What gives meaning to your life?

Some data about what people in different countries value most

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2 min read

Whether we think about this consciously or not, there’s a driving force that makes us choose one thing over another, that defines what is valuable, what is good, what is true, what gives purpose to our lives. In a recent podcast conversation on the subject among people coming from different backgrounds, reference was made to a recent Pew Research study on what makes life meaningful—what is unique to a given society or culture and what are shared values across cultures.

The panel noted that there is constant evaluation of a hierarchy of values nesting in an ultimate desire for the highest good which, as one on the panel cited, goes beyond the mundane day to day experience, even reaching to the ultimate transcendent good. In the evaluative process the distinction is made between a subjective value, something we like, but doesn’t necessarily change us vs. an objective value that confronts, rearranges, and gives meaning to life.

The Pew Research Center conducted a survey in the early spring of 2021 among 18,850 adults from 17 different countries across the globe. The questions were open-ended leaving room for every variety of response. Among the countries surveyed were Australia, Sweden, France, Greece, Germany, Canada, Italy, United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

The most cited response to what people value across the board was family and children (38%) followed by occupation and career (25%), material well-being (19%), friends and community (18%), physical and mental health (17%), society and institutions (14%), freedom and independence (12%), hobbies and recreation (10%) in that order. Farther down the ladder were education and learning (5%), nature and outdoors (5%), romantic partners (4%), service and engagement (3%), travel and experiences (3%), retirement (2%), spirituality and religion (2%), pets (1%).

Comparing different country responses, the Pew study found that career and occupation was the second most frequent choice. The span ranged from a high of 43% in Italy to a low of 6% in South Korea. Australia, Sweden, France, Greece, Germany and Canada also placed financial needs as second in the hierarchy of values. Health and well-being, including active exercise and playing sports came in third among these same countries, while the responses from the United States ranked friendship second, material well-being third, occupation fourth.

Faith, religion and spirituality selection ranked very low, no more than 5% of the participants throughout the world, while in the United States 15% mentioned religion or God as the source of meaning in their lives, even though it was the fifth among the choices. However, 29% refer to themselves as religious “nones,” meaning no particular category of religious affiliation.

Another area that set apart the United Kingdom, Australia, France and Sweden was the value they place on concern for nature, and one-in-five of their participants cited hobbies that brought satisfaction to their lives.

Americans more frequently mentioned freedom and independence as meaningful in their lives, which included financial independence, freedom of speech, and the ability to do what they want to do without political restriction.

What can be drawn from this study? Perhaps it presents a picture of where humanity is today in the scale of values it holds and the implications that can be drawn as we strive for a more united world.

Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.