The good folks at the Pew Research Center have just released a major new report on a very important question: Where do Americans find most meaning in life? The answer to this question is perhaps the greatest indicator of the kind of people we are, individually and collectively. It also telegraphs the kind of nation we are. Therefore, Americans’ answers on this topic matter.
So, what did Pew find? Was it work, money, friends, pets, education, buying stuff, or hobbies and leisure that provided people the greatest sense of meaning and happiness? It was none of those. The absolute run-away top answer was family, those enduring relationships between husbands and wives, children and parents, grandparents and grandchildren, along with uncles, aunties and cousins.
When asked the open-ended question about what brings the greatest meaning to their lives, where they could freely say what came to mind without prompting, 69 percent of Americans said family. The next highest factor was one’s career, but by half as many votes. Third was money, but with three times fewer adults listing it compared to family. Nineteen percent said friends gave their lives a major sense of meaning, and a measly 5 percent said their pets did.
Only 7 percent listed their community as significantly meaningful, and 5 percent said a sense of “making a difference” did. Thus, family had no close competitor and no replacement. Not even friends and community, when it comes right down to it. This was true across all socio-demographic groups.
When it came to a similar, but more definitive question, “What is the MOST important source of meaning in your life?” — determining the intensity of their answer — family was still the run-away winner. Second to family in this more specific close-ended question, but by half, was one’s religious faith, at 40 and 20 percent of Americans saying so respectively. Only 4 percent of Americans said their job or career was the most important source of meaning, 6 percent said their pets, and 4 percent spending time with friends. Family and faith were both way out front of every other factor.
This is not a one-off finding. Family has been consistently listed among the most important life goals and sources of satisfaction and happiness for Americans for as long as such surveys have been conducted. Regardless of how materialistic, politically divided, and atomistic our culture gets, family and faith still play very substantial roles in the human heart. Let’s look at some of the other research that shows how important family is to both young and old.
Child Trends, a non-partisan research firm in Washington D.C., released a 2009 report revealing that 83 percent of young adults say that being married someday is a “very important” or “important” life goal. Remarkably, only 5 percent said marrying was unimportant to them.
In 2007, an MTV survey found that young people said their families were their primary source of happiness, followed by spending time with friends or a significant other. Nearly none of them mentioned money as a source of happiness. That same year, the London School of Economics reported the top life-desire for young adults in the United Kingdom was for a happy marriage and family, with almost a third of women citing it as their childhood dream. Nearly one in five men said it was their top choice as well.
Additionally, the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan conducted a survey examining four decades of family attitude trends in the United States, drawing from five large-scale, nationally representative data sets. They report that for all the change seen in social values and family trends, “there is very little evidence that the commitment of Americans to children, marriage and family life has eroded substantially in the past two decades.”
Of course, commitment to something is different than how people actually behave in things like divorce, cohabitation, and unmarried childbearing. Unfortunately, all of these exist at very high levels, with cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births continuing to climb at dramatic rates. The American divorce rate has stayed level at a very high rate since the early 1980s, even showing some indication of declining a tad in the last ten years.
But each of these is no one’s life dream. If today’s young adults could wave a wand and create the kinds of lifelong relationships they deeply desire, a lasting, happy marriage and thriving parenthood is their greatest wish. It is the nature of the human heart and soul to deeply desire enduring marriage and raising happy children.
In fact, these University of Michigan researchers explain, “As compared to the 1970s, young Americans in the 1990s were more committed to the importance of a good marriage and family life” and parenthood was viewed by young people then as more fulfilling than it was three decades ago. There is no substantive indication this has declined today and could very well be continuing to increase.
Many sociologists surmise this could well be because generations tend to yearn especially for that which they were denied in their formative years. This is evidenced in the fact that the children of the Great Depression went on to become one of the most materially prosperous generations of adults in our nation’s history. Both Xers and Millennials were severely robbed of loving, intact, enduring families by the millions. They were the first generations of Americans to see so many of their own families die or never form in the first place. For them, family is so much more than a feeling of nostalgia. They know firsthand, in a deeply embedded way, that nothing can replace it.
We must not forget that one of the most important aspects of being human is that we are made for others, and we cannot live in isolation. We are made to love and be loved. And the most important and meaningful places where people find these are with their family and with God — the very local and transcendent. All other relationships and life-aspects orbit around these, and research shows this time and again. Pew’s work in this report is simply the latest installment in this story.
It’s why there will always be a robust job market for those working to strengthen both of these relational aspects in people’s lives. They are not only what people want, but what they need.