What is a good life? Is happiness or meaning enough?

For some, but not all.

Psychologists typically think of a good life in terms of happiness or meaning, but there is growing evidence that psychological richness is another, neglected aspect of a good life.

Recent studies show that leading a psychologically rich life is related to, but distinct from, happiness or meaning in life.

  • A happy life is characterised by stability, comfort, and pleasantness. People who report high levels of life satisfaction and happiness often have stable long-term relationships either with a partner, friends, or family members.
  • A meaningful life is typically a life of purpose, coherence, and significance. People often experience meaning when they make a contribution beyond themselves, and in ways that are coherent with who they are.
  • A psychologically rich life is characterised by a variety of interesting and perspective-changing experiences. Individuals who lead a psychologically rich life seek to enrich their lives through novel experiences such as travel, literature, film, music, sports, and the arts. (Oishi et al., 2020)

It helps to think of them as three overlapping circles, distinct but also inter-related.

What matters most – happiness, meaning, or psychological richness?

There is no simple or universal answer to this question.

A series of studies, across several geographies, examined whether people favoured a psychologically rich life over a happy life, or a meaningful one.

  • The majority favoured a happy life (49.7% to 69.9%).
  • A meaningful life was second (14.2% to 38.5%).
  • A psychologically rich life was desired by a substantial minority of participants (6.7% to 16.8%), even at the expense of a happy or a meaningful life.

Whether the question is forward or backward looking also seems to matter.

American adults were asked what they regret most in their lives, then if they could undo or reverse the regretful event, whether their lives would have been happier, more meaningful, or psychologically richer. Roughly 28% reported that their lives would have been psychologically richer, suggesting that these 28% participants would have liked to live a psychologically richer life.

The answer also differs across cultures, between people within a culture, and potentially for the same person at different times.

So, it’s not a simple question, but it is a great question – one that probably need to be re-visited periodically throughout our lives.

What would your answer be?

What is a psychologically rich life?

We know psychological richness is distinct from happiness, but what makes a life psychologically rich?

Perspective-changing experiences, good or bad, can lead to richer lives.

The path to a rich life arises from novelty seeking, curiosity and moments that shift one’s view of the world. Rich experiences are neither inherently good nor bad; they may be intentional or accidental, joyous or traumatic” (Gupta, 2021).

People with predominantly psychologically rich lives tend to experience both positive and negative emotions more intensely, whereas those leading happy or meaningful lives experience positive emotions more intensely, but negative emotions less intensely.

Characteristics of situations (e.g., novelty, complexity) can contribute to psychological richness, but characteristics of the person do too – such as curiosity, openness to experience, risk taking. We probably all know someone who seems happy or fulfilled but still gets twitchy to mix things up, try new experiences, push themselves out of their comfort zone.

Challenging events can also add psychological richness to our lives. The pandemic could itself be considered a perspective-changing, psychologically rich time. It has shattered our routines and livelihoods, robbed us of our loved ones and plunged many into despondency. But it has also steered some of us to new hobbies and creative pass times, challenged our assumptions, hanker after new experiences.

Psychological richness opens up an avenue to the good life for people for whom circumstances may seem to have cut off paths to happiness and meaning” (Gupta, 2021).

Even though this research is relatively new, the findings are really interesting. The notion of psychological richness certainly features in many of my coaching conversations and resonates with my own thoughts about life. I am genuinely excited about the potential of future research in this field.

References

Sujata Gupta. https://www.sciencenews.org/article/good-life-happy-meaning-richness-change-experiences-psychology/amp

R.F. Baumeister et al. Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful lifeThe Journal of Positive Psychology. Vol.8, p.505, doi: 10.1080/17439760.2013.830764.

S. Oishi et al. Happiness, meaning and psychological richness. Affective Science. Vol. 1, June 23, 2020, p.107. doi: 10.1007/s42761-020-00011-z.

S. Oishi et al. The psychologically rich questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality. Vol. 81, August 2019, p.257. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2019.06.010. 

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