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Beyond Happiness: Why a Psychologically Rich Life Is a Good Life

What we get from psychological richness that happiness does not provide.

Source: mavo/Shutterstock

Do you think a good life is a happy life? A meaningful life? It can be. But there is another dimension of the good life that, until now, has been vastly underappreciated. In an important article just made available online at Psychological Review, “A psychologically rich life: Beyond happiness and meaning,” Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia and Erin C. Westgate of the University of Florida show us that psychological richness is the kind of wealth that can contribute to a truly good life.

Oishi and Westgate define a psychologically rich life as “a life characterized by a variety of interesting and perspective-changing experiences.” They are not trying to tell us what should count as a good life. Instead, they are asking what kinds of ideal lives people imagine for themselves, and a psychologically rich life is one of the kinds of lives that people desire.

Happy lives, meaningful lives, and psychologically rich lives have some things in common; you don’t necessarily have to choose. But a psychologically rich life is distinct from those other two kinds of good lives.

What Are the Characteristics of a Psychologically Rich Life?

Three key characteristics of a psychologically rich life are variety, interestingness, and perspective-changing experiences. The “Psychologically Rich Life Questionnaire” taps those characteristics.

  • Variety: “My life has been full of unique, unusual experiences.”
  • Interest: “I have had a lot of interesting experiences.”
  • Perspective changes: “On my deathbed, I am likely to say ‘I have seen and learned a lot.’”

The characteristics of a happy life are very different, and include comfort, security, and joy. The characteristics of a meaningful life are different, too, and include significance and purpose.

Personality: What Kinds of People Lead Psychologically Rich Lives?

At least three personality characteristics typify people who lead psychologically rich lives:

  • They are curious.
  • They are open to experience (e.g., they have unconventional attitudes, artistic sensitivity, intellectual curiosity, flexibility, depth of feeling).
  • They experience emotions intensely, both positive and negative ones.

It is not enough just to experience intense emotions. You also need to think about those emotional experiences and try to make sense of them.

Personal growth, autonomy, self-acceptance, purpose in life, and positive relations are also associated with a psychologically rich life. The authors suggest that people leading psychologically rich lives do not just hang out with the same person or persons all the time or pursue one goal in just one domain of life.

People leading psychologically rich lives also tend to be more liberal. “Those leading happy and/or meaningful lives tend to prefer to maintain social order and the status quo,” Oishi and Westgate note, “whereas those leading psychologically rich lives seem to embrace social change.”

What Facilitates a Life of Psychological Richness?

Do you want to have a happy life? It will help if you have resources such as money, time, and relationships (in the broad sense of the term, not just romantic ones). Want a meaningful life? Having moral principles, relationships (in the broad sense), and consistency might help.

If you want a psychologically rich life, it will help to have curiosity, time, energy, and spontaneity.

Certain kinds of life experiences are associated with a psychologically rich life. They include:

  • Spending a semester abroad, or just taking short trips in your everyday life
  • Challenging or dramatic life events

That last one is one of the more intriguing and unique experiences that can contribute to a psychologically rich life. People who have experienced catastrophes and tragedies might not say that their lives are happier as a result, but their lives probably would be psychologically richer. Divorce, for example, can be painful—but it can also change your perspective in a way that can be psychologically enriching.

What Do You Get Out of a Psychologically Rich Life?

People who lead happy lives get personal satisfaction. People who live meaningful lives get to contribute to society. People who live psychologically rich lives are rewarded with wisdom. For example:

  • They have a depth and breadth of knowledge.
  • They have complex reasoning styles.
  • They consider multiple causes for other people’s behavior.
  • They realize that what they know isn’t definitive and isn’t universal.

This wisdom, the authors believe, comes from the many different kinds of life experiences of people who lead psychologically rich lives, experiences that introduce them to different perspectives and show them life’s complexities.

In their day-to-day lives, people who lead psychologically rich lives engage in some novel activities, and not just routine ones. As students, they take more challenging courses and they care about actually learning things, and not just getting good grades.

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!”

Global Perspectives: The Good Life, in 9 Nations

Oishi and Westgate wanted to test their ideas in a variety of countries. They asked people in nine nations—India, Singapore, Angola, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Portugal, Germany, and the U.S.—to describe their ideal life. Then they asked them to rate that life on happiness, meaningfulness, and psychological richness (e.g., eventful, interesting). People in all nine nations typically rated their ideal lives as high on all three dimensions.

What if they had to choose just one? Happiness was the most popular choice in every country. Meaningfulness was next. Still, a nontrivial percentage of people in each nation, between 7 percent and 17 percent, said that they would choose a psychologically rich life, even at the expense of a happy life and a meaningful life.

Are Single People Especially Likely to Lead Psychologically Rich Lives?

The authors never compared people of different marital or relationship statuses in the studies they described. They did, however, mention this:

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.

Several of the characteristics and experiences of people who lead psychologically rich lives have also been linked to staying single or liking single life. For example:

  • Open-minded. In “The badass personalities of people who like being alone,” I reviewed multiple studies showing that people who like spending time alone, and people who are unafraid of being single, are more likely than others to be open-minded.
  • Personal growth. In a study of adults at midlife, more than 1,000 people who had always been single were compared to more than 3,000 people who had been continuously married. The people who stayed single, compared to those who stayed married, reported experiencing more personal growth. They were more likely to agree with statements such as: “For me, life has been a continuous process of learning, changing, and growth.”
  • Autonomy. In the same study, the people who had stayed single were more likely to agree with statements such as “I judge myself by what I think is important, not by the values of what others think is important.” In response to questions on the Single at Heart quiz, people who are single at heart are more likely to describe themselves as self-sufficient, as having personal mastery, and as wanting to make their own decisions about matters both small and large.
  • Adventurous. People who are single at heart may be especially likely to pursue their dreams. That could mean pursuing adventures or other intriguing opportunities, or choosing meaningful work over more lucrative work when they can’t have both, or being there for the people who mean the most to them.
  • They don’t put just one person at the center of their lives. By definition, people who are single at heart do not organize their lives around a romantic partner. They spend time with, and care about, the people they find valuable, without automatically prioritizing a romantic partner or a potential partner.

Can we conclude from the research that single people lead psychologically richer lives than people who are married? I don’t know about single people in general, but my own hypothesis is that people who choose to be single for positive reasons, such as the single at heart, would tend to experience more psychological richness in their lives.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: mavo/Shutterstock

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