Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

What Makes Life Meaningful? Views From 17 Advanced Economies

Appendix C: Codebook

Below are the instructions given to researchers who coded the responses to the open-ended question.

We are trying to assess what people care about and how they seek meaning in their lives. In these responses, people will mention many different aspects of life. Mark all that apply. Include both positive and negative mentions (e.g., treat “I don’t have enough money” the same as “I have enough money”; treat “I’m glad I’m healthy” the same as “I’m dealing with health problems”) – we are trying to categorize what people care about and focus on

First, determine if the response actually answered the question. If you encounter a response that cannot be interpreted as actually answering the question in any way (e.g., “I don’t know” or “I don’t want to answer”) then mark it as (1) and move on to the next response. For all other responses – those that make any attempt to provide a substantive answer to the question, even if they’re vague or lacking in specifics – you should proceed to assess Categories 2 through 17 normally. Finally, check Categories 18 and 19 and assess whether the response mentioned any difficulties or challenges (18) or anything related to COVID-19 (19) regardless of how you coded Categories 2 through 17. You may occasionally encounter responses that do not match to any categories (responses like “living in the moment” that answered the question but don’t mention anything in Categories 2-17) – simply leave these responses blank and move on. These will be captured as code 0, or “general positive.” 

Generally speaking, you should think about responses as being composed of “units of information” – words or short phrases or statements that tell you something.  Each word or phrase you encounter should belong to only one category (excluding Categories 18 and 19), but responses will contain multiple phrases, so most responses will mention multiple categories. As you’re working through a response, try to break it into discrete statements and take them one at a time. If you are unsure how to categorize a particular statement, focus on its emphasis (i.e., what is the most important or unique element of information it’s telling you?) 

(0) General positive

Some responses consist entirely of vague or general statements that cannot be clearly marked as pertaining to any of the below categories. For example, “being happy”, “achieving my personal goals”, “live with love”, “be grateful”, etc. If no other category can be marked, you should flag the response as Don’t know/refused.

(1) Don’t know / refused

I don’t know, I don’t understand the question, what do you mean, I don’t want to answer, this question doesn’t make sense

Mark if a response is equivalent to a refusal or “don’t know” – where the respondent simply chose not to offer any opinions or thoughts at all. Only mark if no other codes are applicable (i.e., they did not answer the question.) Do NOT mark if there’s any way to interpret the response as an answer to the question (e.g., “none” or “nothing” or “my life isn’t meaningful” count as legitimate answers, even they do not mention any specifics outside of Difficulties or challenges.)

If (1) does not apply:

(2) Family and children

Family, children, kids, being a parent, grandchildren, being a grandparent, my children’s future/upbringing, my siblings, raising good kids, leaving a legacy, extended family, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, wanting to have kids or a family, not close with family, relationship difficulties with family/kids

Does NOT include references to “children” if it’s absolutely clear that they are not talking about their own (e.g., “I enjoy my job teaching children”). However, if it is ambiguous (e.g., “giving children a better future”) then include it. When in doubt, count it.

(3) Spouse and romantic partners

Spouse, partner, girl/boyfriend, romance, being in love, being married, being in a relationship, marriage, dating, sex, relationship difficulties with spouse/partner, “my relationship” (singular)

Includes “being in love” but does NOT include generic references to “love”.

(4) Friends, community and other relationships

Friends, loved ones, relationships, other people, others, socializing, social engagements, social life, spending time with others, meeting new people, relationship difficulties with friends, community, group, being part of a group/club, belonging to a group, attending group events, membership in a group, (non-work) organizations, online community, not being able to attend group events

Any mention of friends, generic references to relationships, being part of a community or group, “other people”. Coworkers and colleagues should be coded as Occupation and career instead. “Helping others” in a general sense, volunteering with or being a part of a charity or service group, and community involvement that’s focused on service (like “giving back to the community” or “community service”) should be marked as Service and civic engagement instead. Church and religious groups should be coded as Spirituality, faith and religion instead, unless they specifically mention the community aspect of church (in which case, mark both categories). Includes membership in online communities, social media groups, etc. Do not include abstract identity groups (it must be a tangible group of people they engage with personally.)

