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What do Americans really value? Each other, apparently

This classic strip from Bill Watterson's beloved Calvin & Hobbes series scores laughs for two reasons. It's funny to watch a six-year-old kid philosophize about happiness and come to such a greedy and cynical conclusion, but that conclusion is also amusing because it feels so familiar to adults. It's easy to assume that many of the people around us are chiefly motivated by a lust for profit — an assumption reinforced by the plots of countless books, films, and other works of fiction.

This dim view may not be warranted, though. ClearerThinking recently conducted a survey in which 60 American respondents answered roughly 40 open-ended questions about their values, motives, worries, goals, and sources of satisfaction in life. This survey was designed to help us develop a better idea of what makes the people of the United States tick, and to deepen our broad understanding of human psychology and values. Its 40 questions produced some 2,400 free-text answers from the respondents, which our team spent some 20 hours analyzing.

Surprisingly, the participants in this survey didn't seem particularly interested in accruing heaps of cash. Instead, their answers to a whole host of questions privileged a different resource: their friends and family.

Here are some examples:

  • When asked to describe their most cherished memory, participants mentioned family more often than any other factor, in roughly 37% of their responses.

  • When asked to name things that give their lives meaning, 4 out of the top 5 most common factors named by respondents involved other people: 45% of the answers mentioned family, 30% mentioned friends, 23% mentioned children, and 17% mentioned helping others. The final top factor? Pets, who appeared in about 18% of the responses.

  • When asked what features of their lives inspired gratitude, a full 65% of respondents mentioned friends or family.

  • When asked to summarize their lives in a few sentences, over half of participants (53%) mentioned family.

  • A question about what in life gives respondents the most happiness also found that family was the most commonly mentioned factor (38%), with romantic partner coming in second (17%).

That's not to say that the survey participants weren't interested in money at all. But money mostly appeared in user responses as a source of consternation, rather than a driving passion. It was one of the two most commonly-names causes for concern in participants' lives — both money and health appeared in 22% of user responses. (Even death itself inspires less stress, appearing in 18% of user responses.) Many respondents also expressed a desire to resolve money-related problems in their lives. When asked what they most hoped would be different in 5 years' time, the survey group named personal finances most frequently (in 40% of all answers).

Another question demonstrated the survey group's surprising attitudes towards money and interpersonal relationships even more poetically. The question asked respondents to imagine that they'd be performing the same workday, 5 days a week, for a decade, and then asked them what they'd prefer that workday to involve. "Helping others" was one of the two most common answers, appearing in 28% of responses. By contrast, money went unmentioned entirely — except in cases where the users specified that they don't care about making money, as long as they enjoy what they're doing.

Like most such studies, this survey should be interpreted with various grains of salt in hand. Despite the huge amount of total data it collected, its sample size was small, and the participants were drawn from workers on Amazon's Mechanical Turk service. As a result, the participants were likely not a fully representative sample of the American public at large — there's reason to suspect that they skewed a bit younger, more liberal and less religious than the broader populace, for instance. It's also possible that some respondents gave answers that would register as more socially desirable in an effort to avoid feelings of shame, though the risks of this distortion may have been reduced by the fact that the survey was conducted remotely and anonymously. Despite such limitations, though, these heartening results give Americans some reason to think better of their neighbors' inner lives than they otherwise might.

This finding also isn't the only notable result from the survey. Stay tuned for more discussions of what we learned from it in the coming months.

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