When we think of what a good life entails, we might imagine one that is filled with happiness or defined by a sense of purpose. Perhaps we imagine a life of contentment and stability, supported by a close-knit group of friends and family, or one in which we spend our years working toward a meaningful goal, with all the long hours and sacrifices that requires.
However, as important as happiness and purpose are, we may be overlooking another important component: an openness to new and different experiences. In a recent paper published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychological Review, two psychologists make the argument that our conception of what a good life looks like should include a consideration of whether it is “psychologically rich,” which they define as being, “characterised by a variety of interesting and perspective-changing experiences.”
Psychological richness is critical
As one of the authors, Erin Westgate, an assistant professor of psychology at University of Florida, told Quartz, adding in psychological richness as a dimension for living a good life is important because it broadens our idea of what a good life can look like. “It’s not just about ‘everything going well and smoothly,’” Westgate said.
Psychological richness can include a variety of experiences, some of which will bring happiness, and others, immense struggle. Living abroad, in a country where you have to learn a new language, is a challenging experience, yet it’s one that can forever change our perspective. Making the decision to pursue a difficult career or to make a mid-career transition is a choice that, although filled with hardship, can add unmatchable breadth and depth to our life experiences.
Even dealing with a mental illness, a family emergency, or any of the many other challenges that force us out of our comfort zones can also make our lives more psychologically rich. Although these are hardly experiences we want to go through, they can have the effect of changing our perspectives in ways bring psychological richness to our lives.
The most critical factor in living a good life
As the authors point out, more expected factors are critical as well: happiness and a sense of purpose will take you a long way. Depending on your personality and your values, you may prioritise one of these aspects more than others. But, they write, “[A]lthough some people’s lives may be higher on one dimension than others, happiness, meaning, and richness represent three components or dimensions of the good life, rather than independent types of life.”
Generally speaking, people who place a high priority on happiness tend to value stability as well as a positive mindset and people who prioritise purpose tend to have strong moral principles, while those who gravitate toward psychological richness tend to value curiosity and spontaneity. The paper’s authors note there are additional dimensions to consider that aren’t accounted in those categories — creativity, intellectual curiosity, and caring for others among them — but the most important thing is to develop the self-knowledge to identify who you are and what you value, because that will define what a good life looks like for you.