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A Meaningful Life Is Dependent on Where You Live (Part II)

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By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Department Chair, Communication and World Languages Programs

Note: This article is part 2 of a two-part series exploring the definition of a meaningful life as interpreted by people in different countries.

In Part I of this series, I talked about the results of a recent international Pew Research survey about what is a meaningful life, as well as commonalities and country-specific differences in what specific countries found meaningful. In this article, I will look at how money and wealth might influence meaning and the takeaways for those who live in the U.S.

GDP and Happiness in Life

One of the obvious limitations of the Pew Research study about a meaningful life is the fact that all of the surveyed countries were high Gross Domestic Product (GDP) countries. Those countries were:

  • France
  • Germany
  • the United Kingdom
  • Taiwan
  • Japan
  • The United States
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • South Korea
  • Belgium
  • Singapore
  • The Netherlands
  • Greece
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Italy
  • Canada

The average GDP per capita for these countries in 2020 was around $42,000. Greece was the lowest at $17,676, and the highest was the U.S. at $63,549.

The average GDP per capita for the world in 2020 was $10,909 as of December 2021. That means that Greece was 166% higher than the global average, and the U.S. was almost 600% higher.

Looking at the GDP per capita for the surveyed countries, it seems like life is pretty good for the people who live in these countries. However, these places are not perfect.

For instance, not everyone who lives in the U.S. or Japan is rich. Also, there is still violence and corruption in all of the surveyed countries.

However, the countries in the Pew Research survey have lived in relative peace and stability for at least three generations since the end of World War II and the Korean War. The people of these countries can focus on ideas and concepts to provide meaning to their lives, rather than just fighting for survival on a daily basis.

If other countries were surveyed by Pew Research, would they have the same concerns? Countries that are plus or minus 20% of the global GDP per capita average or $10,909 include Bulgaria, Russia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, China, the Seychelles, and Panama.

Many of these countries would have similar concerns to the Pew Research countries when it comes to living a meaningful life, but their concerns would also be different. Would “freedom” provide meaning in Russia and China, or would it be “society”? Would “material well-being” be a concern in Kazakhstan or Panama, and how would these countries have different views of what material well-being means?

In addition, how do people in China view “material well-being”? China has been wildly successful economically over the last generation, but it is still communist and highly authoritarian in how it delivers messages and controls its people.

After you get past the GDP per capita average, what would happen if you surveyed countries that are the lower end of the GDP per capita average at 20% (around $2,181)? The countries that are 20% of the global GDP per capita average include India, Bangladesh, Iran, Kenya, Honduras and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The United Nations and the World Bank have a very different GDP per capita estimate for Iran.

These poorer countries embody extremes. They have great wealth alongside dire poverty (India), have struggled for decades (Honduras), or have struggled because of the legacies of colonialism and wars (Democratic Republic of the Congo).

In addition, Iran is mainly a theocracy, so its government is partially based on Islamic law. That type of government will give Iranians a different perspective on how the government interacts with its people and the role of religion.

Part of briefly looking at the average and the lower end of the GDP per capita average is not to insult or make fun of these countries but to recognize that there are many countries with very different needs than the ones surveyed in the Pew Research report. If you look at all of the countries and territories that are included in the World Bank’s information about GDP, the ones that have a GDP per capita of Greece or above account for around 19% of the world’s countries.

Sixty-nine percent of the world is below Greece, and around 12% of the world did not have data for 2020 for one reason or the other. So even if you look at the 17 surveyed countries and the other countries that do as “well” as Greece, you are looking at a minority of the world.

If you parse out the 17 countries, you are looking at only 6% of the world’s countries and their overall population is around 12.4% of the world’s population. Even if you account for the high population impact of these 17 countries, they still account for a very small minority of the world.

Related link: COVID-19: What Life Lessons Can We Learn from Stoicism?

Takeaways of the Pew Research Survey

In many ways, all countries in the world are different, yet similar. Often when we watch the news or read reports about other places around the world, we think the people who live in these locales are radically different from us, but they are not.

All individuals get up in the morning and take care of their families. They go to work; they eat similar yet different foods. They come home after work and take care of their families, then they go to sleep and follow the same routine the next day.

Residents of many countries will pray to a God but in different languages. Everyone will hope for a better future. We all have the same existence and find meaning in similar things.

American citizens could learn a great deal from people and cultures in other countries. First of all, most people on this planet find great meaning in their families, occupations and material well-being. Although you do not have a choice of who your family is, you can make the choice to have positive relationships with people who will know you longer and better than anyone else in the world.

Next, the people all over the world want to have an occupation that gives them meaning and provides some sort of material well-being. While the meaning of material well-being varies from person to person and country to country, material well-being for most people generally means having enough money to not worry about tomorrow.

When we think about societies, especially the U.S. and other Western countries, we often think of great wealth and opulence. However, most people want a good life where they can provide for their family, buy what they need, and live a stable and happy life.

Although most people would like to be rich, a lack of wealth does not bother them. Even if they were wealthy, being rich would not give them any more meaning in their lives.

Finally, the U.S. could learn a lot from countries such as Taiwan and South Korea in relation to freedom. Freedom is one of the foundational values in the U.S. and yet for generations, our freedom has never truly been threatened externally or internally.

Some people will say that freedom is always in danger for one reason or another, but in reality, the U.S. is a rich country that is safe compared to many other countries in the world. People should learn from these countries because they find great meaning in their freedom and value it every day while U.S. politicians like to give freedom lip service to gain and retain political power.

At the end of the day, the definition of a meaningful life is different for each person. A meaningful life depends upon the country where you are born, your family, how rich or poor you are, how you view the world, and if you are religious or not religious.

With so many variables that shape how we view meaningful lives, it is a comfort to know that no matter how different we think we all are, we all have very similar foundational ideas on what a meaningful life is. These similarities in family, occupation and material well-being are what bring us together.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Department Chair. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and a MBA from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer writes about culture, leadership, and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. He also writes children’s music.

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