A ‘good’ life doesn’t necessarily have to be happy, new psychology research shows

What makes a ‘good’ life? And how do we measure it? These are questions as old as humanity itself – with many potential answers – but a new study places the emphasis on living in a way that’s ‘psychologically rich’.

That richness is defined by experiences that are out of the ordinary, varied, complex and – perhaps most importantly – cause a shift in perspective for the person going through them, according to social psychologists Shige Oishi from the University of Virginia, and Erin Westgate from the University of Florida.

Their new study finds that to some people, a psychologically rich life is more important than being happy or finding a sense of meaning – the two main areas that current psychological research tends to be concerned with when it comes to evaluating a ‘good’ life.

“Unlike happy or meaningful lives, psychologically rich lives are best characterized by a variety of interesting and perspective-changing experiences,” write the researchers in their published paper.

“We present empirical evidence that happiness, meaning, and psychological richness are related but distinct and desirable aspects of a good life, with unique causes and correlates.”

The researchers aren’t saying that psychological richness operates completely independently from happiness or meaningfulness, but that it’s a part of our wellbeing that needs more attention.

Having a happy life involves goals such as positive feelings and overall satisfaction, while finding meaning in life is associated with realizing our potential and maximizing our talents, reaching goals and making a difference.

In three surveys covering 1,336 college students, Oishi and Westgate found that psychological richness could be separated from happiness and meaning when it came to people assessing their own lives and well-being.

“Unlike happiness, our conception of richness allows for moments of discomfort and unpleasant emotion,” they write.

Further analysis of previous studies on psychological richness, language used in obituaries, and earlier surveys run across different countries, all back up the importance of this third type of having a good life. The research also suggests it goes beyond societies that are wealthy, educated, and democratic.

In terms of people picking a psychologically rich life above a happy or meaningful one, this distinction was most popular in Germany (16.8 percent of respondents), India (16.1 percent), Korea (15.8 percent) and Japan (15.5 percent), according to a previous study in which a total of 3,728 people were surveyed across nine countries. 

“We show that a non-trivial number of people around the world report they would choose a psychologically rich life at the expense of a happy or meaningful life, and that approximately a third say that undoing their life’s biggest regret would have made their lives psychologically richer,” write Oishi and Westgate.

The pair notes that moving abroad, changing careers, or being immersed in challenging art – James Joyce’s novel Ulysses gets a particular mention – are three examples of the sort of psychological richness that people are looking for.

Curiously, they note that research on this subject “suggests that a good life may not always be pleasant, and that there is value in leading lives that investigate different perspectives.” 

At the same time, the researchers also acknowledge that there may be other factors to consider beyond these three main aspects: such as learning, being creative, or caring for others, for instance.

Beyond the pursuits of a happy (hedonic) life and a meaningful (eudaimonic) life – ideas put forward by Aristotle – the psychologically rich life could offer another way of assessing whether we’re making the most of our days, and working out ways that we might want to change our lives for the better.

“Together, this work moves us beyond the dichotomy of hedonic versus eudaimonic well-being, and lays the foundation for the study of psychological richness as another dimension of a good life,” write the researchers.

The research has been published in Psychological Review.

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