The findings suggest that meaning in life may be higher in poorer nations as a result of greater religiosity. As countries become richer, religion becomes less central to people's lives and they lose a sense of meaning in life.
Psychological scientist Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia said that the wealth of nations has been almost always associated with longevity, health, happiness, or life satisfaction.
Given that meaning in life is an important aspect of overall well-being, Oishi and colleague Ed Diener of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wanted to look more carefully at differential patterns, correlates, and predictors for meaning in life.
Oishi and Diener investigated life satisfaction, meaning, and well-being by examining data from the 2007 Gallup World Poll, a large-scale survey of over 140,000 participants from 132 countries.
In addition to answering a basic life satisfaction question, participants were asked if they felt that their life has an important purpose or meaning and if religion is an important part of their daily life.
The data revealed that among Americans, those who are high in life satisfaction are also high in meaning in life, but when Oishi and Diener looked at the societal level of analysis, they found a completely different pattern of the association between meaning in life and life satisfaction.
When looking across many countries, the duo found that people in wealthier nations were more educated, had fewer children, and expressed more individualistic attitudes compared to those in poorer countries - all factors that were associated with higher life satisfaction but a significantly lower sense of meaning in life.
The data suggest that religiosity may play an important role as residents of wealthier nations, where religiosity is lower, reported less meaning in life and had higher suicide rates than poorer countries.
According to the researchers, religion may provide meaning in life to the extent that it helps people to overcome personal difficulty and cope with the struggles of working to survive in poor economic conditions.
"Religion gives a system that connects daily experiences with the coherent whole and a general structure to one's life and plays a critical role in constructing meaning out of extreme hardship," the researchers wrote.
The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.
--ANI (Posted on 19-12-2013)