(5) Service and civic engagement

Making a difference, service to others, volunteering, fighting for a cause, helping other people, contributing to society, making the world a better place, having an impact, activism, being politically engaged or involved, being a productive member of society, helping a charity/service group

Helping others (above and beyond personal responsibilities like work and taking care of relationships like family and friends). Must refer to personal activities, contributions or involvement; general political opinions do not count. Being a good citizen or serving your country should be coded as Society, places and institutions instead. Staying politically informed should be coded as Education and learning instead.

(6) Society, places and institutions

Where I live, my town/neighborhood/city/state/country, patriotism, I appreciate my country or government, glad to live in my country, thankful for government services (transit, transportation, education system, healthcare system, the NHS specifically), national economy, unemployment is low, land of opportunity, glad I don’t live somewhere else, living somewhere with conveniences, political stability, democracy, tax system, social security, pension system, government benefits, healthcare system, education system, GDP growth, country has handled COVID well, living in a land of freedom, well-funded public services, being a good citizen, serving my country, glad to live in my neighborhood/town/city/country, my government/leaders make me proud

How they relate to where they live at any level beyond their immediate residence; includes “where I live” when no additional context is provided. Includes appreciation of their neighborhood, town, city, state or country, and social amenities and services that they have access to, public or private (public transport, infrastructure, schools, etc.) Includes political frustrations and complaints about government, laws, etc. Includes any mention of their country or nationality (e.g., “I live in Canada”, “as an American…”) Appreciation of their own property or their “living environment” or “place of residence” should be marked as Material well-being, stability and quality of life instead. Appreciating their country’s natural beauty, “rural living” or “living in the country” should be marked as Nature and the outdoors instead. General mentions of freedoms (e.g., “freedom of speech”) that aren’t specifically linked to their country or government should be marked as Freedom and independence instead. If they mention a political or social cause that they are directly involved in themselves and the emphasis is on service or personal action, mark it as Service and civic engagement instead. Includes “the education system” but if it is not absolutely clear that they are referring to the system itself (e.g., access to good schools, etc.) then it should be marked Education and learning instead. References to “economic level”, “economical”, etc. should be assumed to pertain to personal finances and be marked as Material well-being, stability and quality of life unless it is clear they are talking about the economy in general. Includes all mentions of “health care”; if they specifically mention the cost or affordability of health care, then mark Material well-being, stability and quality of life as well.

(7) Material well-being, stability and quality of life

Standard of living, quality of life, “home,” finances, money, costs, living comfortably, comfort, being comfortable, safety, security, stability, basic needs, feeling safe, feeling secure, expenses, being happy with what we have, being well-off, my living environment, prosperity, wealth, luxury, creature comforts, “roof over my head,” “food on the table,” steady income and employment, having food/housing, owning a house, having nice things, feeling unsafe, financial uncertainty, making ends meet, can(’t) afford things, being unemployed, not having work, lack of income, wanting to own a house, wish I could afford more, enjoying my home and garden, living an ordinary/normal/simple life, living frugally or economically

Any mention – positive or negative – about what they have or don’t have, or material things they need or want. Anything pertaining to finances, housing, basic needs, safety, security, material comfort, etc. Includes references to “home,” “being at home”, “homelife”, “my living environment” or “place of residence” if there’s no additional context to suggest that they are talking about their broader geographic/societal surroundings.  Includes safety and security (financial or otherwise), making ends meet, covering basic necessities, being able to live comfortably or afford living the way they want, etc. Includes unemployment or lack of income. “Economic freedom” and work-life balance issues should be marked as Freedom and independence instead. Appreciating where they live outside of what they themselves own (e.g., “glad to live in a safe country”, “public security”) and mentions of “where I live” (without any additional context) should be marked as Society, places and institutions instead. Anything related to health care should be marked as Society, places and institutions, unless they specifically mention costs or affordability (in which case, mark both). Includes ambiguous references to “economic level’, “economical”, etc. unless it is clear that they are talking about the economy in general rather than their own personal finances (i.e., obvious references to “the economy” in general should be marked as Society, places and institutions instead.) Includes references to “living simply” or living an “ordinary”, “normal” or “simple” life (which suggest a sense of stability and living within one’s means). Does NOT include generic references to “well-being,” “peace,” “peaceful life,” or “living peacefully”. 

