Peter McGraw speaks to Dr. Erin Westgate about her research on living a psychologically rich life.
Listen to Episode #168 here
A Rich Remarkable Life
Erin, what did you have for breakfast?
I had some tortilla chips with melted cheese on top of them for breakfast. It was good, I think. I’m not sure.
Are you single? That seems like a single person’s meal.
Yes. That is definitely a single person’s meal.
Thank you. It’s so exciting to be here.
You are Erin Westgate. You are an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Florida, and you study boredom.
I do. It’s not what any kid wants to do with their life, but here I am.
I studied the opposite of boredom. I studied humor.
You did it right.
It’s not the opposite, I’m sure. You’re being kind in your response. If you were reviewing my paper, you would point out that they’re not opposites, are they?
No. I’d be like, “Interest in enjoyment are distinct states and humor is one facilitating factor,” but we don’t have to get into that now.
We can nerd it up a little bit. The readers can handle it. We’re here to talk about your paper, A Psychologically Rich Life: Beyond Happiness and Meaning. Let’s start by talking about what psychological richness is and how a boredom researcher came to study it.
The thing about a psychologically rich life is that we sometimes define it by what it’s not. When you ask people, “What kind of life do you want to live?” some people say a happy life, something that you feel good about a lot of the time and you’re having lots of pleasant experiences. Someone then points out, “That’s well and good, but it’s missing something. What about living a meaningful life that makes lots of contributions to society?”
A meaningful life is also a great life as well. When I was in grad school, I was working with a collaborator, Shigehiro Oishi, where I started doing this work on boredom. He traditionally studied happiness and well-being. We both were like, “The problem with happy, meaningful lives is that they can be boring, or they have the potential to be boring.”
That brought us to the idea of a psychologically rich life, or a life full of a variety of interesting perspective-changing experiences that isn’t necessarily always happy or enjoyable. It isn’t necessarily always capital and meaningful in the sense of making the world a better place or a better society but that is an interesting life. There’s this quote that I’ve always loved about wanting to reach the end of your life, “I have lived on the length of it, but the breadth of it as well.” That’s what we wanted to capture with this idea of a psychologically rich life instead.
Let’s pause. You said that a happy life or a meaningful life may be a boring life. Let’s help people understand that.
It’s a somewhat provocative thing to say, but when you look at what, for instance, predicts happiness in life, it’s mostly stability. Those are things like having a core group of friends or family, having enough money, or having this stable, secure lifestyle, which is enjoyable but can also be repetitive or monotonous. The same thing goes for meaning that the kinds of things that facilitate a meaningful life being embedded in a community and having the same routines all the time. These are all things that are good for meaning and you want for meaning, but they’re also things that we know can lead to boredom.
My mind is racing now. I have a phenomenon that I call Groundhog Day. I enjoy my life. I’m a creative individual. I get up and I’m making things as much as possible. I’m taking care of my health. I have my routines. The people who read this know that talk about wanting these four beats to my day. I want to be creative. I want to move my body. I want to have some fun, play, and socialization. For some reason, I can’t remember what the fourth one is at this moment. Isn’t that funny?
I’m going to assume that at least one of the beats is missing.
It is actually that I want to be well-rested. I want to wake up well-rested. I want to do creative work. I want to move my body, and then I want to play. I want to socialize or whatever it is. Those are the beats. If I can do that in a day, that’s a good day. If I can do that day after day, that’s a good week. If I can do that week after week, that’s a really good month, and so on.
However, nevertheless, at some point, I think to myself, “I need to get on a plane,” or, “I need to go out into the desert.” I need to do something because 22 straight days of that are good and fine, but I start to feel like it’s Groundhog Day. I’m referencing the movie, not the actual day in which Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again, and how he loses his mind doing that. What I hear you saying is that a rich life is not only an anecdote to boredom but an anecdote to too much stability.
I’m sure you’re familiar with this idea, especially in the natural sciences and biology of this trade-off between exploration and exploitation. It’s that if you find something good in life, essentially, you want to stick to it and make the best out of it because if you strike out for something new, there’s no guarantee there’s going to be something as good or better out there. You want to stick to what’s been rewarding in the past because you know that it will probably be enjoyable, rewarding, and meaningful in the future.
