We’ve Neglected The Role Of “Psychological Richness” When Considering What Makes A Good Life, Study Argues

By Emma Young

What is it that makes someone feel that theirs is a “good life”? Of all the ideas put forward over the past few millennia, two are most often extolled and researched today. The first is hedonistic wellbeing, often called simply “happiness”, which is characterised by plenty of positive emotions and general life satisfaction. The other is “eudaimonia” — feeling that your life has meaning and that you are realising your potential. Now in a new paper in Psychological Review, Shigehiro Oishi at the University of Virginia and Erin Westgate at the University of Florida suggest that we’ve been missing something: “psychological richness”.

A psychologically rich life is one that is characterised by a variety of interesting and perspective-changing experiences. In their paper, the pair presents a vast array of initial evidence in favour of the idea that this concept belongs alongside happiness and meaning as a third major dimension of wellbeing.

In one early study, 500 students reported on the extent to which a series of characteristics described their lives. Some were related to happiness (“enjoyable”, for example), some to meaning (such as “fulfilling”), and some to what the researchers felt related, positively or negatively, to the notion of psychological richness. This last group included “interesting” and “dramatic”, and also “uneventful” and “monotonous”. The results suggested that happiness, meaning and richness are indeed three distinct factors. “Psychometrically, psychological richness cannot be reduced to an aspect of meaning or happiness,” Oishi and Westgate write. They also analysed the adjectives used in a few hundred obituaries published in newspapers in the US and Singapore. Again, their analysis showed that the words could be grouped into these three distinct dimensions.

Further studies found that psychological richness, happiness, and meaning also all show distinct patterns of association  with personality traits and socioeconomic status. Data from participants in the US, India and Korea all suggested that the traits of openness and extraversion are both associated with leading a psychologically rich life, while socioeconomic status (SES) is not. However, SES, along with extraversion and conscientiousness, was linked to happiness. Feelings of meaning weren’t associated with any particular pattern of Big Five scores.

Because psychological richness is associated with unexpectedness, novelty, complexity and perspective change, Ohio and Westgate reasoned that certain types of experiences might enhance it. And indeed, they found that students who went to study abroad developed significantly higher psychological richness scores than those who had stayed on campus. (Their initial scores had been similar; and their scores for happiness and meaning did not change.) It seems, then, that aspects of both personality and life experience can make for a psychologically richer life.

Yet further studies highlight distinct links between each of these three factors and people’s outlook more broadly: people who reported having happy or meaningful lives tended to report preferring to maintain social order and the status quo; they were more politically conservative. In contrast, those with psychologically richer lives were more in favour of social change; they were more politically liberal.

Of course none of this establishes that anybody actually feels that a psychologically rich life is a good life. But when Oishi and Westgate asked participants from nine different countries to describe their ideal lives by choosing from a list of features associated with a happy, meaningful or psychologically rich life, overall they chose elements from all three. When asked which they would go for if they could only choose one type of life, most chose happy, meaningful came second and psychologically rich came last. However, as the team notes, there was a “substantial minority” of participants — ranging from 7% in Singapore to 17% in Germany — who would opt for a psychologically rich life above a happy or a meaningful one. For this group, at least, this most defines a “good life” for them.

Feeling happy and that your life has meaning are both associated with better health and relationships. But why should someone desire psychological richness? From an evolutionary perspective, such people might cope better in more difficult, changing environments. For an individual, a desire for psychological richness could protect against boredom. And, the researchers suggest, it may also help people to cope with difficulties in life, and even tragedy. Someone who values the perspective change that a difficulty can bring “may find value in experiences and lives that are not otherwise happy or meaningful,” the pair writes.  

Oishi and Westgate stress that they are not suggesting that psychological richness, happiness and meaning are wholly independent of each other — or indeed there are only three components of a good life (as there could be more). They also readily concede that a lot more work is needed to better understand the importance of psychological richness.

However, the finding that a significant cluster of people from a variety of countries would rather have a psychologically rich life than a happy or meaningful one alone surely makes it worthy of much more attention. Overall, the pair argues, the “addition of psychological richness broadens, deepens and enriches empirical research on a good life.”

A psychologically rich life: Beyond happiness and meaning.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest