What Matters for Living a Fulfilling Life

Daniel A. Cox July 29, 2021

In a parking lot against a pale blue sky and dark blue metal wall, two young women laugh and smile while one sits inside of a shopping cart while the other pushes the cart.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted many Americans to reevaluate their life choices, from their current job or career to their relationships to where they live. It also offered an opportunity for Americans to assess to what extent their current life choices aligned with their values and priorities. Now, the June American Perspectives Survey offers some clues as to what Americans believe is truly necessary for living a full and rewarding life. And in at least one instance, there is a considerable discrepancy between what Americans value and the time they devote to it.

Above all else, what matters most to Americans is friendship. Nearly six in ten (58 percent) Americans say that having good friends is essential for living a fulfilling life. No life experience is considered more essential than friendship.

This is notable particularly because, at least in American culture, no relationship is emphasized more often as the key to happiness than marriage. And although research has shown there are plenty of benefits to marriage, most Americans—including the majority of those who are married—say that being married is not crucial to living a full life. Only 25 percent of Americans say being married is essential. Notably, men are more likely than women to say being married is essential (32 percent vs. 19 percent).

Slightly more Americans say being in a committed romantic relationship is essential. Roughly one in three (35 percent) Americans report that a romantic relationship is an essential prerequisite to having a full and rewarding life.

Children are also not widely viewed as key to fulfillment—only 27 percent of Americans say raising kids is an essential ingredient to a fulfilling life. This holds for parents as well. Less than half of parents – and fathers (49 percent) more than mothers (40 percent) – say having children is a necessary component to living a good life.

Only 15 percent of Americans say being wealthy is critical to living a fulfilling life—although Americans who earn less are significantly more likely to believe this is important. Over half (56 percent) of Americans say having a job you enjoy is essential to fulfillment.

These responses reveal a profound dissonance between what Americans say they value and how they live. According to the public, the two things most essential to a fulfilling life are having good friends and job or career that they enjoy. But most of us rate our jobs as being either mediocre or bad. And if judged by how we spend our time, then we appear to place vanishingly little importance on friendship. According to the American Time Use Survey, Americans spend less time cultivating and maintaining friendships than any other relationship.

The lack of time we devote to friendship is strange. Not only does a growing body of research suggest that friendships are essential to our health and personal wellbeing, but Americans have no trouble identifying friendship as the most essential ingredient to a fulfilling life. Having purpose and people to share our lives with are the basic building blocks for living well. Not all of us will be able to find our dream jobs, but there is no doubt that even with busy schedules we could devote a lot more time to our friendships. It just requires hewing a bit more closely to our actual priorities.

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