Research: The Shifting Views of Americans on Meaning and Purpose

As Americans attempt to move past the life-altering effects of 2020, their perspective is shifting on some of the most significant questions facing humanity. A study from Nashville-based Lifeway Research finds, compared to a decade ago, U.S. adults today are more likely to regularly wonder about meaning and purpose in this life but less likely […]

As Americans attempt to move past the life-altering effects of 2020, their perspective is shifting on some of the most significant questions facing humanity.

A study from Nashville-based Lifeway Research finds, compared to a decade ago, U.S. adults today are more likely to regularly wonder about meaning and purpose in this life but less likely to strongly believe finding a higher meaning and purpose is important.

Americans are also more likely to contemplate whether they will go to heaven when they die but less likely to strongly believe there is more to life than this physical world.

“In the midst of such a discouraging season, fewer Americans are convinced there is something more to this life than their daily activities,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “A large majority still lean toward there being an ultimate purpose for a person’s life, but instead of escaping the pandemic with thoughts of something greater, far fewer strongly hold such a view. A growing number of Americans have become open to the idea that this might be as good as it gets.”

Finding purpose

Most Americans (57%) say they wonder, “How can I find more meaning and purpose in my life?” at least monthly, with more than 1 in 5 saying they consider the question daily (21%) or weekly (21%). Few (6%) say they think about it yearly. Close to 1 in 4 (23%) say they never wonder about finding more meaning and purpose. Another 15% aren’t sure.

Compared to a 2011 Lifeway Research study, Americans today are more likely to regularly think about how they can find more meaning and purpose. A decade ago, 51% said they wonder about finding meaning and purpose at least monthly, with 18% saying they think about it daily and 19% saying weekly. Thirteen percent said they thought about that question yearly, and 28% said they never considered it.

“During COVID-19 many experiences, pleasures, and metrics of success became irrelevant overnight,” said McConnell. “It is not surprising that more people thought about their purpose and what matters in life.”

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Most Americans say everyone’s life has a purpose and it’s important to them that they pursue their deeper purpose, but U.S. adults aren’t as sure about that as they were a decade ago.

Four in 5 Americans (81%) believe there is an ultimate purpose and plan for every person’s life. More than 2 in 3 Americans (68%) say a major priority in their life is finding their deeper purpose. Almost 3 in 4 (73%) say it’s important they pursue a higher purpose and meaning for their life.

Each of those percentages are similar to 2011. There has been a significant shift, however, from strong agreement to more hesitant agreement. Those who strongly agree with each statement dropped, while those who somewhat agree rose.

“Few Americans are ready to deny there is an ultimate purpose and plan for every person’s life,” said McConnell. “But more are stepping back from this driving their own pursuits. Life has become a more pessimistic pursuit with fewer going all out for something better.”

As Americans consider higher meanings, most believe they have found it. Close to 3 in 5 (59%) say they have found a higher purpose and meaning for their life, with 28% disagreeing.

Religiously unaffiliated Americans are the most likely to disagree (37%). Americans who belong to a religion other than Christianity are the most likely to agree (80%).

Among Christians, the more often they attend church, the more likely they are to say they have found a higher purpose and meaning for their life. Half of those who attend less than once a month (51%) say they’ve found such meaning for their life, compared to 69% of those who attend one to three times a month and 76% of those who attend four times a month or more.

More than this?

Close to half of Americans (45%) say they wonder, “If I were to die today, do I know for sure that I would go to heaven?” More than a third (37%) say they never think about that question, and 18% aren’t sure.

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Compared to 2011, more Americans today say they wonder if they’ll go to heaven daily (15% to 8%), and fewer say they never think about it (37% to 46%). More now also say they aren’t sure how often they consider the question than a decade ago (18% to 12%).

Christians who attend worship services four times a month or more (46%) are as likely to say they never wonder about their eternal destination as the religiously unaffiliated (47%), but perhaps for different reasons. Those religious nones, however, are more likely to say they never ponder if they will go to heaven when they die than Protestants (37%) and Catholics (26%).

“The question of going to heaven doesn’t cross the minds of people who don’t believe in heaven and those who are completely certain they will go to heaven,” said McConnell. “While the Bible teaches one can be certain a place is prepared for you in heaven, nearly half of Americans pause each year wondering if heaven is waiting for them.”

Even if most Americans aren’t regularly contemplating their admittance to heaven, the vast majority believes there is more to life than just what they can see.

More than 4 in 5 U.S. adults (85%) believe there is more to life than the physical world and society. Few disagree (9%) or are not sure (6%).

The total agreement percentages are similar to 2011, but there is significant movement away from certainty. In 2011, 67% strongly agreed, and 21% somewhat agreed. Today, 43% strongly agree, and 42% somewhat agree.

In the latest study, Americans ages 18 to 34 and those 35 to 49 (87%) are more likely to say there is more to life than the physical world than those 65 and older (79%). The religiously unaffiliated are the most likely to disagree (20%).

First published on LifewayResearch.com. Used by permission.