What Makes Life Meaningful?

People around the world told what helped them find meaning in life. Religion was low on the list, but family relationships were high. What does the Bible say?

I recently saw a survey result that surprised me. The Pew Research Center asked people in 17 advanced economies, “What makes life meaningful?” Then they just let people answer without giving them a list of choices or prompts.

Apparently not religion

The statistic that shocked me was that only 15 percent of Americans mentioned religion as something that makes life meaningful for them. More shocking, that 15 percent was by far the highest of the countries surveyed. Looking at all 17 nations, one finds only 2 percent mentioned religion! Religion was near the bottom of the list, just below retirement and travel and new experiences.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, since religion has lost a lot of influence in these wealthy nations.

And besides, as I thought about it, I realized the question was not really what I was reading it as. I was imagining answering: What is the meaning of life? But most people were just considering, what am I doing or experiencing that makes my life more meaningful? Most weren’t thinking about the ultimate meaning of life.

What makes life meaningful? Top answer: family

From that perspective, I think the top answer in almost every country makes sense:

“From analyzing people’s answers, it is clear that one source of meaning is predominant: family. In 14 of the 17 advanced economies surveyed, more mention their family as a source of meaning in their lives than any other factor. Highlighting their relationships with parents, siblings, children and grandchildren, people frequently mention quality time spent with their kinfolk, the pride they get from the accomplishments of their relatives and even the desire to live a life that leaves an improved world for their offspring” (emphasis added).

Even without considering God, many people do recognize that family is a great blessing.

Antidote to loneliness

Other surveys have pointed out the flip side of modern life—the number of people feeling disconnected and lonely. In her book The Loneliness Epidemic, Susan Mettes points out that “a quarter of Americans said they had no one to talk to about ‘important matters.’”

And she says, among U.S. adults, the younger you are, the more likely you are to experience loneliness.

For example, nearly half of Millennials had felt lonely for at least some of each day, while only a third of Gen X and 19 percent of Boomers said the same.

So the importance of family in giving us meaning, belonging, relationships and serving makes sense.

What makes life meaningful? Quotes from the survey

Let me share a few quotes from the Pew survey. What makes life meaningful?

  • A 38-year-old man in the Netherlands said, “My 6-year-old daughter. I think that you pass on the world to each other and that it’s important to try to do good for the next generation.”
  • A 34-year-old woman in the U.S. said, “Wow, what I find satisfying? I am a parent and watching my kids grow has been a blessing. I hope they grow up to be respectable members of society.”
  • A 63-year-old woman in the U.S. said, “At my age I care about the future lives of my children and their families. I want a world for them that is peaceful, clean and caring. So many things have changed in my lifetime, and we are adaptable, but I don’t know that things will get better, be safer, or just less stress-free.’
  • And a 78-year-old woman in Sweden said, “My children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They give my life meaning.”

There are many more, but let’s switch gears to look at how this relates to the Bible and to the ultimate meaning of life.

What does the Bible say about the meaning of life?

What the Bible says actually connects to this survey result. Ultimately, a family relationship is the real and eternal meaning of life!

God is our Creator, and He created the family as the ideal relationship to nurture and support us.

Yet when we look at our fleeting lives and consider the vastness of the universe, we can wonder if there is something more. We ponder what it all means and where we fit in all this.

King David had such thoughts that he recorded in Psalm 8, and they were so poignant the author of Hebrews quoted from Psalm 8 as he explored the meaning of life.

What is man?

Hebrews 2:6-8 says:

“But one testified in a certain place, saying: ‘What is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You take care of him?

“‘You have made him a little lower than the angels; You have crowned him with glory and honor, and set him over the works of Your hands. You have put all things in subjection under his feet.’”

David wondered about our place in the universe, and the amazing blessings God has already given mankind. The author of Hebrews expanded on these blessings to encompass the whole universe, and he showed how God has made this human potential possible.

Verse 10 adds: “For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”

Jesus Christ was willing to die to make it possible for us to become children of God, and to inherit all things!

Children of God and joint heirs with Christ

Romans 8:16-17 gives more about this ultimate purpose of our lives:

“The Spirit [itself] bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.”

We can be joint heirs with Jesus Christ of everything!

You may have heard of the German shepherd dog that inherited a $500 million estate from a German countess. But that pales into insignificance compared to what we can inherit!

We can be children of God, in a close, caring, meaningful relationship that will deepen and strengthen throughout eternity!We can’t even comprehend the size of the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy or the entire physical universe! How much less can we begin to imagine the infinite promises of God (1 Corinthians 2:9)? All this was designed and lovingly crafted by the Creator God who wants to share it with us!

“What manner of love the Father has bestowed on us”

The apostle John recorded one of the most inspiring passages in the Bible in 1 John 3:1-3:

“Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.

“Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

“And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”

We can be children of God, in a close, caring, meaningful relationship that will deepen and strengthen throughout eternity!

Our physical families now can be a foretaste of that. Family is a training ground for that future, and a great blessing from God.

Even many of those who answered the survey recognized that blessing. Their answers about how family gives meaning to life were encouraging.

“Under pressure, exhausted, stressed”

But not all the answers were upbeat. Life is hard, and as you would expect, some of the answers reflected what is going on in this troubled world. Here are just a couple of those touching answers:

A man in Spain said, “Between coronavirus, politics and climate change, there is a lot of pressure and it’s hard to see a future . . . we’re all under pressure, exhausted, stressed and waiting for something [to] happen to make things better.”

A woman in the U.S. said, “I think our world has gotten more and more troubling and [is a] harder place to live. I don’t think it will ever get better.”

Many people do not have a strong support structure. Many families are dysfunctional or even abusive. Even strong families are burdened with the troubles and discouragements of this world. Many people see all the problems, but don’t see the hope on beyond.

Finding hope

Thankfully the Bible reveals that things will get better and that God has a plan—a family plan—to give real meaning to our lives—and the lives of all people.

Study more about the biblical keys to a successful family life now in the many articles in our “Relationships” section. And learn more about God’s plan to bring many children to glory by downloading our free booklet God’s Purpose for You: Discovering Why You Were Born.

About the Author

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett is editorial content manager for the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in the Dallas, Texas, area. He coordinates the Life, Hope & Truth website, Discern magazine, the Daily Bible Verse Blog and the Life, Hope & Truth Weekly Newsletter (including World Watch Weekly). He is also part of the Personal Correspondence team of ministers who have the privilege of answering questions sent to Life, Hope & Truth.

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