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Thursday, September 29, 2022

A psychologically rich life: Beyond happiness and meaning

Oishi, S., & Westgate, E. C. (2022).
Psychological Review, 129(4), 790–811.


Psychological science has typically conceptualized a good life in terms of either hedonic or eudaimonic well-being. We propose that psychological richness is another, neglected aspect of what people consider a good life. Unlike happy or meaningful lives, psychologically rich lives are best characterized by a variety of interesting and perspective-changing experiences. We present empirical evidence that happiness, meaning, and psychological richness are related but distinct and desirable aspects of a good life, with unique causes and correlates. In doing so, we show that a nontrivial number of people around the world report they would choose a psychologically rich life at the expense of a happy or meaningful life, and that approximately a third say that undoing their life’s biggest regret would have made their lives psychologically richer. Furthermore, we propose that the predictors of a psychologically rich life are different from those of a happy life or a meaningful life, and report evidence suggesting that people leading psychologically rich lives tend to be more curious, think more holistically, and lean more politically liberal. Together, this work moves us beyond the dichotomy of hedonic versus eudaimonic well-being, and lays the foundation for the study of psychological richness as another dimension of a good life.

Summary of Empirical Evidence

A psychologically rich life, filled with a wide variety of interesting and perspective-changing experiences, is distinct from a happy life and a meaningful life. Psychometrically, a 3-factor model, in which happiness, meaning, and psychological richness each constitute discrete constructs, fits the data significantly better than 1- or 2-factor models which conflate richness with happiness or meaning.  Likewise, people with psychologically rich lives differ in personality from people leading happy or meaningful lives. Openness to experience, in particular, as well as extraversion strongly predicts psychological richness. Finally, leading a psychologically rich life predicts important outcomes above and beyond a happy and/or meaningful life, including system justification, political orientation, attributional complexity, and challenge-seeking.

In sum, the building blocks of a psychologically rich life are different. Particular life experiences and situational factors uniquely contribute to psychological richness, without increasing happiness or meaning. For instance, students’ lives were psychologically richer after a semester studying abroad, but not happier or more meaningful. In experimental work, we likewise find that perspective change uniquely predicts psychological richness. Figure-ground illusions consistently evoke more psychological richness than comparable drawings (but do not increase positive moods). Shifts in perspective increase how psychologically rich (but not how personally meaningful) people find cognitive activities, and perspective-changing information (e.g., learning that a pianist is blind) enriches a musical performance. Finally, perceived difficulty is uniquely associated with psychological richness and (independent of outcomes) predicts how rich, but not how happy or meaningful, people find escape rooms. This is clearly illustrated in the obituary studies: Dramatic (and mostly unpleasant) life events such as unemployment and bereavement are positively associated with richness but negatively associated with happiness.