by Sarah Todd
Crucially, an experience doesn’t have to be fun in order to qualify as psychologically enriching.
- New research suggests there’s an alternate way to living a good life.
- It isn’t focused on happiness or purpose, but rather it’s a life that’s ‘psychologically rich’.
- A psychologically rich life is one characterized by ‘interesting experiences in which novelty and/or complexity are accompanied by profound changes in perspective’.
- Studying abroad, for example, is one way that college students often introduce psychological richness into their lives.
What does a good life look like to you? For some, the phrase may conjure up images of a close-knit family, a steady job, and a Victorian house at the end of a street arched with oak trees. Others may focus on the goal of making a difference in the world, whether by working as a nurse or teacher, volunteering, or pouring their energy into environmental activism.
According to Aristotlean theory, the first kind of life would be classified as “hedonic”—one based on pleasure, comfort, stability, and strong social relationships. The second is “eudaimonic,” primarily concerned with the sense of purpose and fulfillment one gets by contributing to the greater good. The ancient Greek philosopher outlined these ideas in his treatise Nicomachean Ethics, and the psychological sciences have pretty much stuck them ever since when discussing the possibilities of what people might want out of their time on Earth.
But a new paper, published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Review, suggests there’s a another way to live a good life. It isn’t focused on happiness or purpose, but rather it’s a life that’s “psychologically rich.”
An interesting and varied life
What is a psychologically rich life? According to authors Shige Oishi, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, and Erin Westgate, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida, it’s one characterized by “interesting experiences in which novelty and/or complexity are accompanied by profound changes in perspective.”
Studying abroad, for example, is one way that college students often introduce psychological richness into their lives. As they learn more about a new country’s customs and history, they’re often prompted to reconsider the social mores of their own cultures. Deciding to embark on a difficult new career path or immersing one’s self in avant-garde art (the paper gives a specific shout-out to James Joyce’s Ulysses) also could make a person feel as if their life is more psychologically rich.
Crucially, an experience doesn’t have to be fun in order to qualify as psychologically enriching. It might even be a hardship. Living through war or a natural disaster might make it hard to feel as though you’re living a particularly happy or purposeful life, but you can still come out of the experience with psychological richness. Or you might encounter less dramatic but nonetheless painful events: infertility, chronic illness, unemployment. Regardless of the specifics, you may experience suffering but still find value in how your experience shapes your understanding of yourself and the world around you.
Adding psychological richness to our conceptions of what a good life can look like, Westgate says, is important because it “makes room for challenge and difficulty. It’s not just about ‘everything going well and smoothly.’ Stretching and going through uncomfortable experiences, there is value in that.”
Conversely, she says, if we allow ourselves only narrow models of what a good life can be, we may wind up assuming that someone whose life is neither hedonic nor eudaimonic must therefore have a bad life, which is “incredibly presumptive and dismissive of people’s experiences and values.”
Who wants psychological richness?
Hedonic, eudaimonic, and psychologically rich lives are not mutually exclusive, nor is one better than another. “Someone whose life is good, it tends to be good in many ways, not just in one way,” Westgate notes. So you might have a life that’s happy, purposeful, and filled with transformative experiences. Lucky you!
But people may also choose to prioritize one type of life over another. For example, the study analyzed Big Five personality traits among participants from a number of different nationalities. (The Big Five test, viewed as the most scientific of personality assessments, evaluates where subjects fall on the spectrum of five personality traits: conscientiousness, openness to experience, neuroticism, extraversion, and agreeableness.)
According to the study, people who ranked highly on “openness to experience” were more likely to lead psychologically rich lives. Openness to experience, Oishi and Westgate say, is often characterized by “vivid fantasy, artistic sensitivity, depth of feeling, behavioral flexibility, intellectual curiosity, and unconventional attitudes.”…