Life Purpose

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Shifts in the purpose and meaning of life

Americans, for the most part, are insulated from the needs which have historically driven human activity - the search for food, shelter, and the basic necessities of survival. As a result of this, we might expect them to be happier than those in poorer regions who are forced to fend each day for these basic essentials. This is true to an extent, however, the correlation between economic development and happiness drops off past a certain point - once one's basic needs are taken care of, becoming wealthier beyond that point does not seem to lead to increased happiness. Indeed, as Americans have become wealthier and wealthier, there has been an increasing dissatisfaction with life, and an increasing desire to seek some greater purpose which previous generations did not feel the need for. In order to test the hypothesis, we have looked at data from the US and other wealthy countries, such as Germany, and compared it with that from countries at less advanced stages of economic development. We have also looked at studies and surveys of American adults, asking about their happiness, the importance of finding meaning in life for them, and their overall psychological state. From this evidence, it seems that economic development has led to an increased number of Americans trying to find their purpose in life or find a meaningful life. However, this doesn't so much seem to be because they suddenly have the time or mental energy to pursue this higher goal, but rather because they have lost the sense of meaning people in less developed countries already have.

The Effect of Development on psychology

In general, economic development leads to increased life satisfaction. This is true both of personal incomes and national economic development. According to the World Happiness Report, about 28.75% of variations in happiness between countries are accounted for by differences in GDP, and the ten happiest countries have a GDP per capita twenty-five times higher than that in the ten least happy countries. However, this does not always hold true, in a phenomenon known as the "Easterlin Paradox", first noted by a researcher named Richard Easterlin. He found, back in the 1970s, that in two of the world's most developed countries, the US and Japan, happiness no longer seemed to be increasing along with income. In the US, this has remained the case.

A good illustration of this can be seen by looking at happiness data from three countries at different stages of development - Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Germany. Malaysia is far wealthier than Bangladesh, and this shows up in the figures on happiness - only 34% of Bangladeshis rate their happiness at 7/10 or above, compared with 56% of Malaysians. Germany is turn much richer than Malaysia, so we would expect to find a similar increase in happiness, but this is not the case - 60% of Germans rate their happiness at 7/10 or greater, only a slight increase from Malaysia despite a vast difference in wealth. This may suggest that increased economic development, and decreasing need to focus on daily survival, only improve happiness to a point. Once one is secure in one's basic needs, having more than that may only lead to a very modest increase in happiness.

This may be because people in less developed countries do not have the need to search for meaning in their lives - they already have it. In fact, according to data from Gallup, countries with low GDPs ranked highest for meaningful lives, with Sierra Leone, Togo, Laos, and Senegal at the top of the list. This may also be related to the fact that poorer countries tend to be more religious. The same research found that people living in poorer countries not only reported that their lives were more meaningful, but they also had much lower suicide rates. In fact, research from Oishi and Diener, published by the Association for Psychological Science, found that there was a measurable negative correlation between GDP growth and meaningful lives, specifically -0.49, meaning that a doubling of GDP could be expected to lead to a roughly 49% decrease in people reporting that they found their lives meaningful. Suicide and GDP growth were found to have a positive correlation of 0.28, again indicating that on average a country with 100% larger GDP than another would be expected to have a 28% higher number of suicides per capita.

Oishi and Diener propose two principal reasons for this decrease in purposefulness as economies develop. One is that people may construct meaning from negative events in order to be able to cope with them - those who suffer less have less of a need to construct meaning in order to get by. The second possible reason supports the hypothesis quite strongly. They write, "in difficult economic conditions, many people are forced to work day and night. By necessity, they are preoccupied with the things that they must do to survive. Under such conditions, they might have a clear sense of meaning in life (e.g., do what I need to survive)." Hence, without this necessity, people must search for greater meaning, that may be more difficult to find, leading to an increased need to find a new purpose. A final reason they suggest for this decrease in purpose in wealthier countries is a decrease in religiosity. They found that meaning in life had a 0.63 correlation with religion - a country which is twice as religious as another could be expected to have a 63% higher rate of people reporting meaningful lives. As Oishi and Diener note, wealthier countries tend to be less religious, and so this may also be causing a decrease in meaningfulness.

Effect on modern americans

Clearly we can see that while economic development leads to greater happiness up to a point, it certainly does not lead to people seeing increased meaning in their life - quite the opposite. Paul Froese, a Professor of Sociology at Baylor University, argues that this is because in the struggle for material stability, the global poor are insulated from the effort to find meaning because they must focus their efforts on finding sustenance. He writes, "In fact, our mastery of the material world has created something new and awfulthe full realization of meaninglessness. But this terrible feeling is unequally distributed. It largely bypasses the Third World that is constantly engaged in an existential struggle of the physical kind. The
poorest of the poor are insulated from meaninglessness within their religious cultures and their tight-knit communities. Lacking a purpose to life is a fate that befalls mainly the First World individual." If Froese is correct, then finding a purpose in life becomes important when people lose the need to struggle for survival. Those people already report having a purpose, because they find purpose in trying to meet their daily needs. Once this is no longer a challenge, we must strive to find new meaning, but this can be very difficult and leads to widespread feelings of purposelessness in the first world.

This is born out in the data about modern Americans. The search for purpose is extremely important to them - 97% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "For me, it is important that I live a purposeful life." However, not everyone is finding it easy to do so, and many are still trying -36% of Americans say they have not yet found a purpose in life, and nearly three in five Americans say they are currently trying to 'find themselves'. This is less important for people in developing countries - for the most part, they already feel they have a purpose.


While increased wealth seems to bring increased happiness, at least to a point, it also causes a decrease in purpose in life. When people have lost this purpose, it becomes important for them to find a new one, leading to an increase in searches for meaning and purpose among wealthier nations, a trend certainly born out in the statistics specific to the United States. Both the research from Oishi and Diener and the article from Professor Froese indicate that a decreased need to work for survival is probably a major cause of this decrease in purpose in wealthier nations, supporting the hypothesis.