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What is a Psychologically Rich Life?

written by Kathryn Britton 19 September 2023

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.



How does adventure fit into a good life?

One of the joys of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) World Congress is meeting people whose experiences and points of view are very different from my own, people coming from all over the world to share time and wisdom.

For an extreme case, I meta man who has lived a life of high adventure, very different from the stay-at-home years I’ve experienced following COVID.  Martin is a world traveler who has climbed the 7 peaks and sailed the 7 seas.  How does his search for extreme challenges relate to his well-being? What does that mean for me?

Adventure is not always a source of positive emotion.  In fact, the most memorable adventures involve moments of uncertainty and difficulty that can be highly unpleasant at the time. 

Swan on its nest

My husband and I took a trip to southern England many years ago.  Instead of riding one bus way past our destination and another bus back on a different road, we got off the first bus between towns to walk what appeared to be directly to the 600-year-old Abbotsbury swannery. We thought erroneously that we could read the public right of way footpath markings on our map. By the time we realized we were lost and trespassing, it had started to rain heavily. I vividly remember finding a ring of standing stones that was not marked on the map.  The experience of being lost in the tall grass on a farmer’s fields left a powerful impression behind, much more vivid than other more pleasant walks.

Adventure is not necessarily meaningful.  In what way did our trip across fields or Martin’s ascent of Mount Everest contribute to the greater good?  

Enter an Additional Facet of Well-being

Since Aristotle, people have talked about two kinds of well-being:  hedonic meaning happiness and eudaimonic meaning meaningful. If adventure doesn’t bring immediate happiness and isn’t necessarily meaningful, can it be part of a well-lived life?

Dr. Shigehiro Oishi

That’s wherework comes in.  During the conference, Dr. Oishi gave a keynote on what he considers a neglected aspect of well-being: living a psychologically rich life.  He illustrated his concept with stories about people living highly adventurous lives and others experiencing moments of ineffable beauty.  Exploring psychological richness has been the center of his research for several years.

What is a psychologically rich life?

Psychologically rich lives are interesting, eventful, and often dramatic.  They involve big changes in perspective and ongoing learning.  Negative emotions that tend to decrease happiness and meaning often add to psychological richness. The experience of being lost and drenched made me think differently about property rights and perhaps made me more tolerant of people who arrive somewhere looking very bedraggled. The experience has enhanced my sense of personal agency.  I remember it with a sense of, “Yes, I can cope with things going wrong.”

How is the psychological richness of a life studied?

Oishi and team created a 17-element questionnaire that they have used to explore the degree to which a person experiences a psychologically rich life. Here are a few of the questions from his survey:

  • I have a lot of personal stories to tell others.
  • On my deathbed, I am likely to say “I had an interesting life.”
  • My life would make a good novel or movie.

In studies using this questionnaire across very different populations, Oishi and team found that psychological richness is related to happiness and meaning, but it is still distinct and has different predictors. The predictors of psychological richness are openness to experience, extraversion, and lower levels of neuroticism. A nontrivial portion of the people they studied would choose a psychologically rich life even at the expense of happiness and meaning.  In Oishi’s view, a lifetime of psychologically rich experiences leads to wisdom.

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In other studies, Dr. Oishi had researchers code obituaries in the New York Times and other papers.  They detected happiness based on words like happy, secure, comfortable, and pleasant. They detected meaning based on words like fulfilling, sense of purpose, and devotion.  They detected psychological richness based on words like interesting, eventful, and dramatic.  In these studies, psychological richness and happiness were negatively correlated:  the more psychologically rich terms, the fewer happiness terms showed up in the obituary.  Meaning and psychological richness were not correlated one way or the other.

Can a life be psychologically rich without being adventurous?

Yes.  There are many ways to experience changes in perspective that do not involve adventure and facing personal danger.  Dr. Oishi mentioned study abroad, reading literary fiction, and listening to someone else tell stories.

Taking Stock

I do not feel like a particularly brave or adventurous person, but I listen to the stories of friends and relatives and often have my perspective changed.  Here are some examples.

