Where do Americans find meaning?
Americans like to complain about dysfunctional families, but most still report that life’s greatest satisfaction comes from their children, spouses and many of the folks who gather at their holiday tables.
“Family” was mentioned overwhelmingly in a recent survey that asked respondents what provided them with “a sense of meaning” in life. Nearly seven in ten put family on their list.
Careers, finances and faith also were frequently mentioned, but trailed far behind.
As one survey-taker put it: “It’s easy to forget what’s wrong in the world when you are pretending to be a puppy with your daughter.”
The Pew Research Center tackled the sensitive question of what makes life meaningful in a survey of nearly 5,000 U.S. adults released this month. As society becomes increasingly divided by politics and religion, certain touchstones of stability emerged as common themes, researcher said.
A satisfying career was a source of satisfaction to one in three Americans, in particular those with higher levels of education. Said one man: “I find satisfaction that I was able to be a police officer and detective in my youth and was able to help many people.”
Faith and spirituality were keys to one in five Americans. As one woman explained: “What keeps me going is I know that God loves me for who and what I am. Also keeping me going is that I’m involved with my church on a mission project and knowing that I will go to heaven some day.”
Strong friendships, rewarding hobbies and good health were also mentioned frequently.
But at least one respondent believed that a litany of things that made people feel satisfied missed the point.
“I believe meaning is something we build into our lives; by our successes, failures and experiences,” wrote the respondent. “I do not feel meaning can be found but must be created.”
Minnesota clergy say the survey tackled an important and age-old question — and one that should be kept in mind in the holiday shopping frenzy. They’re not surprised that family topped the list of meaningful aspects of life. They observe it inside church on weekends, and out in society.
“The family is one of the only non-social media relationships we have,” said Rev. Jerad Morey, a program director at the Minnesota Council of Churches. “It’s a real relationship in the real world.”
But Morey believes there’s a “bleed” between the individual sources of meaning mentioned. A person who values their family, he said, may be finding that connection nurtured in a church or his friendships, he said.
The ranking of “friendship” differed significantly by income level. One in four Americans who earn more than $75,000 a year put friendship on their list of things that give life meaning, compared to 14 percent of lower-income respondents.
Differences by religious affiliation emerged as well. More than four in ten evangelical Christians mentioned “religion-related topics” in their responses, the survey showed. Atheists, however, were more likely to mention finances, activities and hobbies and travel.
Even though just one in five respondents mentioned a religious-related theme, that doesn’t mean faith and values aren’t informing their lives, said the Rev. Susan Moss, a veteran Episcopalian minister from St. Paul.
For example, a person who has chosen a profession that contributes to society, or who selflessly supports a family member, or who engages in meaningful hobbies reflects values that may not be measured in the survey.
Moss said the survey sheds some light on a question that people have pondered through the age.
“Any clergy person will tell you that people walk in their doors because they are looking for a deeper meaning in life,” said Moss. “It’s a universal and forever question, responded to by philosophers before the time of Christ”.
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511