(8) Retirement

Retirement, retiring, saving for retirement, (not) being able to retire

Any mention – positive or negative – about retirement, in the present or future. If they are retired but mention their former career (e.g., “I am a retired teacher”, “I used to be a lawyer”) then you should also mark Occupation and career. Mentions of the pension system or social security programs should be marked Society, places and institutions instead.  

(9) Freedom and independence

Freedom, having free time, economic freedom, independence, sense of control, freedom of movement, freedom of choice, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, political freedom, religious freedom, freedom of travel, COVID travel restrictions, freedom about how to spend time, work-life balance and freedom from work, working from home, not having enough time to do what I want, no control, feeling restricted, lack of independence/freedom/control, freedoms are being threatened, wish I could spend more time at home

Any mention – positive or negative – related to their ability to do what they want with their lives, above and beyond their material well-being and comfort. Includes poor work-life balance or having to work too much. Feeling constrained by finances should be marked as Material well-being, stability and quality of life instead. When freedoms are linked to their country (e.g., “living in a land of freedom”, “living in a country where I have freedom of speech”) mark as Society, places and institutions instead. Spending free time with the emphasis on doing something with it (e.g., “spending my free time gardening”) should be marked as Hobbies and recreation.

(10) Occupation and career

Work, career, job, professional success, colleagues, coworkers, enjoys their job, being good at their job, work is worthwhile, being successful, earning (not just having) money, difficulties with coworkers, work-related stress

Includes mentions of their former occupation or career. Work-life balance, working from home, having to work too much, and freedom from work should be coded as Freedom and independence instead. Being unemployed, job loss or not having enough work should be marked as Material well-being, stability and quality of life instead. Going to school so they can get a job or advance in their career should also be marked as Education and learning.

(11) Education and learning

University, school, independent research, learning, learning new things, staying informed, curiosity, appreciating philosophy, pursuit of knowledge, staying politically informed

Going to school so they can get a job or advance in their career should also be marked as Occupation and career. Activities like reading, going to libraries or visiting museums should be marked as Hobbies and recreation instead. Includes references to the education of their family/children. Does NOT include general references to “personal growth”. References that are clearly describing the education system (e.g., access to good schools, etc.) should be marked as Society, places and institutions instead.

(12) Nature and the outdoors

Nature, outdoors, the environment, climate, fresh air, mountains, the beach, high biodiversity, green open spaces, countryside, appreciating nature, being with nature, spending time outside, spending time in the country, rural living, protecting the environment, enjoying good weather, access to the outdoors, natural beauty, living near nature, climate change, pollution

Does NOT include outdoor activities like gardening, hiking, camping, fishing, etc. (which should always be marked as Hobbies and recreation) unless they explicitly emphasize the environment (e.g., “spending time outside”, “hiking in the mountains”). Includes responses that express concern about negative environmental situations, such as climate change, pollution, etc.

(13) Pets

Pets, dogs, cats, taking care of my animals

Intended specifically for the ownership of or relationship with animals. Animal-oriented activities like birdwatching or horseback riding should be marked as Hobbies and recreation instead.

(14) Spirituality, faith and religion

God, religion, faith, spirituality, worship, prayer, feeling connected or “at one” with the universe, church, parish, not being able to attend church 

Religious freedom should be marked Freedom and independence instead.

(15) Physical and mental health

Health, “being well”, wellness, still alive, still kicking, staying healthy, eating healthy food, trying to lose weight, mindfulness, meditation, exercise, fitness, working out, illness, sickness, medical problems, health concerns, wish I was healthier, depression, mental health problems, stress, anxiety, worrying about getting sick, fears of dying, glad I’m not sick

Any mention – positive or negative – of their own health, mental or physical health practices, health conditions (good or bad), or concerns about health. Includes references to the health of family or loved ones.  Does NOT include references to the health of “other people” in general – i.e., talking about health and health care at a social level – which should be coded as Society, places and institutions instead. Includes general references to “exercise,” “fitness” or “working out” but mentions of specific physical activities like biking, running, hiking, “sports”, etc. should be coded as Hobbies and recreation instead. Access to health care or remarks about the cost/affordability of healthcare should be marked as Material well-being, stability and quality of life instead. Appreciation of government health care programs should be coded as Society, places and institutions instead. Includes “being well” but not “well-being” or “being well off” in American English; similar phrases in other languages should be included only if the predominant interpretation tends to unambiguously refer to health and wellness. Includes descriptions of mental health conditions like stress, worrying, depression and anxiety – or the lack thereof – if the focus is on the condition itself (e.g. “I am worried all the time”, “I never worry about anything”, “living without stress”, “I struggle with depression”). However, if the emphasis is on something specific (e.g., “I’m worried about the bills”) then the response should be marked for whatever is being emphasized.

