A Good Life Doesn’t Mean an Easy One
August 30, 2020
The following article appeared in yesterday's WSJ.
There is a lot of "stuff" out there today about happiness. What it is and how to find it. And happiness is important - without it our lives can be more difficult than they need be. But we cannot and should pursue happiness because it is so elusive - instead of happy, we'll end up frustrated. And we cannot be happy all of the time - that's not life. The term "well being" is also used to describe the life we "should" pursue. I've preferred that term to happiness because it recognizes that we can be well whether things are going our way or things are going poorly. This article introduces an even better term - psychological richness.
The article made me think of the song that inspired my walkabout - "He Went To Paris." The song is the story of a man who faced many difficulties in life. But he plowed on. I love the following lyrics:
Through eighty-six years of perpetual motion
If he likes you he'll smile, and he'll say,
"Jimmy, some of it's magic, some of it's tragic
But I had a good life all of the way."
Using the term "psychological richness" would not have fit with the rest of the song but Buffett was describing just what these researchers found.
Here's the article:
What makes a good life? Philosophers have offered two classic answers to the question, captured by different Greek words for happiness, hedonia and eudaimonia. A hedonic life is free from pain and full of everyday pleasure—calm, safe and serene. A eudaemonic life is a virtuous and purposeful one, full of meaning.
But in a new study, philosopher Lorraine Besser of Middlebury College and psychologist Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia argue that there is a third important element of a good life, which they call “psychological richness.” And they show that ordinary people around the world think so, too.
According to this view, a good life is one that is interesting, varied and surprising—even if some of those surprises aren’t necessarily pleasant ones. In fact, the things that make a life psychologically rich may actually make it less happy in the ordinary sense.
After all, to put it bluntly, a happy life can also be boring. Adventures, explorations and crises may be painful, but at least they’re interesting. A psychologically rich life may be less eudaemonic, too. Those unexpected turns may lead you to stray from your original purpose and act in ways that are less than virtuous. Profs. Besser and Oishi make the case for a psychologically rich life in a paper that has just appeared in the journal Philosophical Psychology. But is this a life that most people would actually want, or is it just for the sort of people who write philosophy articles? SIGN UP To find out, the authors and their colleagues did an extensive study involving more than 3,000 people in nine countries, recently published in the Journal of Affective Science. The researchers gave participants a list of 15 descriptive words such as “pleasant,” “meaningful” and “interesting,” and asked which best described a good life. When they analyzed the responses, Profs. Besser and Oishi found that people do indeed think that a happy and meaningful life is a good life. But they also think a psychologically rich life is important. In fact, across different cultures, about 10-15% of people said that if they were forced to choose, they would go for a psychologically rich life over a happy or meaningful one.
In a second experiment the researchers posed the question a different way. Instead of asking people what kind of life they would choose, they asked what people regretted about the life they had actually led. Did they regret decisions that made their lives less happy or less meaningful? Or did they regret passing up a chance for interesting and surprising experiences? If they could undo one decision, what would it be? When people thought about their regrets they were even more likely to value psychological richness—about 30% of people, for example, in both the U.S. and South Korea.
The desire for a psychologically rich life may go beyond just avoiding boredom. After all, the unexpected, even the tragic, can have a transformative power that goes beyond the hedonic or eudaemonic. As a great Leonard Cohen song says, it’s the cracks that let the light come in.
Anthem Leonard Cohen
The birds they sang At the break of day Start again I heard them say Don't dwell on what Has passed away Or what is yet to be Yeah the wars they will Be fought again The holy dove She will be caught again Bought and sold And bought again The dove is never free
Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything) That's how the light gets in
We asked for signs The signs were sent The birth betrayed The marriage spent Yeah the widowhood Of every government Signs for all to see I can't run no more With that lawless crowd While the killers in high places Say their prayers out loud But they've summoned, they've summoned up A thundercloud And they're going to hear from me
Ring the bells…