Psychological richness vs. happiness.

What do we mean by a good life?  Having a happy life, a meaningful life? It is true that being happy and having a life rich in meaning can lead to having a good life. However, there is another dimension that can have a real impact on whether we experience life as good.

An article by Shigehiro Oishi, from the University of Virginia and Erin C Westgate from the University of Florida entitled “A psychologically rich life: Beyond Happiness and meaning” suggests that psychological richness is an important factor in contributing towards a really good life. Psychological richness is a bit like a progressive jackpot, increasing the prize as it accumulates.

According to Oishi and Westgate a psychologically rich life is “a life characterized by a variety of interesting and perspective-changing experiences.” The authors are not giving us a list of things which they regard as part of a good life.  They are questioning the kinds of ideal lives that people might imagine for themselves.  For Oishi and Westgate, a psychologically rich life is one of them.

Living happy lives, meaningful lives and psychologically rich lives are similar in many respects.  However, a psychologically rich life is somewhat different from the other two.  Here below we look at those difference.

What does a psychologically rich life consist of?

There are 3 key elements:

  1. Variety – a life rich in different kinds of experiences
  2. Interestingness – having lots of interesting and unusual experiences.
  3. Perspective, changing experiences – living lots of experiences and learning a lot along the way.

These characteristics are different from those of a happy life which would include things like security, comfort and joy and from a meaningful life which would likely include purpose and meaning.

Is there a certain type of person that leads a psychologically rich life?

They are likely to be curious, open to learning new things and having new experiences.   They are also likely to be flexible, artistic and have unconventional attitudes. They are emotional beings and experience both positive and negative emotions quite intensely and look to learn from them.

Also associated with a psychologically rich life are things such as purpose in life, personal growth, autonomy, self-acceptance and positive relations. Oishi and Westgate argue that those living psychologically rich lives spread themselves around and mix with all kinds of people and are involved in more than one area of life.

According to the authors, those people leading psychologically rich lives have a tendency to be more liberal.  They suggest that “Those leading happy and/or meaningful lives tend to prefer to maintain social order and the status quo whereas those leading psychologically rich lives seem to embrace social change.”

What enables a person to lead a psychologically rich life?

In order to live a psychologically rich life it helps to be curious, spontaneous and to have time and energy.  This might involve experiences like travelling abroad to live or being involved in dramatic or challenging life situations. Often those who have faced serious tragedies or lifechanging experiences may not describe their lives as being happier for these experiences but may well say that their lives are psychologically richer because of them.

In comparison, in order to have a happy life you need time and money, plus different kinds of relationships will help. If you are looking for a meaningful life it is important that you have moral principles, are consistent and are involved in relationships of all kinds.

What are the benefits of a psychologically rich life?

Those living happy lives feel satisfied. Those living meaningful lives feel they are making a contribution.  People living psychologically rich lives possess wisdom. They are rich with knowledge.  According to the authors, this wisdom is acquired by virtue of the diverse experiences of those leading psychologically rich lives.  These experiences introduce them to different ways of looking at the world and introduces them to the many complexities in life.

The daily routines of people leading psychologically rich lives also involve novel activities.  If they are students, they might sign up for challenging projects as they really want to learn something new and this is more important than just getting a good grade.

In the twilight of our lives, those who have had happy lives might say “it was fun”. Those who had a meaningful life will likely say “I made a difference”.  But those who had a psychologically rich life will say “What a journey”.

Looking at “The Good Life” of Nine Nations

The authors wanted to see how their ideas would pan out in different countries. They decided to look at 9 different nations: India, Singapore, Angola, South Korea, Japan, Portugal, Norway, Germany and the United States.   They questioned the people about what they considered was a good life. Then they were asked to rate that life according to “happiness, meaningfulness and psychological richness.   It turned out that all three of these rated high in terms of their ideal lives.

However, if they were required to choose one, then Happiness was the favored choice in each country, followed by meaningfulness.  7 to 17% of people in each country chose a psychologically rich life over the other two.

Is leading a psychologically rich life particularly something that single people enjoy and choose?

A person’s marital status was not looked at by Oishi and Westgate in their study.   However, they did say the following: “According to Kierkegaard, a married person with a secure, well-respected job and children may have a happy and (in many respects) meaningful life, but not necessarily a life rich in diverse perspective-changing experiences.  Although most people choose such a conventional, secure and well-respected life, others …choose the esthetic wanderer’s life instead – unconventional, unstable and uncompromising.”

Some of the characteristics associated with those leading psychologically rich lives are also thought to be those of people living single lives. For example:

  • Openminded– often those who like to spend time alone and are not afraid of doing things alone.
  • Personal growth – studies have shown that those people who remain single are likely to be involved in experiences that promote personal growth.
  • Autonomy – Responses on the Single at Heart quiz showed that those “single at heart” were more likely to characterize themselves as self-sufficient, wanted to be in charge of their own decision making on all issues, large and small.
  • Adventurous – Those single at heart are likely to seek out adventures or interesting opportunities, choosing intrigue over more lucrative ventures if they can’t have both.  Those who are single at heart may not have that one important romantic person in their lives but surround themselves with people that they find most valuable.

From the research it could be that those people who choose to live the single life may well lead more psychologically rich lives.