The meanings of life

Hey, it’s Rose! I write for the blog at Datawrapper. Two weeks ago, my colleague Becca published a Weekly Chart that used tooltips to tell a story for each data point. I really loved this way of revealing the individuals behind the data, so today I’m bringing you my own take — this time, on the good things in life.

Philosophers tried for a few millennia, but it’s the Pew Research Center who finally discovered the meaning of life: “to eat homegrown vegetables.” Or maybe “playing Scrabble with [your] husband every night.” Also “a cat that likes to sit on [your] lap,” of course. And “living in Taiwan” factors in as well.

Okay, it’s probably fair to say that the meaning of life is still up for debate — after all, some say it’s not a cat but an emu that’s important, and not Taiwan but Belgium that’s the only place to live. Let’s say what we’ve got here are the meanings of life: 18,850 people’s open-ended musings on what makes their own lives meaningful, fulfilling, or satisfying. Pew surveyed these people, who live in 17 economically advanced countries, between February and May 2021, then coded their responses according to the major topics mentioned. Now we can say quantitatively that family is what keeps most people going, and that pets are more beloved in New Zealand than anywhere else.

That’s pretty cool already, but what drew me to this data was that it also included a selection of the original responses — direct quotes from participants, translated into English, on what matters to them in life. You can hover over the dots on these charts to read some for yourself.

Unsurprisingly, relationships with other people rank highly all over the world. Family and children were the number one source of meaning in 14 out of 17 countries surveyed; spouses and romantic partners get fewer explicit mentions, but do manage to outrank pets across the board. Several people noted how the pandemic has changed their relationships. A young French woman reported, “Before the pandemic I didn't really know my neighbors. Since it started we have been helping each other.” A woman in Greece said, “Because of the pandemic, my family has bonded more and our relationship […] has evolved.”

One thing I love about these responses is how they show people finding fulfillment in opposite life situations. For many, work is paramount: one man in New Zealand said, “my work is the most fulfilling [thing] I do as I work for an animal sanctuary looking after kiwi and native birds […] All the work that I do is going to last longer than I do.” An American woman agreed, “I work in retail and it's not glamorous but it makes me happy. I could never go to work and be bored.” Meanwhile, in the UK, one man finds his life’s satisfaction in “the fact that I no longer work,” and a Belgian man agrees, “I'm retired so I don't have to get up early, I'm free and can do whatever I want.”

To interpret these charts, it’s important to know that countries varied a lot in terms of how many sources of meaning people were likely to name. Sixty-two percent of South Koreans touched on only one topic, whereas only 23% of Australians did the same. What that means is that, on average, all topics will get fewer mentions from South Koreans than from Australians. The safest way to compare countries is to look at their relative ranking of each topic — for example, Americans stand out by ranking spirituality and religion as their top “big picture” source of meaning, whereas all other countries prioritize freedom or social institutions. Sometimes it’s clear how country-level factors might influence what people value most in their lives. For example, one man from Taiwan explained simply, “Living in Taiwan is very free, freer than China and Hong Kong.”

Usually we hear about the big and bad things that happen far away from us; these stories are a window into the small and joyful. I’m rooting for the 44-year-old woman in Australia who told the survey-taker, “I didn't study for my HSC [Higher School Certificate] so I'm redoing my HSC again […] giving myself [a] second chance.” I’m happy for the 93-year-old in New Zealand who answered, "Now that I can write poetry and that I've got a publisher interested, I find it's very satisfactory,” and also for the 20-year-old in the Netherlands who responded, "Because I am a refugee, I didn't think I could go to university, but it turned out to be possible.” I love these little, plural meanings of life. As one participant put it, it’s “this momentary blip in a cosmic timescale […] The mystery of it all and trying to decode my little part of it.”

How to create these charts

If you’re a regular Datawrapper user, you’ll have noticed these dot plots look jazzier than usual, with custom tooltips and text annotations. This isn’t a feature announcement — nothing in the tool has changed. What you’re seeing this week is just another face of the ultra-versatile scatterplot

Disguising a scatterplot as a dot plot took three main steps. First, I assigned each country a number from 1–17, based on the order I wanted them to appear in. That column of country codes provides a vertical axis value for each dot. Second, I drew in a background grid using the “Custom lines and areas” feature. And finally, I used text annotations to create the axis labels.

Using a disguised scatterplot has some disadvantages — my fake axis labels are less responsive than real ones, and I can’t reorder the countries with a simple “sort” option. Still, it can be a great option when you want to push the boundaries of another chart type.

That's all from me this week! Next Thursday, our map master Anna will bring us a special Weekly Chart for her name day.