Psychologists say a good life doesn’t have to be happy, or even meaningful
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.”
And so it stands to reason that someone who is generally artistic and unconventional might be drawn to a life filled with change. As the authors note, “A significant reason neither a happy life nor a meaningful life captures the full range of human motivation is that both happy and meaningful lives can be monotonous and repetitive.”
Is psychological richness a WEIRD phenomenon?
Meanwhile, the study explains that “a happy life was most strongly associated with extraversion, followed by conscientiousness, and low neuroticism,” while Big Five traits were pretty evenly split among people pursuing meaningful lives. Interestingly, the authors also found that people with psychologically rich lives were more likely to be politically liberal and embrace social change, while those with happy or meaningful lives were more likely to want to uphold the status quo.
One of the authors’ big concerns was whether pursuit of a psychologically rich life is a phenomenon particular to WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies, or something only a privileged person who had their other needs satisfied would desire. But the study found that the idea of a psychologically rich life wasn’t more popular in Western or wealthier countries than other places. And while people with happy lives tended to have higher socioeconomic status, the authors didn’t find significant associations between income and people with psychologically rich and meaningful lives.
They did, however, find that the idea of a psychologically rich life was more appealing to people in certain countries. When study participants in nine countries were asked what kind of life they would pick if they could choose only one, a happy life was the winner across the board. A psychologically rich life was most popular in Japan (16%), Korea (16%), India (16%), and Germany (17%), and least appealing in Singapore (7%).
Westgate says she doesn’t know why people in certain countries were more or less into the idea of pursuing psychological richness. But she does suspect that people may put more weight on certain versions of the good life depending on their age.
“There are times of our life when we accept discomfort and prioritize exploration,” she says, recalling her own travels in hostels when she was a young adult. And research shows that people tend to get happier as they age, which is tied to the fact that “instead of prioritizing challenging experiences, they prioritize familiar things that will make them happy; instead of meeting new people, they prioritize family and close friends. Those things do increase happiness, but may decrease psychological richness.”
What makes life worth living
Considering what it means to live a good life is complicated by the realities of the Covid era, which has imposed extra limitations on many people’s ability to create the kind of lives they want. Someone who places a lot of value on spending time with friends has probably had fewer opportunities to be social in light of lockdowns; a person who loves to travel has likely taken far fewer trips than in previous years. What kind of orientation—toward happiness, meaning, or psychological richness—might be most advantageous in our current state?
Westgate says the answer will naturally depend on the person, but for essential workers and healthcare workers who have been at the forefront of the pandemic, “focusing on meaning and psychological richness might be more salient. They’re living through challenging, dramatic times, which is associated with psychological richness, and what they’re doing is truly meaningful.”
For those of us who feel we’re not living a particularly good life right now, thinking through the different dimensions of what a happy, meaningful, psychologically rich life can look like may help us figure out the changes we want to make.
And if you feel that your life is currently good in a way that doesn’t fall into any of the three categories described by the paper, its authors note that there may well be even more dimensions they haven’t accounted for—an intellectual life, a creative life, or a loving, caring life, for example.
Aristotle was onto something nearly two and a half millennia ago. But Westgate says it’s important for psychological science to keep pushing beyond the philosopher’s foundation, expanding our views of what makes life worth living.