a little girl and a talk walking in the woods; photo taken from behind

Weekend Long Reads: The Meaning of Life

by Kevin Schofield


As we share the December holidays, it seems an apt time to ponder the things that bring our lives meaning. This weekend’s “long read” is a recent survey by the Pew Research Center on that very question.

Pew asked individuals in seventeen advanced economies around the globe, “What aspects of your life do you find meaningful, fulfilling or satisfying?” They found both some common themes and some significant diversity. Fourteen of the countries had the same top answer: family. Most countries had either “occupation and career” or “material well-being” in the number-two spot but not the U.S., where “friends” jumped ahead. But after that, things diverge dramatically.

Table from Pew Research Center showing "ranked choice among 17 topics coded as part of what gives people meaning in life." Image via Pew Research Center.
Table from Pew Research Center showing “ranked choice among 17 topics coded as part of what gives people meaning in life.” (Image via Pew Research Center.)

Some of the more surprising findings:

  • “Romantic partner” ranked low across all seventeen countries, though the U.S. ranked it highest out of all of them.
  • “Pets” also ranked low; clearly Seattle dog-owners were under-sampled in the survey.
  • “Occupation and career” was low in the United States — the fourth-lowest among the countries surveyed. That’s a fairly significant departure from how our culture is portrayed in popular media and in contrast with the high number of working-hours for most Americans.
A graph showing the percentage of respondents in each surveyed country "who mention their occupation and career when describing what gives them meaning in life." Image via Pew Research Center.
A graph showing the percentage of respondents in each surveyed country “who mention their occupation and career when describing what gives them meaning in life.” (Image via Pew Research Center.)
  • “Service and civic engagement ” is low everywhere, but again highest in the U.S. among the countries surveyed.

Less surprising is that “Faith” ranked #5 in the United States, the only country where it was in the top-five sources of meaning in people’s lives. Perhaps also not surprising was that “material well-being” was in the top five for all but two “advanced economy” countries: Greece and the U.K.

Graph showing percentage of survey respondents "who mention spirituality, faith and religion when describing what gives them meaning in life." (Image via Pew Research Center.)
Graph showing percentage of survey respondents “who mention spirituality, faith and religion when describing what gives them meaning in life.” (Image via Pew Research Center.)

The survey called out some (also not terribly surprising) ideological differences within the United States: Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to cite “freedom,” while left-leaning individuals were more likely to cite “nature.”

The report includes a discussion of the challenges and obstacles that people cite in their personal journey toward finding meaning in life. It brings back to the surface what is perhaps an unanswerable question: Do we find meaning and fulfillment in life despite the challenges we face — or because of them? It’s a particularly relevant question to ask now, given the COVID global pandemic, the economic upheaval it has caused in addition to the loss of family members and friends, and the long path to recovery. It is interesting to note, though, that Pew found those who list family and friends as sources of meaning in their lives were less likely to mention challenges and adversity.

There is plenty more in the report that you will enjoy perusing, including differences between younger and older individuals, which people find general satisfaction in life rather than deriving it from specific things, and differences in answers depending on income level or educational attainment.

While never saying it explicitly, this survey — and the global diversity of answers that it highlights — suggests a “crowd-sourced” answer to the ultimate question: perhaps the meaning of life is how we, as individual human beings, choose those things that we personally find meaningful.

What Makes Life Meaningful? Views from 17 Advanced Economies


Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

📸 Featured Image: Photo by vvvita/Shutterstock.com

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