What makes for a “good” life?

Illustration by Bridget Daulby

When couples split, sometimes the reason they cite is “We want different things in life”. Of course, this could be related to specifics, like disagreeing about having children. However, there’s one key way people differ in the life they want.

Three types of lives

Research shows that people differ in what they think makes a “good” life. Some prioritise a happy life. They want comfort and stability, pleasant and familiar experiences and to experience many positive emotions and few negative ones.

Other people prioritise a meaningful life. They want a life with purpose, they value coherence between their moral principles and how they act and they want to make a contribution.

A third group say it’s most important to have a psychologically rich life. They like novelty, variety, spontaneity and having experiences that change their thinking. People who prioritise this type of life are curious, open, enjoy a challenge and experience both positive and negative emotions quite intensely. 

The authors of a study on this topic, Shigehiro Oishi and Erin Westgate, summed up the differences between these groups as follows: “On their deathbed, a person who has led a happy life might say, ‘I had fun!’ A person who has led a meaningful life might say, ‘I made a difference!’ And a person who has led a psychologically rich life might say, ‘What a journey’.”

A happy life is the most common preference, followed by a meaningful life. A psychologically rich life is the least common preference. This pattern is consistent across a variety of cultures.

Understanding these dimensions can help you understand others, whether they’re your loved ones or employees. If you value a rich life, you might find it hard to relate to people who like a lot of sameness and aren’t as driven by novelty and challenge as you.

If you value happiness, you might find it difficult to understand others who are willing to upset the apple cart to make a difference or gain a sense of growth.

If you value meaning, people who value happiness may seem superficial to you, and those who value richness may seem flighty or erratic. We all tend to think other people see the world as we do, but actually we have different motivations.

Better balance within ourselves.

Sometimes one type of “good” life may be less accessible to us. For example, during the pandemic, many of us have had less access to novelty.

People who value richness have likely found this the hardest. If you’re undergoing hardship, illness or challenges, but you typically value happiness, that’s likely to be especially tough.

If you can think about there being three possible routes to a good life, you can still have your dominant preference, but dip into the other types when circumstances make your preference more difficult to achieve. 

Better appreciation of richness. 

As mentioned, across cultures, the smallest minority of people prefer a psychologically rich life.

People in this group are rewarded with wisdom, because they seek a variety of experiences and don’t see their own knowledge as definitive or universal. As a result, this group can be more open to social changes.

They’re willing to tolerate strong difficult emotions because they derive knowledge and growth from those experiences. If you don’t naturally value psychological richness, it might be worth considering its value more closely.

This will potentially help you cope better during times of upheaval and change.

Whenever it seems like you have no choice but to experience personal or social change and difficult emotions, knowing how to grapple with your thoughts and emotions to grow from those is beneficial. 

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