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The Meaning of Life: Research Suggests Shift Towards Secular Values

Research by PEW suggests that more Americans are deriving meaning, fulfilment, and satisfaction in life from non-religious sources.

By Scott Jacobsen

Research by PEW would seem to suggest that fewer Americans are deriving their sense of meaning in life from religion or spirituality.

In late 2017, Pew Research Center conducted two separate surveys. One posed an open-ended question to gauge what Americans feel gives meaning or fulfilment to their lives. Another asked more specific questions about meaning, offering options that ranged form careers, faith and family, to hobbies, pets, and travel. The most important sources of meaning to Americans in the first survey were Family (69%), Career (34%), and Money (23%).

In both of the surveys, family occupied the top position as the most important source of meaning. Interestingly, religion is not the most important source of meaning for many in the United States. In fact, a mere 20% attributed their source of meaning and fulfilment to religion in the open-ended questions.

Americans would seem to derive meaning in life from non-religious sources, implying a further shift in a secular direction.

“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,” Pew Research stated. “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.”

It would appear that communal, familial, and social activities provide more meaning for Americans than religion. Intriguingly, within the subgroup who identified with religion as a source of meaning for them, over 50% stated that this is the single most important source of meaning in their entire life.

Aside from family as the main source of meaning, and religion as the most important thing to those who identify religion as a source of meaning, the wealthier and more educated sectors of American society claim “friendship, good health, stability and travel” as important sources of fulfilment for them.

Evangelicals and atheists are split in their sources of fulfillment, with the former tending to find meaning in faith and the latter in activities and finances. On a related finding, politically conservative Americans find meaning in religion, while liberal-inclined individuals find meaning in causes and creative activities.

In general, the less educated, more religious, and more conservative find meaning in religion and the more educated, less religious, and more wealthy find meaning in activities, creativity, and travel. It is of comfort to note that people on both ends of the spectrum continue to find meaning in family.