- Recent research by several psychologists has focused on a "psychologically rich life" (PRL).
- The evidence provided by prior research does not support PRL being important to a good life.
- Instead, the evidence actually suggests PRL is one way to pursue happiness and meaningfulness.
Recently, links to a variety of articles made their way into my social media feed. One such article was from Todd (2021)1 claiming that “Psychologists say a good life doesn’t have to be happy, or even meaningful.” The general argument is that a good life is often described in hedonic (e.g., pleasure, comfort) or eudaimonic (e.g., meaningful, fulfilling) terms, but it’s possible to have a good life without either of those. Rather than happiness or purpose, people might have a life that is psychologically rich.
I admit, I was unfamiliar with this concept, and so I sought out research referenced by Todd. That led me to three specific articles: one by Oishi et al. (2020), one by Oishi and Westgate (2022),2 and one by Oishi et al. (2019).3 According to those studies, a psychologically rich life is one that is “eventful, interesting, full of surprises” (Oishi et al., 2020, p. 110). Having reviewed those articles, I identified a few details that make me skeptical of the validity of claims like the one made by Todd.4
A small minority of respondents identified a psychologically rich life (PRL) as ideal.
In Oishi et al.’s (2020) Study 1, researchers asked respondents from nine different countries to choose their ideal life using a forced choice method and the following options: happy, psychologically rich, or meaningful. Across the nine countries, PRL was the least selected option (except for in Korea, where 15.8 percent chose PSL and only 14.4 percent chose a meaningful life, while 69.9 percent chose a happy life5). Thus, even if it were possible to live a good life without happiness or meaningfulness, a small percentage of people would primarily adopt PRL as their primary aspiration in life.
PRL appears to be one mechanism through which meaningfulness is achieved.
Again referring to Oishi et al.’s (2020) Study 1, respondents rated each of the three types of ideal lives. The researchers then correlated those ratings. They found that PRL and a happy life were the most likely to be unrelated (correlations ranged from nonexistent to moderately positive), but PRL and meaningfulness were consistently positively related at a moderate to moderately high level (as were meaningfulness and happiness). As such, the evidence suggests that, when it comes to idealized lives, happiness and meaningfulness often go hand in hand, but so do PRL and meaningfulness.
The conceptual connection between PRL and meaningfulness makes sense for multiple reasons. First, if we go back to the descriptors used by Oishi et al. (2020) to describe PRL, we find the terms “eventful, interesting, full of surprises.” Most people would probably be hard-pressed to find meaning in an uninteresting life. While perhaps not quite as obviously connected, a lot of meaning can be derived from eventful and surprising experiences. I doubt, though, that most people, when considering the good life, rely on examples of adverse eventfulness or unpleasant surprises when thinking about the good life.6
This appears to be the case because in Oishi et al. (2019), they developed the PSL questionnaire. The items with the strongest factor loadings (i.e., those more central to the concept being measured) concern the presence of “rich, intense moments,” that “I had an interesting life,” and that the person has had “a lot of interesting experiences.” These are all obviously positive conceptualizations. The weaker conceptualizations, such as one’s life being “dramatic” or reverse-scored items concerning life being “monotonous” or “uneventful” were only contained in the full 17-item version but were dropped from the 12-item version.
Second, as Messerly (2021) argued,7 Aristotle’s original conceptualization of a good life included various “self-transformative” and “self-actualizing” experiences, which included “aesthetic experience” and “acquiring skill” (para. 5). That would thus beg the question of whether PSL is really independent of other conceptualizations of meaningfulness-related constructs.
Oishi and Westgate (2022) address this by arguing that there is a diverse range of existing meaningfulness-related measures that offer conceptual diversity, but they all end up being moderately to strongly correlated. Subsequently, they argue, a new construct is needed to break away from the hedonic/eudaimonic dichotomy, and PRL is argued to be that construct.
But let’s return to the Oishi et al. (2019) study where the PRL measure was developed and validated. In Study 1, PRL was correlated with life satisfaction (.53/.46), positive affect (.50/.48), and presence of meaning (.47/.54).8 These are moderately strong correlations. So, the claim that somehow PRL is a completely different construct than the myriad existing happiness or meaningfulness measures is refuted by the original validation study.
