What Do We Want in the New Year? On Happiness, Meaning, and Psychological Richness
Most friend groups have that one person who always seems to be up for anything. I think you know the type I’m talking about — it’s the friend who not only suggests a novel activity or offbeat restaurant but is also accommodating when you, on a rare occasion, suggest something a little different than normal.
My buddy, Mike, is that friend. Months and months of COVID-induced isolation and restricted socializing seemed to hit him particularly hard. He’s a true extrovert by nature and being unable to spend time with his closest friends doing interesting things robbed him of the lifeblood of his happiness.
So, a little while back, when he texted me and a few others with a link to a local Tough Mudder race with the simple question, “WHO’S IN?” I approached his casual invitation with more consideration than I might have otherwise given it. A Tough Mudder, if you haven’t heard about such things, is essentially a mud race. Though it’s not really a race, per se. Rather, the event is meant to be a collaborative one. There are 5k, 10k, and 15k versions, and you can’t do it and get through upwards of 30 obstacles — some of which involve minor electrocution, massive amounts of mud or army crawling through tear-gas tunnels — without the help of friends.
The main question I had for him was, “Why would anyone want to do this to themselves on a perfectly good Saturday morning?” His answer was compelling: “Parts of it just won’t be fun, but you’ll have a whole new appreciation for yourself afterward.”
How Do You Define Leading a ‘Good’ Life?
Before saying more, let me explain why I’m even discussing this anecdote. The reason: It speaks to a fresh way to approach resolution-making for the new year. I suspect that what lies under the hood of many New Year’s resolutions is partly a desire to be better versions of ourselves.
We want to exercise more, eat healthier, be more patient, and so on because we want to improve who we were in the prior year. We want to, in short, lead good lives, and one way to do so is to set new and loftier goals for ourselves. But before we go down that path yet again, it may be useful to contemplate what it even means to lead a “good” life.
Great thinkers have had a lot to say about the topic over the years, and the debate seems to boil down to two main definitions of “well-being”: lives that are marked by eudaimonic well-being, or purpose and meaning, and lives that are marked by hedonic well-being, or pleasure.
Recent ground-breaking research from psychologists Shigehiro Oishi and Erin Westgate, however, raises a third possibility: a psychologically rich life, or a life that is marked by “a variety of interesting and perspective-changing experiences.”1
As you can see in the table below, happy lives, meaningful lives, and psychologically rich lives differ in key features, facilitators, and major outcomes. For instance, psychologically rich lives, in contrast to happy and meaningful lives, are driven more by curiosity, energy, time and spontaneity compared to money or a positive mindset.
Three Dimensions of the Good Life
Psychologically Rich Life
Table extracted from Oishi and Westgate (2022).
To investigate the viability of this third definition of a good life, Oishi and his colleagues conducted surveys and coded obituaries — in the New York Times, a local Charlottesville, Virginia, paper and a major Singaporean newspaper — and found that the three types of a good life were distinct.
Across research samples, there was a weak negative relationship between psychological richness and happiness: Lives that were rated more psychologically rich were also slightly less happy. People might have had experiences that could be deemed “unhappy” (e.g., losing a job and needing to change careers) but could nonetheless give rise to a psychologically rich life.
There was also a small but positive relationship between psychological richness and meaning. Here’s what all that means in plain terms: In rare cases, you can be happy, have meaning, and experience psychological richness. But often, the three components are independent contributors to what might be considered a good life.
What Contributes to a Psychologically Rich Life?
Oishi’s work has also found that those who are open to new experiences and more extroverted are also considerably more likely to lead psychologically rich lives. But more to the point, are there certain types of situations — rather than certain types of people — that are most strongly associated with psychologically rich lives?
Theoretically, a psychologically rich life contains “unexpectedness, novelty, complexity, and perspective change.” What experiences, then, might have those ingredients in spades? Studying abroad, as it turns out, is one classic example of an experience that can enhance psychological richness.
For example, students who studied in a foreign country returned home with lives that were self-rated as more psychologically rich, but they didn’t experience similar increases in happiness or perceptions of meaning. And the boost in psychological richness can be explained, in part, by regular engagement with artistic activities.
But we need not study abroad to experience such boosts in psychological richness. As Oishi and his colleagues have found, going to an escape room may be another way to inject some of the ingredients of a psychologically rich life into your own life.
Or, of course, you could just do a Tough Mudder event. In the end, I decided to go for it. And truth be told, I hated parts of it but seriously loved others. More than anything, there was a huge, unexpected element to the day: I didn’t anticipate just how much of a sense of accomplishment I’d feel.
None of this is to say, though, that you must aim for a psychologically rich life. Oishi and his collaborators emphasize that there’s no formula or perfect answer to the question of what we should strive for. Rather, a psychologically rich life may be one overlooked — but equally important — way of considering what it means to have a good life.
So, before thinking ahead to the goals you want to set for the next year, consider the bigger picture. Consider, in other words, what pursuits you’ll want to spend your time, money, and energy on and how such expenditures will enhance your happiness, meaning, and/or sense of psychological richness.
It’s a question I, for one, will ponder as I contemplate how to respond to my friend Mike’s latest text, which is simply a screenshot of the Tough Mudder 2023 schedule.
1 Shigehiro Oishi and Erin C. Westgate, “A Psychologically Rich Life: Beyond Happiness and Meaning,” Psychological Review 129, no. 4 (July 2022): 790-811.
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