A family gets back to the playground on Oct. 6, 2021, in Auckland, New Zealand.
A family gets back to the playground on Oct. 6, 2021, in Auckland, New Zealand. (Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

On balance, people around the world most often cite family – followed by occupation and material well-being – when asked to describe what makes their lives meaningful. But the list looks somewhat different among the youngest and oldest adults, according to a Pew Research Center survey of 17 publics, conducted in spring 2021, that asked adults to describe in their own words where they find meaning, fulfillment and satisfaction in their lives.

A chart showing that young adults are more likely than older adults to cite friends as a source of meaning in life; people ages 65 and older are more likely to emphasize their health

Among those ages 18 to 29, friends and community often rank in the top three responses offered – usually second to family and far outpacing material well-being. Among those ages 65 and older, material well-being and health are frequently mentioned as top sources of meaning, while occupation isn’t mentioned enough to make the top three responses in any place surveyed.

Below, we explore the relative importance of 17 possible sources of meaning in life across four age groups: 18 to 29, 30 to 49, 50 to 64 and 65 and older.

How we did this

This Pew Research Center analysis focuses on age-based differences in where people find meaning in life. In the United States, Pew Research Center conducted a nationally representative survey of 2,596 U.S. adults from Feb. 1 to 7, 2021. Everyone who took part in the U.S. survey is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. In the U.S., respondents were asked this question: “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?”

The Center also conducted surveys of 16,254 adults from March 12 to May 26, 2021, in 16 advanced economies. All surveys were conducted over the phone with adults in Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. Responses are weighted to be representative of the adult population in each public. Respondents in these publics were asked a shorter version of the question asked in the U.S.: “We’re interested in exploring what it means to live a satisfying life. What aspects of your life do you currently find meaningful, fulfilling or satisfying?” Responses were transcribed by interviewers in the language in which the interviews were conducted.

After obtaining results from these surveys, researchers examined random samples of English responses; machine-translated non-English responses; and responses translated by a professional translation firm. Researchers then inductively developed a codebook for the main sources of meaning mentioned across the 17 publics. The codebook was iteratively improved via practice coding and calculations of intercoder reliability until a final selection of 20 codes was formally adopted (read the codebook).

To apply the codebook to the full collection of 18,850 responses, a team of Pew Research Center coders and professional translators were trained to code English and non-English responses, respectively. Coders in both groups coded random samples and were evaluated for consistency and accuracy. They were asked to independently code responses only after reaching an acceptable threshold for intercoder reliability. (For more on this, see the coding methodology.)

Here is the question used for this analysis, along with the coded responses for each public. Open-ended responses have been lightly edited for clarity (and, in some cases, translated into English by a professional firm). Here are more details about our international survey methodology and country-specific sample designs. For respondents in the U.S., read more about the ATP’s methodology.

Where adults under 30 find meaning

In all but four of the publics surveyed, those ages 18 to 29 rank family among the top three sources of meaning in their lives. Still, in many places, fewer young adults say they derive meaning from their families and children than is the case among those in the middle age groups (ages 30 to 49 and 50 to 64).

Mentions of friends and community are particularly common among those under age 30. In 13 publics surveyed, friends rank as one of the top three sources of meaning for this age group; they are the top source of meaning for 18- to 29-year-olds in the Netherlands and Greece. One 20-year-old Dutch man, for instance, said he draws meaning from “spending time with other people – not digitally, but in real life. The friendships I have.”

A chart showing that adults under 30 are far more likely than older people to volunteer friendship as a source of meaning in life

Hobbies and education are also key sources of meaning for this youngest age group. In 13 of the publics surveyed, those under 30 are more likely than older adults to cite their hobbies as a source of meaning in life. One young Australian said he finds “enjoyment and meaning” in his “passion for sports and sports analytics.”

In every public surveyed, adults ages 18 to 29 are also more likely to cite education and learning as a source of meaning in their lives than their older counterparts.

