Overview:

There is no shortage of problems to worry about. But the idea that a lack of meaning in life leads to unhappiness and low life satisfaction is not borne out by research.

The very idea that life can’t work without a cosmology that embeds the individual in a larger order may itself be a religious idea, one that does not actually capture a universal human need.

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Over 80 million. That’s how many hits a Google search for “crisis of meaning” generates in the past year alone.

It makes sense that “crisis of meaning” would be in people’s minds. We are worried, and with good reason. Here in the US, the pandemic saw a surge in anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. And while suicide rates overall continued the decline that started in 2018, some populations—young men, teens, and Black Americans, for example—saw an increase. (And despite a recent decline, suicide globally remains a leading cause of death.)

But interpretations of this assumed crisis of meaning are just that—interpretations. And from the particular vantage point of religious folks, secularization is to blame.

Religious leaders and religion-friendly scholars and commentators are quick to tell us that anxiety and depression, along with social isolation and fragmentation, are driven by a crisis of meaning rooted in a decline in religious authority and commitment. Nostalgic for a past social order that they understand as richer, fuller, and more satisfying, they argue that “our lives need some kind of existential structure” which creates a sense of purpose, significance, and coherence—the three elements of meaning that religion, they claim, is uniquely good at providing.

The problem: It just isn’t true.

First, there is no crisis of meaning. In a recent study, Rice University postdoc fellow Jacqui Frost and I asked a representative sample of Americans a simple question about how often they feel that their lives are meaningful, and 39.5% responded their lives are “always” meaningful, while 51.5% said they are “sometimes” meaningful.

These rates are quite high. Importantly, they are also higher than the percentages for self-reported happiness and satisfaction in life, and lower than those for self-reported loneliness.

Second, it is clear that meaninglessness among the nonreligious is not associated with reduced well-being—an important distinction. About 5% of our religious respondents report that life is “never meaningful,” versus about 15% of the nonreligious. But the nonreligious and religious respondents were equally likely to report high levels of happiness, health, and life satisfaction. In short, the difference in perceived meaningfulness did not equate to a difference in the tangible measures of life satisfaction.

Meaninglessness among the nonreligious is not associated with reduced well-being—an important distinction.

Our research is in line with a growing body of scholarship that identifies multiple sources of both meaning-making and well-being among the nonreligious. There are two important takeaways from this research. The first is that overall, the nonreligious tend to create meaningful lives by embracing nonreligious values, values they understand as intrinsic or self-generated but that are supported by nonreligious relationships and rituals. Meaning-making among the nonreligious is quite common, but it looks different than it does among the religious.

The second implication is the most important and interesting. People vary in their need for meaning and meaningfulness, and for the portion of the nonreligious who are existentially indifferent, meaninglessness is not disturbing or associated with either a sense of crisis or with reduced well-being. So, overall, the relatively higher rates of meaninglessness among the nonreligious are still quite low, and not at all associated with reduced well-being.

None of this adds up to a “crisis of meaning.”

This is quite liberating. It suggests that idea that life needs to be constantly oriented toward existential questions, that it can’t work without a cosmology that embeds the individual life in a larger cosmic order (the idea that life only makes sense if it is shot through with meaning) may itself be a religious idea, one that does not actually capture a universal human need.

Let’s also remember that there was no widespread discourse on the importance of meaning and meaningfulness until the post-WWII era. This may be why 95% of our religious respondents reported that life is “always” or “sometimes” meaningful: Their religious beliefs tell them it is supposed to be, and in a very particular way.

The idea that life only makes sense if it is shot through with meaning may itself be a religious idea that does not actually capture a universal human need.

So what is all this talk about a “crisis of meaning” really about, if there is no crisis?

We do face some serious problems in the US today, and the pandemic has exacerbated them. Anxiety, depression, and social isolation do in fact reduce individual and social well-being, so rising rates are a valid cause for concern. High suicide rates are tragic. But what all the research shows is that these social problems are not evenly distributed. Reduced individual and social well-being are driven, and fundamentally shaped, by economic inequality, racial injustice, inadequate investment in our children, lack of adequate childcare and family leave, and the privatization of risks of all kinds. Younger generations are worse off than their parents were, and they face a life-altering climate crisis. These are the sources of variation in our individual and collective well-being.

We know what makes societies, and individuals, healthy and well. All this talk about a crisis of meaning seems like a thin and dangerous excuse for not getting on with it.

Penny Edgell (Ph.D. 1995, University of Chicago) is a cultural sociologist who studies contemporary American religion and nonreligion. She has written Religion and Family in a Changing Society (Princeton...