those who mention their family are substantially less likely to mention something negative in their responses. For example, 23% of Greeks who do not discuss family or children say something negative, compared with just 2% of those who do mention their family or children. Even in the context of the global pandemic, one Greek woman reflected on how the hardship had actually strengthened her family’s relationship: “The good thing at this time is that because of the pandemic, my family has bonded more, and our relationship and also our state of mind as family members has evolved. As parents, we listen to our children more and our children reach adulthood more quickly.”
To a lesser extent, friends, community and other relationships are also associated with fewer mentions of something negative. In 13 publics, those who mention their friends are less likely to mention something negative as are those who don’t mention friends.
People who mention their occupation or career are also less likely to mention personal difficulties or challenges in nine of the 17 publics surveyed. In Japan, just 1% of those who discuss their job or career mention any difficulties or challenges, compared with 12% of those who do not mention anything about work.
Recreation is also associated with fewer mentions of challenges or difficulties in several publics surveyed. In Japan, for example, just 1% of those who mention hobbies or recreation report something negative in their lives, compared with 12% of those who do not mention any hobbies or pastimes.
In four of the Asia-Pacific publics surveyed (South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore), as well as France, those who mention their material well-being, stability and quality of life are less likely to mention difficulties or challenges in their lives. In South Korea, just 2% of those who bring up the topic say something negative, compared with 19% of those who do not mention their standard of living. In the U.S., the pattern is reversed.
6. General – rather than specific – satisfaction
The majority of people in most places surveyed identify specific things – or people or activities – that make them satisfied with their lives. But some people refrain from offering detailed responses, responding instead that they are satisfied with life, that they feel fulfilled, or something else broadly general but still positive.3 One typical response of this ilk comes from a woman in Australia, who responded: “I find all aspects of my life meaningful, fulfilling and satisfying. I am very happy.”
The share of the public who offer these broad but positive assessments varies widely, from a low of 1% in Greece to a high of 17% in Germany. In Germany, this makes it the fourth most proffered response, tied with material well-being and behind only family, occupation and health. But in most places, it is significantly less common, as is the case in Australia, where this topic is tied with mentions of pets (3%).
In some places surveyed, older people are more likely to respond in this general manner. In Belgium, for example, 14% of those ages 65 and older report satisfaction without details, compared with just 1% of those under 30. These age-related patterns sometimes emerge explicitly in the responses, such as with one Spanish man who noted, “I am content with what I have, I don’t aspire to further achievements at age 72.” Similarly, one Dutch man stated, “I live my life in a meaningful way, I find that’s very important. I am 70 years old and I’m still doing meaningful things.”
People with lower levels of education are also sometimes more likely to declare their general satisfaction than those with higher levels of education in several publics surveyed. In Canada, for example, 9% of those with less than a postsecondary degree offer this type of broadly positive response, while 3% of those with a postsecondary degree or more say the same. Individuals with lower incomes, too, are often more likely to give this type of answer than those with higher incomes in most of the Asia-Pacific publics surveyed.
Responses mentioning pets sometimes occur alongside responses that mention hobbies and recreation. For example, one Briton said: “I like country walks, communing with nature and pets.” In New Zealand, 12% of those who mention hobbies and recreation also mention their pets, compared with the 2% of those who do not bring up hobbies. And in the U.S., 14% of respondents who identify hobbies as something that give their lives meaning also point to their pets, compared with the 3% of those who do not mention hobbies. One such respondent in the U.S. said what they found meaningful was “taking time to play with my dog and explore nature parks with her.”