Many of us want to have a good life, but when we put the concept of “good” under the proverbial microscope, we all mean different things.
In psychology, we’ve traditionally understood this to be a choice between a happy life or a meaningful one. Recently, researchers Lorraine Besser and Shigehiro Oishi explored the concept of a “psychologically rich life” as a third potential route into a good life.
Happiness vs. meaning
A happy life— or “hedonic well-being”—bears the hallmarks of stability, pleasure, enjoyment, positive emotions, and comfort. People with happy lives report stable long-term relationships and are generally high in extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. They are also lower in neuroticism levels.
However, enjoying a happy life is tied to some extent of good luck and fortune— it’s likelier to happen when we have enough resources to eat and sleep and live in an area with no major conflicts.
In contrast, such good luck and fortune are not required to live a meaningful life, also known as “eudaimonic well-being.” This is a life where one lives with purpose, meaning, and service. They have important aims and aspirations, can make sense of their life and where they are headed towards, and feel that their life is significant. Here, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s “He who has a why can bear with any how” comes to mind.
Such individuals live their lives contributing to a bigger group or cause, pursuing growth, and are guided by specific principles such as morals, ethics, or values. They also tend to engage in certain ritualistic activities such as volunteering or praying. They share similar personality traits and positive relationships with their counterparts who live a happy life.
What is psychological richness?
While some are unable to live a happy life, it does not mean they choose to live with purpose and meaning.
Instead, they may seek out novel experiences which enrich their lives, plumbing the gamut from low-cost and free activities to those which require investing more resources. These include travel, literature, film, sports, music, and the arts. Essentially, they seek the aesthetic of life, whether via the richness of one’s inner explorations or finding beauty in everyday mundanity.
These interesting and perspective-altering experiences mean that individuals with a psychologically rich life experience a life more intense in both negative and positive emotions. They also have a treasure trove of unusual and captivating stories to draw from.
Unlike those with a happy or meaningful life, those who seek or live psychological richness are higher in openness and curiosity.
Meaning and personal growth can also come from experiencing new and challenging chapters in one’s life, but someone living for psychologically richness doesn’t necessarily assign meaning to these new experiences the way someone living for meaning might. But the meaningfulness worldview has benefits: The field of post-traumatic growth shows that making sense of one’s experiences creates coherence in one’s life. This means that we can understand how then leads to now, creating a sense of closure and forgiveness for ourselves, empowering us with a sense of control to design our future instead of being held by the puppet strings of trauma.
And yet, the psychologically rich life does not require meaning-making or personal growth as motivations nor outcomes.
Which of the three should you focus on?
In Besser and Oishi’s research, many people reported their ideal lives would contain psychological richness.
However, the researchers found that when forced, most of the 3,728 participants across nine countries chose a happy life (49.7-69.9%) and then a meaningful life (14.2-38.5%). The least favored was the psychologically rich life, ranging from 16.8% of the German sample to 6.7% of the Singapore sample.
The researchers also studied this choice indirectly, asking 1,611 American adults that if they could undo their biggest regret, would their lives be happier, more meaningful, or psychologically richer? Essentially, about 28% of this sample would have liked to live a psychologically richer life.
But real life isn’t about being forced to choose just one of them, or prescribing any one of them as the ideal way of living. Moreover, simply living exclusively in pursuit of happiness, meaning, or psychological richness runs the risk of going overboard, where too much of a good thing can backfire.
In other words, it’s important to design your very own good life, whatever that might mean to you.
The route to your best life
1. Consider your relationship to each of the three elements
Consider what percentage of your life is currently about happiness, meaning, and psychological richness. Then examine why that is so.
Perhaps you were born into stability and were taught how to keep creating that stability and enjoying yourself, which is why happiness is so big for you. Or perhaps you are a reflective person and have always enjoyed being a part of your community, which explains your pursuit of meaningfulness. Or perhaps your life is simply filled with many serendipitous or unplanned events, and so psychological richness has played a big role in determining life’s goodness.
It’s easy to simply go about with whatever life throws at us. As one of my favorite literary characters says, we humans are great at adapting but crap at evolving.
Most of us are familiar with the allegory of the Garden of Eden. Eve bit the apple, and her life changed forever. It sounds like that was her choice.
But I often question, what if the many things we believe to be our choice really aren’t? What if the apple bit you instead?
And so I invite you to consider that perhaps the version of the good life you have to date, chose you.
2. Consider which of the three elements you want more of
What sort of life would you like? How much psychological richness, happiness, and meaning do you want in your life henceforth? What do you need to remove from your life, and then also add to life, in order to live that way?
Some questions to contemplate upon include:
- Happiness: What fills your life with joy and pleasure? What do you need in order for stability and security?
- Meaning: How do you make sense of your past, present, and future? How can you live purposefully in your community or toward a cause? What must you do in order to grow as a person?
- Psychologically richness: What can you seek out that will make your life more interesting? How can you seek beauty or color in everyday mundaneness.
From this, you can chart a strategy and review quarterly to see how this is serving you.
3. Feed all three
Finally, consider the relationship among all three facets of a good life; they don’t stand alone. When you enhance one, you can strengthen another as a by-product— a win-win that doesn’t take much effort. This teaches you how to optimally allocate your resources of time, energy and money too.
Perhaps you could reflect on how your psychologically rich life to-date— which you may not have consciously sought— can make sense and even benefit others. Or how wanting to live purposefully, in line with your values, or seeking personal growth will drive you to expand your world and seek richer experiences.
Otherwise, it could be as simple as how having stability is the foundation for pursuing growth or psychological richness. As in the case of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, when our foundational physiological and safety needs are fulfilled, then only is it easier for us to pursue higher-order needs.
And if you find yourself judging your priorities for what makes a good life, know that it’s neither unspiritual nor shallow to want any of those three. Especially in the case of happiness, where admitting that one wants to be happy has a bad rep. It is good to want to be happy– joy and stability are inspiring, and that’s the kind of things I’d love to see spreading around.
In psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman’s words, “Happy people tend to have a harmonious integration of meaning (“What I do matters to society”), pleasure (“I love to do things that excite my senses”), and engagement (“I am always very absorbed in what I do”) in their lives.”
Here’s to being happy, purposeful, and psychologically rich, in whatever combination you choose for yourself.