My mother traveled all over the world with a good friend who wrote down their adventures. How were two little old ladies treated in different cultures in Mongolia, Peru, Afghanistan, Australia, and Botswana?  In one town in Syria, a whole cavalcade of men led them to their hotel when my mother’s friend got out of the car to ask for directions.

I have interviewed my cousins about their lives growing up on a ranch in southern Idaho, childhood experiences very different from my own. Imagine a 5-year-old girl frequently getting on a horse in the morning with a packed lunch and riding around by herself until the supper bell rang.

The Ocelot

Sue Hacking, one of my college roommates, has lived on her catamaran Ocelot with her family for more than 20 years, traveling most of the 7 seas.  When I hear from her, I learn about avoiding pirates and surviving harsh weather. I also observe her interest in the way different people live. During COVID, her tales of lock down involved life in dock in the Philippines. I drove 15 miles to get my first Moderna vaccine. Sue and her husband traveled by train and plane to the other end of the Philippines to get theirs.

Ocelot in Tonga, Sue in cockpit

It helps my imagination that I spent 10 days on Ocelot back in 2004 near Bora Bora. My visit was mostly pleasant and calm. Snorkeling was new to me.

Sue’s most recent adventure involved driving a van down the west coast of South America to Patagonia.  On the way back, the van broke down.  They found a farm where they could stay and work for the 3 months it took for parts to arrive. They are only just back on the road.

I plan to listen to stories like these even more intently. What an opportunity to have a psychologically rich life vicariously.

I also realize that adventure can mean more than the physical challenges of traveling, climbing mountains, and sailing seas. Several years ago, I had an unexpected conversation in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture that ranks as one of my life adventures.

Finally, my husband and I are adventurous readers, letting our curiosity carry us to topics ranging from particle physics and developmental biology to ancient history and geography. Surely intellectual exploration is another pathway to psychological richness.

Want More?

I am attending an event at the end of October at which Dr. Oishi will be a plenary speaker. If you post your questions in the comments, I’ll try to get them answered.

References

Oishi, S., Choi, H., Buttrick, N. et al (2019).  The psychologically rich life questionnaire.  Journal of Research in Personality, 81, 257-270.

Oishi, S. & Westgate, E. (2021).  A psychologically rich life:  Beyond meaning and happiness.  Psychological Review, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/rev0000317

For more about Oishi’s work, visit website for the Oishi Lab.

Hacking, Sue & Jon. The Hacking Family: Cruising the world on s/v Ocelot. “We’ve been on this trip since 2001, sailing from the Caribbean through the Panama Canal, across the South Pacific and the Indian Ocea to Africa, then back to Asia and the South Pacific. There’s so much world to see!” The site has cruising information for sailors, pictures and identification of underwater life, and stories of their various trips written as they went along. My adventure with them starts here.

Britton, K. H. (2020). Black lives matter. What can I do about it? LinkedIn article. The story mentioned above comes at the end of the article, but the whole article is about changing perspectives.

Image Credits

Swan Nest photo by Vincent Keiman on Unsplash

Ocelot photos including featured picture of Kathryn’s first snorkeling adventure courtesy of Jon and Sue Hacking.

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2 comments

Isaac Haupt 20 September 2023 - 7:08 am

This was a very interesting read, and it caused me to think about type 2 fun. Where during the activity the participant is not having fun, but afterwards they more often report the activity as being fun or memorable. This led me down a path of thinking about my favorite “adventurous” activity, mountain biking. Recently the advent of ebikes has changed the face of mountain biking and I would be curious if riding an ebike changes the type of experience one has because it decreases the amount of work, or “misery” that was inherent. It would be an interesting study to look at the reports of satisfaction a rider experiences after a ride when they ride a mountain bike vs an e-mountain bike both immediately after the ride, and a few days to a week later.

Does making an activity easier reduce the satisfaction and happiness derived from the activity?

Reply
Kathryn Britton 17 October 2023 - 6:07 am

Isaac,
I wonder if eBikes just change the difficulty type, rather than the difficulty level? I’m saying that, since a friend of mind found an eBike very heavy and hard to handle and eventually had a painful accident.

Your intuition that making an activity TOO easy would lead to less flow and probably less enjoyment and less pride on accomplishment makes sense to me. It might be worth studying.

Reply

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