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In Defense of the Psychologically Rich Life

“I do not accept any absolute formulas for living. No preconceived code can see ahead to everything that can happen in a man’s life. As we live, we grow, and our beliefs change. They must change. So I think we should live with this constant discovery. We should be open to this adventure in heightened awareness of living. We should stake our whole existence on our willingness to explore and experience.”—Martin Buber

What does it mean to live a good life? This question has been debated and written about by many philosophers, thinkers and novelists throughout the course of humanity. In the field of psychology, two main conceptualizations of the good life have predominated: A happy life (often referred to as “hedonic well-being”), full of stability,  pleasure, enjoyment and positive emotions, and a meaningful life (often referred to as “eudaimonic well-being”), full of purpose, meaning, virtue, devotion, service and sacrifice. But what if these aren’t the only options?

In recent years, a long-neglected version of the good life has been receiving greater research attention: the psychologically rich life. The psychologically rich life is full of complex mental engagement, a wide range of intense and deep emotions, and diverse, novel, surprising and interesting experiences. Sometimes the experiences are pleasant, sometimes they are meaningful, and sometimes they are neither pleasant nor meaningful. However, they are rarely boring or monotonous.

After all, both happy and meaningful lives can become monotonous and repetitive. A person with a steady office job, married with children, may be generally satisfied with their life and find many aspects of their life meaningful and still be bored out of their mind. Also, the psychologically rich life doesn’t necessarily involve economic richness. For instance, consider Hesse’s character Goldmund, who has no money but pursues the life of a wanderer and a free spirit.

Recent research on psychological richness has found that it is related to, but partially distinct from, both happy and meaningful lives. Psychological richness is much more strongly correlated with curiosity, openness to experience and experiencing both positive and negative emotions more intensely. But is the psychologically rich life one that people actually want?

In a new study, Shigehiro Oishi and his colleagues propose that psychological richness is a neglected aspect of what people consider a good life and set out to assess how much people around the world actually desire such a life. The researchers asked people living in nine diverse countries the degree to which they value a psychologically rich life, a happy life and a meaningful life.

They found that many people’s self-described ideal lives involve psychological richness. When forced to choose a life, however, the majority chose a happy life (ranging from 49.7 percent to 69.9 percent) and a meaningful life (14.2 percent to 38.5 percent). Even so, a substantial minority of people still favored the psychologically rich life, ranging from 6.7 percent in Singapore to 16.8 percent in Germany.

These numbers went up when the desire for a psychologically rich life was measured indirectly. To fully understand what a person wishes their lives might have been, it is important to explore what people wish they had avoided in their lives. Therefore, Oishi and his colleagues asked people what they regret most in their lives and whether undoing or reversing this regrettable life event would have made their lives happier, more meaningful or psychologically richer.

They found that about 28 percent of Americans said that undoing the regrettable event would have made their lives psychologically richer. For instance, one person wrote that they regretted “not going to a four-year college to get a degree. I feel like I missed out on some interesting experiences.” In Korea, the percentage was even higher, which 35 percent of participants saying that undoing the regrettable event would have made their lives psychologically richer [compared to happier (27.6 percent) or more meaningful (37.4 percent)].

These findings suggest that while most people do strive to be happy and have meaning and purpose in their lives, a sizable number of people are content merely living a psychologically rich existence. Indeed, other emerging research suggests that for a lot of people, the intensity of the experience matters more than merely how “positive” or “negative” it was. As Oishi and colleagues conclude, “we believe that taking the psychologically rich life seriously will deepen broaden, and yes, enrichen our understanding of well-being.”

At the end of the day, there is no one singularly acceptable path to the good life. You have to find a path that works best for you.

As Nietzsche put it: “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!”

However, the philosopher also noted that it is “an agonizing, hazardous undertaking thus to dig into oneself, to climb down roughly and directly into the tunnels of one’s being.”

If you dig deep into the tunnels of your being and realize that the best path for you is to live a life full of rich and complex ideas, emotions and experiences (which sometimes can be negative but ultimately conducive to growth), then I hope this research shows you that this is not necessarily a lonely path. There are plenty of people in the world who crave the psychologically rich life, and who even prioritize novelty, variety, complexity, intensity, depth and surprise in their daily lives.

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