Adults under 30 cite their occupation and career frequently enough for this topic to rank third out of the possible sources of meaning. But mentions of jobs are most frequent among adults between the ages of 30 and 49.

Where those ages 30 to 49 find meaning

In nearly all the publics surveyed, one’s career is a top source of meaning among those ages 30 to 49 – and the top source for this age group in Italy.

A chart showing that people ages 30 to 49 are often more likely than other age groups to mention careers as a source of fulfillment in life

In 13 of the 17 publics surveyed – including all North American and European countries – people in this age group are more likely than people of other ages to say they draw meaning from their careers. A 32-year-old American, for example, said: “I currently have a fulfilling job where I not only make enough money to pay all the bills, but my company treats its employees very well. I have full benefits and my co-workers are kind and helpful. It’s a nonprofit as well so that’s icing on the cake.”

While family stands out as the most commonly mentioned source of meaning across all age groups, those ages 30 to 49 are more likely than anyone else to reference it in 13 of the 17 publics surveyed. The response of one 30-year-old man from New Zealand captures the sentiments of this age group well: “Main thing to have [is] a good job and stable family and friends, as long as you have those, that is what would make you happy and have a fulfilling life.”

Where those ages 50 to 64 find meaning

Family and occupation are commonly mentioned sources of meaning among adults ages 50 to 64. But relative to those younger than them, this group tends to put more emphasis on their material well-being and their physical and mental health.

In 11 publics surveyed, material well-being appears among the top three topics mentioned by 50- to 64-year-olds, more than among either younger age group. In Singapore and South Korea, people in this age group mention material well-being more than any other topic. One 61-year-old Singaporean man, for example, said: “It’s really hard to articulate what I feel. I’m doing all right in life; I’m employed and have a house. My wife and I have it good, with no financial worries for now.”

Health is also commonly pointed to as a source of meaning among those ages 50 to 64. In eight publics, physical or mental health ranks in the top three sources of meaning for this age group, while it rarely appears in the top three among those who are younger.

Where those ages 65 and older find meaning

Compared with other age groups, those 65 and older emphasize their family less, and they more frequently cite their material well-being, health, retirement and society as important sources of meaning. This group also mentions difficulties and challenges in their lives more often than younger people do.

A chart showing that older people are more likely to mention physical and mental health as a source of meaning in life

In 12 of the 17 publics surveyed, material well-being ranks in the top three sources of meaning for people in this oldest age group.

Health is their next most referenced source of meaning. In five publics, health ranks as the top source of meaning for those ages 65 and older. An 86-year-old woman in Japan, for instance, said “Life is good. Health is number one.”

In 16 publics, those 65 and older are more likely than younger people to mention retirement when describing what gives them meaning in life. One 68-year-old Australian woman remarked, “I’m semi-retired, I have more time for me. I’m exploring new options, new things, and I’m enjoying the next chapter in my life.”

Adults 65 and older are also more likely than younger people to reference their society or where they live as a source of meaning in some publics. These references include mentions of their country, the social services available, the state of their national economy and any patriotic or nationalistic sentiments. For example, one 68-year-old man in Canada said, “The opportunity to live in a country where it is safe, to go for a walk, freedom to go and visit family and friends. We have a good health system and we have places to worship. It’s really good to have community churches, the opportunity to advance yourself, for example, your career. Canada is a good place. Beautiful and safe places to visit.”

In eight places, older people are the most likely age group to mention where they live as a source of meaning – including in Singapore, where it is the top source of meaning among this age group. Society rarely makes it into the top three most mentioned sources of meaning among other age groups.

Older people also tend to be the most likely to discuss challenges or mention something negative in their open-ended responses. Negative items are referenced with enough frequency among those older than 65 to appear in the top three topics in five places, including in South Korea. As one 67-year-old South Korean woman said, “I’m not satisfied with the control by the government, which should give freedom to the people.”

Laura Clancy  is a research analyst focusing on global attitudes research at Pew Research Center.
Sneha Gubbala  is a research assistant focusing on global attitudes research at Pew Research Center.