On the psychologically rich life

What does it mean to live a good life?

Philosophers have been attempting to answer this question for millennia and the debate persists today. Along with life’s other big questions, it’s something I’ve occasionally thought about as well, though not in any great detail.

Until recently, psychological research on the good life had focused on two forms of well-being: hedonic (a happy life) and eudaimonic (a meaningful life). A recent study challenged this seemingly limited view of the good life and proposed a third dimension: a psychologically rich life.

A psychologically rich life is a life of curiosity and exploration. It’s not that you have to chase after new and exciting experiences all the time. Rather, it’s an invitation to remain curious about life in its fullness, and not limit yourself to the comforts of what you already know. - Shigehiro Oishi, Psychology professor at UChicago

Dr. Oishi and his colleague Erin Westgate define a psychologically rich life as one that includes novelty, interestingness, and importantly, perspective change. Experiences that allow us to view things from new angles and gain broader perspectives are essential for psychological enrichment.

Source: A Psychologically Rich Life: Beyond Happiness and Meaning

The researchers are not making moral judgments about which type of good life is superior. Rather, they suggest broadening our definition of the good life to encompass experiences that may not be positive or meaningful, but can still be psychologically rewarding. Their study reveals that most people desire a combination of happiness, meaningfulness, and psychological richness. Unsurprisingly, most people opted for a happy life when forced to choose one of the three. However, a non-trivial 7-17% of participants across nine countries said they would prefer a psychologically rich life over a happy or meaningful one.

On their deathbed, the people who led happy lives might say, “I had fun!” People who led meaningful lives might say, “I made a difference!” People who led psychologically rich lives might instead say, “What a journey!”

Personally, I find that variety, perspective change, and personal growth are essential ingredients for what makes a good life. But I’m biased. I would score highly on curiosity and openness to experience, which the research suggests are personality traits commonly found in people who seek psychological richness.

When I reflect on the moments and experiences that I value the most in my life, many of them have been transformative. Moving to and living in a foreign country, changing careers, leaving my job to work on a startup, living nomadically for two years, and taking a sabbatical have all expanded my perspective.