Meaning in life is central to individual and societal flourishing. People must believe that they have the power to live meaningful lives. The good news is that the majority of Americans do believe they have this power, but there are reasons for concern that should inspire our society to focus more on understanding the factors that promote meaning in life.
A large body of research reveals that meaning is important for mental, physical, and even financial well-being. People who view their lives as meaningful are not only more satisfied with their lives, but they are less at risk of depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide. Meaning in life also predicts gains in household income and net worth over time.
The more people believe that they have a meaningful role to play in the world, the more inspired they are to behave in ways that help keep them alive and thriving. Meaning also orients people toward helping others. Indeed, based on studies my colleagues and I conducted, the more people are focused on living a meaningful life, the more likely they are to engage in prosocial behavior such as volunteering and charitable giving.
A society populated by existential agents, people who believe in their ability to live meaningful lives, will be a more flourishing society. This raises the question: Do Americans view themselves as existential agents?
At the Archbridge Institute, we recently partnered with NORC at the University of Chicago and its AmeriSpeak panel to conduct a survey exploring this question. We asked a nationally representative sample of just over 2,000 U.S. adults to what extent they agree or disagree that they have the power to live a meaningful life.
We found that the majority, 63%, agree or strongly agree that they have the power to live a meaningful life. Men and women are equally likely to view themselves as existential agents, and there is very little difference across distinct regions of the country. Education is positively associated with existential agency, but the majority of people who have at least a high school level of education agree or strongly agree that they have the power to live a meaningful life. Similarly, household income is positively associated with existential agency, but the majority in every income group agree or strongly agree they have the power to live meaningfully.
The importance of work and marriage cannot be overstated. Sixty-two percent of employed and 65% of self-employed people agree or strongly agree that they have the power to live a meaningful life. This number drops to 46% for those who are not working but looking for work. Seventy percent of married people, 62% of divorced people, and 46% of separated people agree or strongly agree that they have the power to live a meaningful life.
There are notable age differences that warrant concern. Fewer than 40% of people between 18 and 24 years of age agree or strongly agree they have the power to live a meaningful life. For all older age groups, the majority view themselves as existential agents. This may seem counterintuitive, given that young adults are generally viewed as idealistic and have much of their lives ahead of them. In addition, thanks to social, scientific, and technological progress, young people today have greater access to accumulated knowledge and a wider range of opportunities that allow them to reach their full potential.
Perhaps existential agency naturally develops with age and life experience, and there is little reason to worry. However, the current findings are consistent with other research indicating that young adults are increasingly anxious, pessimistic, and distrustful of others.
The American dream is another interesting factor — pursuing it is tied to existential agency. Nearly 80% of those who believe they have achieved the American dream and two-thirds of those who believe they are on their way to achieving it agree or strongly agree that they have the power to live a meaningful life. This number drops to 32% among those who believe the American dream is out of reach.
At a time of fear, outrage, victimhood, and despair, Americans should be encouraged by our findings. Most people believe they can live meaningful lives, and many are. As a society, we must focus more on promoting cultural messages and educational experiences that encourage existential agency.
The more our society recognizes and celebrates the ways that humans have engaged their existential agency to improve their own lives and the lives of others, the more people will recognize their own potential and strive to realize it.
Clay Routledge is a senior research fellow at the Archbridge Institute, a faculty scholar at the Sheila and Robert Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth, and the Arden & Donna Hetland distinguished professor of business at North Dakota State University.