By Helen Gibson
Where are Americans most likely to find meaning and fulfillment in their lives? It might depend on who you ask, according to recently released data from the Pew Research Center.
In late 2017, Pew conducted two separate surveys—one open-ended and one close-ended—to determine the answer to this question. Overall, one answer in particular stood out: family.
Almost 7 in 10 Americans (69 percent) mentioned family when describing where they find a sense of meaning in the open-ended survey, with similar results emerging in the close-ended survey.
In both surveys, Americans’ dependence on faith trailed significantly behind.
Overall, 1 in 5 respondents (20 percent) mentioned spirituality and faith in the open-ended survey. This is the same percentage of Americans who, in the closed-end survey, said their religious faith was their most important source of meaning; 36 percent said religion provided them “a great deal” of meaning and fulfillment in the closed-end survey.
While religion was not the most popular answer in either survey, some groups were more likely than others to say they found their fulfillment in their faith—and among those who respond this way, religion seems particularly meaningful.
“While religion is not a universal source from which Americans say they obtain ‘a great deal’ of meaning, it is a highly salient source of fulfillment among those who select it,” says Pew’s analysis of the research.
Among those in the close-ended survey who say faith provides “a great deal” of meaning, more than half (55 percent) say it’s their most important source of meaning. This is more than the share of those in this group (30 percent) who claim family as their most important source of fulfillment.
There are certain types of people who are more likely to list religion as a source of meaning and fulfillment, based on denominational affiliation, political leanings, age, and marital status.
Among denominational groups, evangelical Protestants (65 percent) and historically black Protestants (62 percent) are most likely to say they find “a great deal” of meaning and fulfillment in their faith in the closed-ended survey.
This includes 45 percent of evangelicals and 38 percent of historically black Protestants who say religion is the most important source of meaning in their lives. For evangelicals, this is greater than the share (31 percent) who claim family as their most significant source of meaning.
These percentages are notably lower among Catholic (41 percent) and mainline Protestant (39 percent) believers in the closed-ended survey. Similarly, fewer Catholics (17 percent) and mainline Protestants (15 percent) say their faith is their most important source of meaning. Catholics and mainline Protestants were both more likely to select family as giving them the most meaning.
On the other hand, atheists and agnostics are more likely to say they find fulfillment in finances (37 percent of atheists and 27 percent of agnostics) and hobbies (32 percent of atheists and 27 percent of agnostics) than religion.
“Not surprisingly, very few self-described atheists mention spiritual topics when asked what makes life meaningful,” according to Pew.
At the same time, conservatives are more likely than liberals to say they find meaning and fulfillment in their faith. Additionally, older Americans are more likely than younger Americans to say they find fulfillment in religion, and married people are more likely than those who have never been married to say the same.
Helen is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee.