A few years ago, when Daniel Kahneman was being interviewed by economist Tyler Cowen, the Nobel prize-winning psychologist said something startling. Asked by Cowen why people don't devote more time to activities, like hanging out with friends, that make them happy, Kahneman responds, "I don't think that people maximize happiness."
Wait, what? Why on earth would any sane person not try to make themselves as happy as possible? There are actually two kinds of happiness, Kahneman explains. You can chase pleasant experiences like time with loved ones, or you can instead aim for life satisfaction.
Life satisfaction is the feeling you get when you look back on a day, a year, or even your whole life and think that you accomplished something worthwhile. And while that feeling of final satisfaction is amazing, the things we do to achieve it are often unpleasant in the moment. You have to have changed a lot of dirty diapers before you can pat yourself on the back for having raised a well-adjusted child. Building a business is hugely satisfying. It's also often torturous day to day.
In short, Kahneman suggests there are two distinct paths to the good life and which you take depends on your values and preferences. But, according to new research, there's actually also a third option: You can chase joy or satisfaction or, if both of those feel hard to come by, psychological richness.
Finding your way to a "good life" despite adversity
First, a definition. A life of psychological richness, according to the authors of a new paper on the subject, is full of "interesting experiences in which novelty and/or complexity are accompanied by profound changes in perspective." Writing up the research for Quartz, Sarah Todd offers the example of studying abroad as a psychologically rich experience. As students "learn more about a new country's customs and history, they're often prompted to reconsider the social mores of their own cultures," she notes.
Occasional awkwardness aside, studying abroad is generally pretty nice, but experiences that make your life psychologically rich don't necessarily have to be pleasant. In fact, one of the big advantages of this route to a good life is that it gives people a way to make lemonade out of lemons.
"Living through war or a natural disaster might make it hard to feel as though you're living a particularly happy or purposeful life, but you can still come out of the experience with psychological richness," explains Todd. "Or you might encounter less dramatic but nonetheless painful events: infertility, chronic illness, unemployment. Regardless of the specifics, you may experience suffering but still find value in how your experience shapes your understanding of yourself and the world around you."
Which is why this study is more than academic theorizing. Arming yourself with different conceptions of what it means to live a good life offers you different lenses through which to view your experiences. Understanding the distinction between happiness and life satisfaction may help you accept the long-term value of short-term sacrifices (I'm looking at you, entrepreneurs). Adding "psychological richness" to your vocabulary could help you reframe difficult times more positively.
The essential reminder here is that humans are complex and therefore so are our visions of the good life. Remind yourself of that next time you're stressing about how to trade off short-term joys, long-term goals, and the kinds of experience that stretch you. All are possible paths to a good life, and all of us wobble around doing our best to strike a balance between them.