Dr. Helen

Meaning in Modern America

The Institute for Family Studies has a new study out looking at the differences in meaning in modern America:

Meaning in life plays a critical role in both mental and physical health. People who view their lives as meaningful are less likely to suffer and more likely to recover from mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety than those who do not view their lives as meaningful. They are also better able to cope with stress, disappointment, and loss and less inclined to abuse drugs and alcohol, as well as desire and attempt suicide. Not surprisingly, then, those who feel meaningful aren’t just psychologically healthier—they also live longer, healthier lives…

What did we find? First, as shown in the figure below, social relationships and related social themes, such as helping others, emerged as the most prominent sources of meaning for all participants. Men, women, believers, and nonbelievers find meaning through their interpersonal relationships.

When looking at each source of meaning, we observed some statistically significant differences between groups. Theists, compared to atheists, focused more on relationships, parenting, and, not surprisingly, religion. Pointing to the general decline of religion in American life, religion did not stand out as a prominently mentioned source of meaning, even among believers. Also, atheists were more inclined than theists to describe life as having no meaning or to say they felt uncertain about life’s meaning, though this was not a common response.

There were a number of significant differences between the sexes. Women, compared to men, focused more on relationships, parenting, religion, helping others, and nature. Theist women were particularly inclined to focus on parenting as a source of meaning. Males focused more on personal goals/self-improvement.

Parental status also matters. Compared to non-parents, parents rated their partners, family, raising children, helping others, spirituality, and religion as more important to meaning. The sex of the parent was relevant when it came to the importance of family and raising children. Mothers rated family and raising children as more important to meaning compared to fathers. Women without children were the least inclined to view raising children as important to meaning….

While there are differences in what people find to be important for meaning, what about people’s actual perceptions of life as meaningful? Marital and parental status had implications for both men and women. Specifically, married people generally had the meaning advantage over other groups, and single women reported lower meaning than the other groups.

I wonder if single women gravitate toward progressive politics to give their life meaning?

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