First Things First: Finding meaning in life through togetherness

Julie Baumgardner
Julie Baumgardner

In a quest to find out what makes life meaningful for Americans, the Pew Research Center conducted two separate surveys in 2017. The first asked people to write in their own words what makes their lives feel meaningful, and the second asked respondents to rate how much meaning and fulfillment they drew from different sources.

After reviewing thousands of responses from a diverse range of Americans across the country, in both instances, the most popular answer was clear and consistent: Americans were most likely to mention family when asked what makes life meaningful, and they were most likely to report that they found "a great deal" of meaning in spending time with family.

Family was ranked first by two-thirds of respondents. Career or job came in second place, followed by money. One in five cited their religious faith, friendships and hobbies, all of which came in fourth on the list.

Here are some of the respondents' answers to the open-ended survey question.

"I find meaning in career, family, spiritual and hobbies aspects of my life. Those are the things that keep me going and areas that I develop goals and look to improve."

"I tend to find relationships are the most fulfilling, when I feel like a friend or family member is living life beside me and we are committing to caring for each other in tough times or good times. I also feel very happy when I am learning new things and expressing myself creatively. Everything is difficult and depressing if neither of those things are happening, and conversely even the worst situations don't seem too hard to handle if those things are present and I feel supported."

What's perhaps most interesting about this survey is that it mirrors the results from a 2003 study commissioned by the YMCA of the USA, Dartmouth Medical School and the Institute for American Values. Science has consistently demonstrated that people are hardwired to connect to other people, and to moral and spiritual meaning. They don't just want these connections; they need them.

The evidence is overwhelming that we are hardwired for close attachments to other people, beginning with our mothers, fathers and extended family, and then moving out to the broader community. Meeting these basic needs for connection is essential to health and to human flourishing.

Large and growing numbers of people in our country and around the world are suffering from a lack of meaningful connections to other human beings, especially in today's digital age. In fact, studies show loneliness is at epidemic proportions in America. However, when people are committed to one another over time and model what it means to be a productive person in society, everyone benefits.

During the holidays, people often evaluate what makes life meaningful for them. As you gather together throughout the holidays with friends and family, don't underestimate the power of the connections you're making. Despite the inconveniences that may come with planning for holiday get-togethers, the time you spend with loved ones provides a type of connectedness that is irreplaceable, and it has the potential to impact future generations.

Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at

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