Given that happiness and meaning are often correlated, it doesn’t come as a surprise that people’s reported levels of PRL would also be correlated with their ratings of happiness. But given the ratings-based evidence of idealized lives, coupled with PRL’s stronger conceptual overlap with meaningfulness than happiness, it seems more likely that those who experience PRL do so as a facet of meaningfulness, and that those who obtain some sense of meaningfulness also obtain some sense of happiness.
PRL appears to be a pathway to meaningfulness for those who demonstrate higher openness.
Across the multiple studies reported in Oishi et al. (2019), the authors used a measure of the Big Five personality traits (openness, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism) to predict PRL, and, in some of those studies, they also included measures of a happy life and a meaningful life. What they found consistently was that both openness and extraversion were significantly predictive of PRL, with openness being consistently better at predicting PRL than it was happiness or meaningfulness.9
Nothing about this result should come as a surprise. Those who like varied experiences (i.e., higher in openness) tend to also rate their lives as being more eventful and varied. Thus, what these results really suggest is that PRL is a potential pathway to meaningfulness/happiness for those who value varied experiences.
Conclusion: The authors provide no evidence that PRL is a good life independent of happiness or meaningfulness.
Across all three of the articles I reviewed, I saw no evidence to suggest that PRL is its own separate category of the good life that goes beyond the hedonic/eudaimonic conceptualization. While the authors of the research studies do admit that PRL is not “wholly independent of happiness or meaningfulness,” they also do not offer any evidence to justify the claim that it should be treated as one of “three interrelated but distinct aspects of a good life” (Oishi & Westgate, 2022, p. 791). By their logic, the same case could be made for other conceptualizations they discuss (i.e., different facets of meaningfulness or happiness).
I also saw no evidence that a good life can exist without happiness or meaningfulness. Instead, it appears that PRL is more likely a facet of meaningfulness, especially for those who have a higher level of openness to experience. Nowhere does the evidence suggest that hedonic and eudaimonic conceptualizations of the good life are incomplete, nor that PSL necessarily offers a significant contribution to the happiness/well-being literature (which is already saturated with measures).
To wrap things up, let’s return to the title of the article that sparked this piece: “Psychologists say a good life doesn’t have to be happy, or even meaningful.” In fact, psychologists do not say this at all. The research evidence does not suggest that PRL can exist independently of happiness or meaningfulness (and nowhere did Oishi and colleagues even explicitly argue this). At most, it appears to be a facet of existing constructs, with its strongest result so far suggesting that it is a way for those high in openness to find meaning and perhaps happiness. But to suggest that a PRL can compensate for a lack of happiness or meaningfulness is simply not justified based on the evidence. A lot of adverse experiences could be considered psychologically rich (by the authors’ definition) if PRL is removed from its connection to happiness and/or meaningfulness. To imply that those who survive natural disasters, abuse, or trauma have lived a good life because it has been dramatic and full of surprises is questionable at best.
1. Sarah Todd. Psychologists say a good life doesn’t have to be happy, or even meaningful. Quartz. August 20, 2021.
2. The latter was the link used in the Todd (2021) article.
3. While I could find full-text versions of the first two, I could not for the last one.
4. Todd was not the only one to suggest this conclusion based on the Oishi et al. research. A quick Google search will show that the World Economic Forum and others also made similar claims.
5. The 69.9 percent was the highest percentage of any country in terms of those choosing a happy life. The United States was second with 62.2 percent choosing this type of life. Germany was the lowest, at 49.7 percent.
6. What would be more likely to be a psychologically rich event people would equate with the good life: a natural disaster or a month-long trip to Europe? Although some adverse events can eventually end up being good stories that add richness, many of the more traumatic events are likely seldom to be associated with a conceptualization of a good life.
7. John Messerly. Psychologists say a good life doesn’t have to be happy, or even meaningful. Reason and Meaning. November 18, 2021.
8. The authors had two time points so they could assess test-retest reliability. The scores provided are for the measures assessed at the same time point.
9. Openness tended to be a poor predictor of both happiness and meaningfulness. Extraversion varied across the studies they conducted in terms of which type of good life it was most predictive of.