A Psychologically Rich Life: Beyond Happiness and Meaning

Shigehiro Oishi
University of Virginia
North America


What is the "good life" and how do we obtain it? This question has occupied scholars and philosophers for centuries. Yet, existing definitions focus narrowly on a dichotomy between hedonic well-being (e.g., happiness, contentment) or eudaimonic well-being (e.g., meaning, authenticity). Our goal is to radically expand the conceptual space of a good life, by moving beyond the current hedonic vs. eudaimonic dichotomy. To this end, we propose the existence of a psychologically rich life, or a life full of diverse interesting experiences.
We suggest that psychological richness captures aspects of a good life neglected by existing theories. Many people globally lead unstable lives due to financial, political, and environmental insecurities. And, according to Gallup, such lives are lower in life satisfaction, positive affect, and higher in physical pain. Yet, despite such circumstances, many of these people's lives are admirable in other ways. With an interdisciplinary team of psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, and philosophers, we aim to use rigorous empirical methods embedded in an innovative conceptual model of well-being to investigate the sources of a psychologically rich life. This strategy of discovery will bring us closer to understanding diversity in human flourishing amongst different economic, religious, and cultural backgrounds.


An enormous amount of research has investigated the good life. However, such work has resulted in often narrow definitions of happiness and meaning that exclude large portions of humanity. For instance, financial and relational wealth are widely considered prerequisites to happy and meaningful lives. Yet, because many people in the developing world face financial, interpersonal, and political instability, such definitions categorically exclude them from the good life. Our novel concept of psychological richness provides an opportunity to break free from existing dichotomous models of well-being, and expand the definition of human flourishing to include the full diversity of human life.


1. A key conceptual challenge is to establish that the psychologically rich life is a good life distinct from a happy life or a meaningful life, and thus represents a true departure from existing dichotomies of hedonic vs eudaimonic well-being.
2. Another challenge is methodological. Self-reports of psychological richness may be contaminated by self-deception and lack of self-knowledge.
3. Another challenge is generalizability. A psychologically rich life might be valued in highly developed countries but not in less developed countries. That is, valuing a psychologically rich life could be a WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic countries)

Breakthroughs Needed

Empirical studies reflecting a wide range of diverse interdisciplinary perspectives and methodologies, and the grant funding mechanisms to support them, are required to overcome these roadblocks. In particular, there is a need to incorporate researchers and participants from a wide range of countries and cultural backgrounds, beyond those typically studied by Western academics. Reaching these participants and researchers may require additional support.
To this end, we have collected initial data, supported by the Templeton Foundation/St. Louis University (Happiness and Well-Being: Integrating Research Across the Disciplines). First, we found a psychologically rich life was empirically and statistically distinguishable from hedonic (life satisfaction, positive affect) and eudaimonic well-being (meaning in life, purpose, growth). Second, self-reports converged reliably with informant reports. Finally, across 9 countries (U.S., Germany, Norway, Portugal, Japan, Korea, Singapore, India, Angola) a non-trivial percentage of participants (6.7% to 16.8%) chose a psychologically rich life as their ideal life, over happiness or meaning. These studies provide encouraging support that psychological richness is distinct from happiness or meaning, that self-reports of a psychologically rich life are reliable and valid, and that a psychologically rich life is unlikely to be a WEIRD concept. However, larger, more comprehensive cross-cultural studies and methods are needed.

Key Indicators of Success

Year 3: We assess success benchmarks as: (1) cross-cultural data from 30 countries, (2) one neuroimaging study, (3) one social media study, (4) longitudinal study launched, (5) personal stories collected from 30 countries, (6) one workshop conducted.
Year 5: (1) cross-cultural data from 50 countries, (2) three neuroimaging studies, (3) three social media studies, (4) longitudinal study 3rd wave complete, (5), personal stories collected from 50 countries, (6) two workshops. 3 papers published.
Year 10: Creation of "This American Life"-like website, and the HRAF-like data depository site. Publication of high-impact scientific papers and a book for general public.

Additional Information

Well-being is widely conceptualized in terms of hedonic (e.g., Diener et al., 1999) or eudaimonic well-being (e.g., Haybron, 2013; Ryff, 1989). Although hedonic and eudaimonic well-being captures a great deal of the "good life," their strong dichotomy limits the science of human flourishing, by overlooking many lives that do not fit neatly within it. Here we move beyond the eudaimonic-hedonic divide to suggest a third contender: a psychologically rich life – or a life characterized by a variety of interesting and perspective-changing experiences (Besser & Oishi, 2020; Oishi et al., 2019). Together with happiness and meaning, we suggest psychological richness constitutes a critical element of a flourishing life.
Consider, for example, the character Goldmund in Hermann Hesse's (1932) Narcissus and Goldmund. Both Narcissus and Goldmund are students in a monastic cloister; Narcissus stays in the cloister and devotes himself to a life of a classically eudaimonic life. In contrast, Goldmund yearns for a life beyond the cloister's walls, and lives for years as a vagabond -- moving from city to city, falling in and out of love, and starving at times. Toward the end of the novel, Narcissus reflects upon his own well-ordered life compared to Goldmund's adventures, and wonders if Goldmund's life wasn't as worthy as his own? We agree. Goldmund's is an interesting life driven by curiosity, and achievable even in the face of considerable adversity, including unstable economic, political, and interpersonal condition. As such, it has value, and participants across a number of countries agree (Oishi et al., 2020).
Thus, psychological richness not only adds a novel dimension to the good life, but paves the way to empirically document positive outcomes of personally important and societally valuable experiences, that may not otherwise be so. For instance, some aesthetic experiences (e.g., Mark Rothko's paintings) are unpleasant, but provide new life perspectives. Likewise, previous work finds life satisfaction is lower amongst people with diverse (vs racially homogenous) friendship networks (Seder & Oishi, 2009). Nor is education associated with life satisfaction or positive affect, after statistically adjusting for income (Frey & Stutzer, 2002). These and similar studies paint a bleak picture of the arts, diversity, and higher education if traditional measures of well-being are the metric of success. However, we believe these experiences would have been associated with psychological richness had it been measured.
Stability, security, and routines provide a foundation for happiness and meaning. In contrast, challenges, difficulties, and novelty fuel psychological richness. Humanity flourishes in diverse ways across different societal conditions. Psychological richness could add a missing piece to a truly flourishing life in today's uncertain world.
Lorraine Besser: Professor of Philosophy, Middlebury College
Yasuyuki Sawada: the Chief Economist, the Asian Development Bank; Professor of Economics, University of Tokyo
Ed Diener: Senior Scientist, Gallup Organization; Alumni Distinguished Professor of Psychology (Emeritus) at the University of Illinois
Vivian Afi Dzokoto: Associate Professor of African American Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University
Nikolaus Kriegeskorte: Professor of Psychology, Director of Cognitive Imaging, Zuckerman Institute, Columbia University


These research ideas were submitted in response to Templeton World Charity Foundation’s global call for Grand Challenges in Human Flourishing, which ran from September through November 2020.

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