June 24, 2019

Finding Fulfillment

Wondering where Americans find meaning in life? Look close to home.

In 2017, the Pew Research Center asked more than 4,000 American adults to name what provides them with a sense of  meaning in their lives. A large majority of respondents (69%) cited family, but faith, hobbies, health—even pets—were also mentioned.

Ask that question of 31-year-old shipwright David Thorpe of Newcastle, Maine, and he might mention an old and cherished chisel in his toolbox.

Pausing from his labors at Boothbay Harbor Shipyard, where he is part of the crew restoring a historic 19th-century fishing schooner, he unwraps the tool. Razor sharp on its steel edge, battered on its wooden end, it reveals a half-century of mallet blows—and family history. “It was my grandfather’s,” explains Thorpe, and today it serves as a bridge between his work and his family: the aspects of his life he finds most fulfilling.  

Like Thorpe, roughly one-third of respondents mentioned work or career. Born in Bangladesh to American Christian missionaries, Thorpe returned with them as a young boy to coastal Maine, where Thorpes have fished and built boats and houses since 1840. There he spent summers paddling and sailing the wooden boats his father and uncles and grandfather had built. He went off to earn a degree in mechanical engineering and took a job in his field, but punching algorithms into a computer proved dull. At age 24 he turned to shipbuilding, where he’s earned a reputation for meticulous craftsmanship. 

1/3
of survey respondents said work or career provides them with a sense of meaning.

“It’s a hard line of work to depend on,” says Thorpe, who is soon to be married. “But I appreciate working with my hands and the way it combines creativity with engineering.” And, he adds, “it continues a family tradition.” 

One in five respondents report that spirituality and faith  provide them with a sense of meaning. The Rev. Alyn Waller, senior pastor of Philadelphia’s Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, would agree.

“Serving God by serving people is literally what gives my life meaning,” says the 55-year-old Waller. 

Serving God by serving people is literally what gives my life meaning.

Reverend Alyn Waller

Musically gifted, in college he had his heart set on being a rhythm and blues guy. Then, in 1987, a young man handed him the catalog to a theological seminary “out of the blue” because, he told Waller, “the Lord told me to.” 

Waller shrugged. But hours later he learned that his older brother — a pastor who often challenged his secular lifestyle — had died, and he experienced a “change of heart and mind” that became, he says, “an irresistible call to preach.” Since arriving at Enon Tabernacle in 1994, he has grown it from 300 members to 13,000, the largest religious congregation in Philadelphia.

As pastor, his first goal is to “lead people to salvation through Jesus,” he says, “but after that I want them to find purpose: something that gets you up in the morning, that challenges you.” Every member is urged to engage in some form of ministry — teaching, evangelizing, visiting shut-ins — because “that’s what a good church should do.” 

But Waller, a published author with a doctorate in marriage counseling, has a full life outside the church, too. Married and the father of two grown daughters, he’s an accomplished martial artist, still plays piano, competes in extreme sports, and supposes that if he hadn’t become a preacher he might have been a good police commissioner.  

“It’s important,” he says, “to find what makes you tick.”  

Continue Exploring

Learn more about Americans today: Beliefs

Around the Site

  • Interfaith couples are typically less devout, research shows, but their children can make surprising faith journeys

    One Family, Two Faiths

    Interfaith couples are typically less devout, research shows, but their children can make surprising faith journeys

  • They’re waiting longer, but more women are having children—and family size is growing, too

    More Say Yes to Motherhood

    They’re waiting longer, but more women are having children—and family size is growing, too

  • In a devout country, share of religiously unaffiliated is growing

    How Religious Are Americans?

    In a devout country, share of religiously unaffiliated is growing

EXPLORE OUR FASCINATING FACTS

EXPLORE OUR FACTS