And just in time for the long weekend, Pew Research Center is out with a survey of 19,000 people in 17 developed countries on exactly that question. Respondents were given 17 possible sources of meaning and asked to rank them. What's remarkable is how consistent the answers are - but also how the U.S. is different.
Family dominated. In 14 of the 17 countries, family ranked first; in another it was tied for first. In the other two, family ranked third. Nearly everywhere, occupation or material well-being occupied the second spot. And although friends made the top five in 13 of the surveyed countries, the U.S. was one of two countries where friends ranked second.(1) Families and friends: the people who sit around the Thanksgiving table.
The U.S. was also unique in being the only developed economy where religious faith made the top five sources of meaning. Nowhere else did faith make even the top 10. The nation's degree of religious belief continues to distinguish us from other developed countries - a truth many seem to find disagreeable, but which some of us consider valuable and important. (2)
All of which brings us back to work: the thing Thanksgiving gives most of us time off from. We don't know how many people like their jobs. In the U.S., job satisfaction is as high as 85% in some surveys, and under 50% in others. A recent survey by Goodhire found Generation Z to be most unhappy with their jobs. (It's not clear how greatly that last result is influenced by pandemic conditions.)
But whether or not we're happy with our work, in the Pew survey, occupation ranked as the fourth-most-important source of meaning in the U.S., just behind material well-being, for which work is the typical source, unless you inherit wealth (or become well-off through some less savory means).
This being Thanksgiving season, however, perhaps we should all be giving thanks for the existence of work itself.
The historian Jan Lucassen, in his splendid new volume "The Story of Work," reminds us that although slavery has been a dominant form of labor throughout history and in every culture, where labor has been freer, workers for millennia have taken pride in a job well done. For many, it seems, work was a source of meaning in life long before we set about the conscious search for meaning in life.
It's common these days for even well-salaried professionals to complain about the drudgery of work, but Lucassen suggests that we've never had it so good. Even as enslavement faded as a source of labor worldwide, wage-work was harsh: "Around 1830, earning a living in Britain required, on average, more than 300 11-hour days, or 3,300 hours net per year."
True, the early hunter-gatherers worked less than many of today's professionals do - an estimated 8 hours a day for men and 10 hours a day for women - but they also had a life expectancy of perhaps 30 years, not least because their existence was ravaged by predators and disease.
The 19th-century utopians imagined that by now the human race, buoyed by "mechanization," would lead lives of leisure, but that fantasy still lies somewhere in the misty future. Like other theorists, Lucassen points to the rising standard of living: Some people work hard because they like their work, but others work hard to live up to the standard. He quotes an unemployed English miner from the 1960s: "Frankly, I hate work. Of course, I could also say with equal truth that I love work."
Is our problem, then, that we like too many nice things? Turns out, the desire for nice things also isn't new. Lucassen points to evidence, for example, that already in the 8th or 9th centuries B.C.E., the development of tools was hastened by the desire to cut and polish precious stones.
Yet leisure does matter, and relatively speaking, we enjoy a lot of it. The rise of free labor, alongside improving technology and a burgeoning welfare state, has led to lives where we start our careers later (all that schooling first), work fewer hours (difficult to believe but true), and generally have the option, at some point, of deciding to lay down the burden of work and enjoy our relatively extended life-spans.
That's more time for family and friends - the things that give life meaning - than at any time in recorded history. And if that's not reason enough to enjoy a happy Thanksgiving, I don't know what is.
(1) Friends also ranked second in the U.K.
(2) The U.S. figures are not uniform across all groups: "Those who attend religious services more often are much more likely to cite their religion in their answer than those who are less frequent attendees." (And we still don't know when or whether attendance will recover from the pandemic.)