The Nuance

‘Psychological Richness’ May Be the Missing Piece in Your Life’s Puzzle

Novel, complex, and perspective-changing experiences are undervalued parts of a satisfying life

Markham Heid
Published in
4 min readOct 20, 2021
Photo: Tim Gouw/Unsplash

Imagine that you’re stuck in a room by yourself, and your only entertainment is a short movie clip — played over and over again.

That was the setup for a 2015 study led by researchers in the Netherlands. For one hour, people in the study sat alone at a table and watched the same 85-second movie segment, ad nauseam. Not surprisingly, as time passed they grew bored and then frustrated.

That wasn’t all. Each person was fitted with electrodes. As they watched the clip, they had the ability to self-administer electric shocks of varying strengths — from mild to painful. By the end of the hour, the people in the study had shocked themselves an average of 22 times, and the shocks had grown increasingly intense.

The philosopher Blaise Pascal famously observed that “all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.” The fact that many of us may prefer electric shocks to monotony underscores the truth of Pascal’s statement. There’s something in our programming — Pascal called it a “secret instinct” — that compels many of us to seek out new and unexpected experiences, even if they’re unpleasant.

Recently, some researchers have argued that such experiences are an undervalued element of a “good” life.

Shige Oishi, PhD, is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

“I mostly write about a psychologically rich life, which we define as a life full of interesting and perspective-changing experiences,” Oishi says.

In a 2021 paper, published in the journal Psychological Review, he and his co-author make the case that, along with happiness and meaning — which many consider the traditional prerequisites of a good life — psychological richness is a third dimension of human well-being that warrants greater appreciation and study.

“A significant reason neither a happy life nor a meaningful life captures the full range of human motivation is that both happy…



Markham Heid

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.