Where Life Has Meaning: Poor, Religious Countries

Research indicates that lack of religion is a key reason why people in wealthy countries don't feel a sense of purpose.
Sunrise in Ban Phonsavon, Laos. (thomaswanhoff/flickr)

Much ink, film, and many ones and zeros have been spilled on the topic of how to be happy lately. Science has given us some clues, often subdividing "happiness" into smaller parts: the importance of relationships and social connection, the positive effects of optimism. This sort of research gets a lot of attention when it comes out, as unhappy or even just vaguely dissatisfied people clamor for a fix. Maybe if we can unravel all the threads of happiness’s snarled tapestry and see how they fit together, we’ll finally be able to weave our own lives into a reasonable facsimile thereof.

We’ve seen before that perhaps the most important thread—more important than diet or exercise or the easy but often-unfulfilling happiness of a booze-soaked evening—is the feeling that your life means something, that you have purpose. How to get that, of course, is another knot to untangle.

A recent study in Psychological Science takes a global look at the quest for meaning, analyzing data from the Gallup World Poll to determine where people feel meaning, and how they found it. The survey data comes from 132 countries in 2007—the researchers specifically looked at self-reported meaning in life, religiosity, fertility rates, GDP, and suicide rates (from the World Health Organization).

Previous research has shown that wealthy countries typically rank higher on life satisfaction, which is not the same as meaning. Satisfaction has to do with “objective living conditions,” the researchers say, which is why wealthy countries with relatively stable economies and political conditions rank higher. But meaning is more subjective.

The Gallup data showed that countries with lower GDPs ranked higher for meaning. Toward the top were Sierra Leone, Togo, Laos, and Senegal, all of which were in the bottom 50 countries in the world for gross domestic product per capita in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund. Poorer countries also had lower suicide rates.

This looks at first like another tally in the “money can’t buy happiness” column (though in a lot of ways, it can). But the data also showed that richer countries were less religious than poorer countries. The researchers found that this factor of religiosity mediated the relationship between a country’s wealth and the perceived meaning in its citizen’s lives, meaning that it was the presence of religion that largely accounted for the gap between money and meaning. They analyzed other factors—education, fertility rates, individualism, and social support (having relatives and friends to count on in troubled times)—to see if they could explain the findings, but in the end it came down to religion.

Even among countries with similar GDPs, the more religious ones reported higher levels of life meaning. For example, the U.S. and Ireland, relatively religious, wealthy nations, reported higher meaning than Japan and France, which were similarly wealthy, but less religious.

Taking the U.S. as an example, another Gallup poll from May 2013 found that 77 percent of Americans thought religion was losing influence in the U.S., but 75 percent thought the country would be better off if more Americans were religious. Precisely in what way, it didn’t say. But based on the global study, it appears there’s something to be said for being given answers to the big questions, whether they are true perhaps less important than just having them, sparing yourself the agony of looking.

“Instead of relying on religion to give life meaning, people in wealthy societies today try to create their own meaning via their identity and self-knowledge,” the study reads. It then quotes Roy F. Baumeister’s book Meanings of Life, saying, “creating the meaning of your own life sounds very nice as an ideal, but in reality it may be impossible.” Maybe that’s what the proliferation of happiness literature, as well as the study of happiness is, at least in part: an attempt to create the meaning of our own lives.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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