What Is Happiness to You?

Research suggests that true happiness is not about just one thing.

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Posted in , Oct 8, 2020

What makes you happy?

As the parent of a nine-year-old, I am very familiar with the game, “Would you rather?” It simply involves asking someone if they would rather do one often-fantastical option or another. Would you rather have the ability to be invisible for five minutes, or fly as long as you want but only lift five inches off the ground?

A new research study on happiness presents a fascinating “would you rather” scenario. Would you rather have a life that’s defined as “happy,” “meaningful” or “psychologically rich?” 

Happiness, in most psychological understandings, is characterized by comfort, safety, stability and contentedness. Meaning, a life marked by service, purpose and dedication to ideals is another value.

But the authors of the study, which was based on interviews and self-reports 3,728 participants in nine countries, suggest that “psychological richness” — defined by variety, engagement and diverse experiences — is a third, highly preferable option for a life well lived

Across the different countries where participants were surveyed, between 7 and 17 percent of respondents said psychological richness was their highest value. In a second study, more than a quarter of American participants said their lives would have been psychologically richer if they could undo or reverse their actions in an event they regret in their past.

There’s certainly a Venn diagram sweet spot where all three values coexist—happiness, meaning and the open diversity of experiences that leads to psychological richness. But I see this study as a helpful corrective to “toxic positivity,” a reminder that the goal of an authentically positive life is not to be free of all challenge, conflict and struggle, but rather to make meaning of those difficult moments and incorporate them into new ways of living in the world.

“Psychological richness fulfills the need for complex, varied experiences of the sort that change people’s view of the world and their place in it,” write the study’s authors. 

So—which good life would you rather lead?

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