What is the meaning of life? Depends on your politics

July 19, 2018

Researchers find that, even after accounting for religious belief, the association between political leanings and a sense of purpose is strong.

Contact: Emily Gersema, (213) 361-6730 or gersema@usc.edu; or Ron Mackovich, (213) 740-6156 or ronald.mackovich@usc.edu

“To be or not to be?” Hamlet asked as he pondered the meaning of life.

Maybe he was a liberal.

A new psychology study led by the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences shows that conservatives, more so than liberals, report feeling that their lives are meaningful or have purpose.

“Finding meaning in life is related to the sense or feeling that things are the way they should be, and that there is a sense of order,” said David Newman, a doctoral candidate at USC Dornsife’s Mind and Society Center. “If life feels chaotic, then that would likely dampen your sense that life is meaningful.”

The results, published on June 15 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, were based on five studies examining how strongly conservatives and liberals feel that their lives have purpose.

Does a belief in God give people a greater sense of purpose?

The scientists analyzed results from two nationally representative samples and three additional samples in which well-being was assessed in various forms. Altogether, these studies encompassed thousands of participants from 16 countries and spanned four decades.

Participants usually ranked their political ideology on a scale from one to seven, ranging from “extremely conservative” to “extremely liberal.” They also rated how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “my life has a real purpose” and “I understand my life’s meaning.”

The psychologists were aware that religious belief may be a factor and adjusted the results to account for it. Even then, the association between political leanings and sense of purpose held strong.

The results suggest “that there is some unique aspect of political conservatism that provides people with meaning and purpose in life,” the scientists wrote.

Does political leaning impact well-being?

Newman cautioned against making conclusions about anyone’s state of mind and overall well-being based solely on their political leanings.

“It doesn’t mean that every conservative finds a lot of meaning in their life and that every liberal is depressed,” Newman said.

Other factors may influence whether someone feels that his or her life is meaningful. “These factors range from various personal characteristics such as how religious someone is to situational influences, such as one’s current mood,” Newman said.

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Study co-authors were Norbert Schwarz, Provost Professor of psychology and marketing and co-director of USC Dornsife’s Center for Mind and Society, and Arthur Stone, Professor of psychology, economics and public policy at USC Dornsife and director of USC Dornsife’s Center for Self Report Science at the Center for Economic and Social Research. Psychology researcher Jesse Graham of the University of Utah, formerly of USC Dornsife, also was a co-author.

The work was supported in part by a grant (P30 AG024928) to Stone and Schwarz from the Roybal Center for Research on Experience and Wellbeing at Princeton University. The center is funded by the National Institute on Aging.