(16) Hobbies and recreation

Hobbies, relaxing, relaxation, leisure time, having fun, cultural events, TV, movies, “activities”, personal projects, crafts, video games, eating, drinking, cooking, sports, pastimes, reading, listening to music, playing music, internet, spending time online, painting, drawing, hiking, camping, hunting, surfing, skiing, birdwatching, fishing, cycling, biking, swimming, horseback riding, dancing, running, jogging, weight-lifting, spending my free time on things I enjoy, gardening, working on my house/car/garden, housework, going out, visiting museums, opera, going to the movies, restaurants, the arts, enjoying good food

Includes any personal activities they enjoy doing that are not explicitly covered by other categories (i.e., work and school activities, travel, spending time with friends, etc. do not belong here) Includes general references to “activities,” “going out,” “having fun” and “relaxing”. Includes “leisure time,” but “free time” (which emphasizes having time itself) should be marked as Freedom and independence instead. Includes “sports” and specific physical activities like biking, running and hiking, but general references to “exercise,” “fitness” or “working out” (which emphasize health rather than specific activities themselves) should be coded as Physical and mental health instead. Mentions of travel, exploration, adventure or doing new things should be marked as Travel and new experiences instead.

(17) Travel and new experiences

Travel, being able to travel, adventure, doing new things, visiting or exploring new places, exploration, trying new things, new experiences

Freedom of travel/movement should be coded as Freedom and independence instead. Learning about new things should be marked as Education and learning instead. Meeting new people should be marked as Friends, community and other personal relationships instead. Does NOT include references to “vacation” or “holiday” unless it implies travel (e.g., “going on vacation”).

(18) Difficulties or challenges

“Nothing”, “Nothing is meaningful”, “I don’t feel satisfied”, health difficulties, illness, depression, life sucks right now, nothing gives me meaning, everything is bad, life is difficult, can’t cover basic needs, not enough money, stress, no job, too much work, not enough free time, worrying about the news, apathy, past trauma, medical conditions, loss of a loved one, complaining, being frustrated, political complaints

Mark if they mention negative circumstances, difficulties, frustrations or challenges; complain about something; mention an aspect of their lives that they do not like; express general dissatisfaction with life; or describe frustration with some aspect of life (e.g., living situation, financial circumstances, relationships, job, etc.) Includes responses that indicate “nothing is satisfying/meaningful”. Includes negative experiences or setbacks in the past or present, or concerns about the future. Includes responses that state that they find nothing meaningful in their lives (e.g., “none”, “nothing”, “not too much”, “my life is not meaningful”). Do not make assumptions if it is ambiguous. It is not uncommon for someone to respond as though they are offering advice, which can sound very similar to someone complaining. If a response lists off meaningful things (e.g., “to find a job, buy a house”, “to have more money”) and it is unclear whether they are describing things they have, versus things they wishthey had, versus giving general advice – do NOT mark it as negative. Such responses should only be included if you are fairly certain that respondents are describing aspects of their life that they wish were better. Similarly, mentions of social problems should only be marked as negative if it is implied that they view it as a negative thing (e.g., include references to “climate change” and “illegal immigration”, but NOT references to “climate” and “immigration” unless the phrase is unambiguously negative in its particular linguistic/cultural context.) Code this regardless of whether they mention anything in categories 2-17.

(19) Any COVID-19

COVID, vaccines, lockdowns, masks, safety precautions, quarantining, travel restrictions

Any explicit mention of the pandemic/COVID situation, including restrictions, safety precautions, etc. Responses that require you to “read between the lines” DO NOT count. A good rule of thumb is: Ask yourself whether a respondent would have been likely to mention something prior to the pandemic. Mentions of “restrictions” and “masks” probably wouldn’t have come up had we asked this question in prior years, so we include these as obvious references to the pandemic. On the other hand, phrases that could have previously shown up as references to something else, like politics or personal circumstances (e.g. “after such a crazy year”, “I wish we could travel right now”) should NOT be included. Code this regardless of whether they mention anything in categories 2-17.

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