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November 28 2018

What Gives Your Life Meaning?

by Karla Jacobs

Pew Research Center asked Americans what gives their lives meaning and discovered that family, faith, careers, and friends topped the list. I do not find this surprising, and I don’t think they did either. When we focus on the good things in our lives, these often rise to the top of our minds.

The aspects of our lives that bring satisfaction and fulfillment are notoriously hard to measure. For their study, Pew Research conducted two separate surveys in late 2017. One allowed respondents to answer open-ended questions about what makes their lives feel meaningful, fulfilling, or satisfying. The other was a closed-ended, or forced choice, survey that asked respondents to rate fifteen possible sources of meaning and fulfillment supplied by the research team. The respondents were also asked to identify which of the fifteen options was most important. They published the results November 20, 2018.

Family came first on the list for both surveys with 69 percent of respondents listing family as a source of fulfillment and meaning in their lives. Forty percent of those surveyed listed it as the most important source of meaning. Family was so ubiquitous that it was the most mentioned topic across all demographic groups.

Roughly one third of respondents mentioned career and a quarter mentioned money as sources of fulfillment. One in five respondents named spirituality and faith as important in their lives with 20 percent identifying it as the most important source of meaning. One in five also listed friends or activities and hobbies as things they find fulfilling. Named less frequently but also included in the tally were good health, living in a nice place, creativity, learning, doing good works, and belonging to a group or community.

As researchers evaluated responses across demographic groups, they found Americans in higher income groups were much more likely to mention friends than those in lower income groups. Evangelical Protestants were most likely to mention their religious faith in the open-ended questions (43 percent) and most likely to state their faith provides a “great deal of meaning” on the closed-ended questions (65 percent) compared to 36 percent for the full sample. Atheists were more likely than Christians to mention finances (37 percent) and activities and hobbies (32 percent) as things that give their lives meaning. Looking through the political lens, conservatives listed religion as a source of meaning (38 percent) more often than their liberal peers, and liberals named creativity (34 percent) and causes (30 percent) more often than conservatives did.

As an added bonus, Pew released 100 of the responses to their open-ended questions so we can read for ourselves the words of our fellow citizens. Some of them are insightful and inspiring, others are funny, and a few are sad—about 9 percent of responses detailed struggles and hardships. Most of them are infused, however, with a sense of gratitude for blessings and hope for the future. It’s a reminder that when we look around us, we have so much to be thankful for.

Oddly enough, shouting down family members who disagree with you during the Great Thanksgiving Obamacare Debate, sparring on social media, and owning the libs did not make the list.

Last week, IWF’s Patrice Lee Onwuka encouraged us to flex our “civility muscles” with our families around the Thanksgiving table. “Listen, disagree, or challenge respectfully…and learn,” she writes. “We will see that most people just want the best for themselves, their families, their communities, and our nation.”

With the holidays upon us, it’s a good time to reflect on those parts of our lives that bring us joy and a sense of satisfaction. We live in a fractured, polarized culture, but we don’t have to feed the negativity. How would you have answered the question—what aspects of your life bring you meaning and fulfillment? I plan to focus on those as we enter the New Year.



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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