Nov 3, 2011

From the Archives

70 Million Americans Feel Held Back by their Past

In the middle of the economic recession and the Occupy Wall Street protests, residents’ economic mood and outlook has been well documented. Yet, underlying emotional and identity factors are often overlooked, such as whether Americans feel they are fulfilling their own personal potential or not.

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A new study by Barna Group examines these kinds of indicators, looking at how Americans think about their lives these days. Four characteristics of millions of residents emerged from the survey.

1. One-third of Americans are struggling to live to their “fullest potential.”
One out of every three adults in this country say they are not living life to their fullest potential, including those who say they are “not at all” (6%) or “not much” (26%). A slim majority of adults (57%) feel they are “mostly” fulfilling their potential, while about one out of eight (12%) feel “completely” fulfilled. Those most likely to feel they are fulfilling their potential include Elders (ages 65-plus), practicing Christians, and Bible readers.

Interestingly, education was correlated with fulfillment, but only to a certain point: college graduates were some of the least dissatisfied, but they were also some of the least likely to feel completely fulfilled. A similar pattern emerged with regard to personal economics: the wealthiest Americans were some of the most likely to give extreme responses, either very fulfilled or very unfulfilled.

2. Seventy million Americans feel held back by their past.
Overall, 70 million Americans (31% of adults) feel “held back or defined by something in their past.” This perception was most commonly expressed by younger adults, blacks, divorced adults, unmarried individuals, and those who have some college experience but never completed their degree. Those with a practicing faith were among the least likely to feel defined or held back by their past. Lower-income households were more likely than average (38%) to feel defined by their past, though 25% of higher-income households were also likely to share this perception.

3. Nearly 70 million Americans are dealing with emotional conflict.
When asked if they are dealing with unresolved emotional pain or conflict in life, three out of 10 adults (30%) confirm this description is a present reality for them. This perception was most common among lower-income adults, divorcees, women, and those with no faith allegiance. Married adults, Elders, men, and practicing Christians were the least likely to be dealing with unresolved emotional conflict.

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4. One-sixth of Americans are wrestling with the role of church and religion.
In total, 15% of Americans said their experiences with religion have caused them to question God, a sentiment that was most common among twentysomethings, college graduates, unmarried adults, non-Christians, and unchurched adults. Similarly, 16% of Americans said they have been hurt by experiences in churches. This perception was most common among women, Boomers (the generation born between 1946 and 1964), and divorced adults.

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, directed the survey. He pointed out: “In recent weeks the Occupy Wall Street movement has focused on the economic gap between the wealthiest one percent of the population and the remaining 99 percent. As others have observed this movement reflects a mix of anti-institutionalism and disillusionment with the economy, government and financial industry.

“But perhaps Americans’ growing dissatisfaction with institutions is more influenced than they realize by their own personal expectations and experiences. While people are increasingly skeptical of external forces, like religion and government, the research shows that internal doubts about fulfillment, faith, emotion and personal history significantly define millions of the nation’s residents.”

Additional Resources and Reading

  • This study was conducted in conjunction with the development of a Barna Books project, {w}hole, by Lisa Whittle

About the Research

This report is based upon interviews conducted in Barna Group’s nationwide study called OmniPollSM. The research included 1,014 online surveys conducted among a representative sample of adults over the age of 18 throughout the United States. The survey was conducted in April 2011.

The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

The survey was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. Created by Knowledge Networks, the panel is a probability-based online non-volunteer access panel. Panel members are recruited using a statistically valid sampling method with a published sample frame of residential addresses that covers approximately 97% of U.S. households. Sampled non-Internet households, when recruited, are provided a netbook computer and free Internet service so they may also participate as online panel members. KnowledgePanel includes persons living in cell phone only households.

“Unchurched” adults are those individuals who have not attended a Christian worship service in the last six months, not including special events such as weddings or funerals.

“Practicing Christians” are those who strongly agree their religious faith is very important in their life, who attend worship services at least monthly, and who identify as Christians.

Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. It conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries.

Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website ( Additional research-based resources are also available through this website.

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About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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