Family, work, friends: what makes our life meaningful?

What makes life worth living? It’s a question we rarely ask ourselves, because we already know the answer… Or would we rather not know? Not know how much our life resembles the answer we would give, how much meaning we give to the things we own, rather than seeking things that are meaningful for us? Well, the good news is that pandemics encourage this kind of reflection. Pandemics, but also other major life events: losing someone, giving birth, falling sick, learning something. These events inevitably slow us down and reveal the hidden mechanisms that regulate our lives, making them visible, hence vulnerable, questionable, improvable.

That’s why the results of this year’s Pew Research Center research are even more interesting to look at. The ambitious survey interviewed 19,000 respondents in 17 countries, in order to find out “what makes our lives meaningful.” Notably, the questionnaire wasn’t made of close-ended questions. Instead, researchers  extracted data from the respondents’ narratives. A bold decision enabled by technology: rather than establishing what to find in advance, technology allowed to extract it straight from the complexity of human narrative, hence opening up to many more discoveries.

So, here is the question asked in the very same way, across the 17 countries, including Italy:

“We’re interested in exploring what it means to live a satisfying life. Please take a moment to reflect on your life and what makes it feel worthwhile – then answer the question below as thoughtfully as you can. What about your life do you currently find meaningful, fulfilling or satisfying? What keeps you going and why?”

Who knows whether, in the days after the interviews, the Pew Research investigators have checked the mood of those who answered the question. In fact, there are at least two questions: the first is what keeps us going, what pushes us out of bed in the morning, in our cars, to the office, travelling, working, planning, pushing, pulling, back and forth, without interruption. The second is about the why: why do we do it? In the end, the research only mapped one type of question which combines these two aspects of our lives’ meaning. Let’s take a look at them, but keep in mind that they’re always made of two perspectives: the meaning of what we do as our “what”, and the meaning of what we do as our “why”.

In first place, family was quoted as a source of meaning by 38 percent of respondents in nearly all countries studied (with some notable exceptions like Spain, North Korea, Taiwan and Italy’s hybrid case). For some reason, the study makes a distinction between family and romantic love, which occupies the eleventh place with only 4 percent of preferences (7 percent in Italy), lower than nature, hobbies, family relations, society and learning. Therefore, family means “non-romantic love”: family ties, but most of all children, the household like a small self-sufficient community, which brings out love and responsibility, giving a meaning to everything.

And what about Italy’s hybrid case? In first place, we find family together with work (43 percent), which in other countries is generally in second place with 25 percent of preferences on average. Work is strong in all responding countries in the 30-64 age range, where it occupies second place; it goes down to third place in the 18-29 age group while it completely disappears after 65, leaving room for material well-being and health. Work is therefore seen as a right, as a form of citizenship, self-expression and an opportunity for personal growth, as well as a source of sustenance. Spaniards share the Italians’ view, putting work before family (40 percent of respondents), but after health and material well-being.

Finally, in most countries, the third place is occupied by material well-being, friends and physical and mental health. Again the results offer us a wide range of information if seen by age range. Friendship, for instance, is a pillar of life for younger respondents, while losing ground when getting older. Health makes an appearance in third place, while in adulthood material well-being prevails. You can nearly see them before your eyes, the dreams and ambitions that take shape as years go by, and continue to inflate and deflate in the face of reality. Work goes from third to second place when turning 30, winning over friendship, only to lose ground against material well-being at 65. Meanwhile, our health worries reach the top three positions.

With all this back and forth, it is remarkable to find the concept of family in top position: a word that can have multiple meanings, as it changes with culture, age, economic conditions and geographic location. Yet, family still prevails, like our roots giving sense to our being, but also fruits that confirm we’re able to exist beyond our limits, in a future that does not foresee our existence.

So, do we know what keeps us going? And how does it make us feel to think about it?

This article was originally written by Riccarda Zezza and published on the Il Sole 24 Ore blog, Alley Oop. To read the original article (in Italian), please click here