That’s what is often called this exploitation strategy, but the downside is that after a while, it turns into Groundhog Day and you start wondering about what else is out there. That’s this exploration phase that you can strike out and try something new. There’s a risk in that because it won’t be monotonous and it will be different. Hopefully, it will be psychologically rich, but it also has the potential to go terribly.
I want to do a callback to an episode that I enjoyed. I talked to a dear old friend named Lisa Slavid, and the episode is called Lisa’s Second Mountain. It encapsulates the upside of exploration, which is you’re lucky you climb the mountain or maybe you do it academically. You become a tenured professor and this is something you’re angling for. You’re looking to build a business, you’re building a family, or whatever that thing may be.
You’re at the top of the mountain, and it’s pretty nice up there. It’s nice to be at the top of the mountain, but what can end up happening, especially then, is the Groundhog Day phenomenon. It’s because you’re just up there. What you need to do to explore is you have to climb back down the mountain to find the next one, which might be a bigger mountain and a tougher climb. Also, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to make it to the peak.
It’s hard to trade new mountains for the safety of our old mountains.
In that episode, Lisa’s climbing her second mountain. She retired early from a nice, safe, secure job in a nice place in order to take on a new challenge to see how far she could take herself as an artist and to take herself as an entrepreneur. It’s been fun to see her climbing this second mountain. I have a feeling the peak’s going to be higher than where she was.
That’s exactly that trade-off between a happy and meaningful life and a rich life that we were alluding to that not every life can have all three, but maybe there are times in our lives when we want different elements of each one.
I appreciate you saying that because this is one of those topics that doesn’t lend itself to a prescription because everybody wants to know, “How do I live a good life?” Erin, why does this paper or research not lend itself to a prescription?
People want different things out of life. What’s right for me or for you at one point in our life might be different from what we want later in life. What I want may be different from what you want. We have this one study, for instance, where we asked current college students. If you had to pick or you had to make a choice now, do you want your life in college to be happy and meaningful or psychologically rich?
Everyone wants all of them, but if you had to pick, and they mostly say that they want their college life to be psychologically rich, not super surprising. What I think is interesting is when we ask them, “What do you want your life to be ten years from now? You’ve graduated from college. You’re living your life in your late 20s or 30s,” they shift. Now, looking forward from where they’re at, they say that they want their life to be meaningful.
Also, I suspect that if we followed up with them again in ten years when they’re in their 30s, it will be different. I’ve gotten a lot of the things I wanted out of life. It’s been happy and meaningful, and now, I’m more interested in an interesting life again. I suspect that we’re going to see those same kinds of shifts for different people. Those shifts will come at different times. There’s not one right answer to what it is to lead a good life. It’s more about recognizing that there can be lots of different answers and validating that a rich life is one of those and that a rich life is a good life. It’s valid to want that, desire that, and seek that out.
We are a simpatico, and it’s so refreshing to hear a well-being researcher talk like you. The field is only starting to emerge from this weird debate between what’s a better life, a happy life, and a meaningful life. Also, to hear a fellow researcher talk about how there’s no one remarkable life. There are remarkable lives, and that’s across people. There are people who are pursuing their best life as artists and other people pursuing their best lives as mothers. Also, others who are pursuing their best lives as athletes, academics, and people trying to cure cancer and so forth that there’s all this heterogeneity out there in the world.
Also, if you switched up those roles, the person who’s living a meaningful life and now is living a life filled with positive emotion, they are less well-off and vice versa. I also appreciate you saying about how this changes across the lifespan. What is a meaningful, good, remarkable life at one moment can change and sometimes can change suddenly. I like the idea that you’re adding this idea of richness to the menu as you select.
One of the things that I have found most personally satisfying about doing this work is not only validating what I want my own life to be. It’s because it has never fit well in those happy, meaningful categories but also hearing from other people who read our work or see our work or hear about our work and say, “That’s me.”
We’ve heard from a ton of ex-pats who are teaching English in other countries who have written to us and been like, “My family doesn’t understand why I keep moving from country to country.” They keep asking, “When are you going to come home?” I’m like, “This life is my home. I’m not living my second-best life.” In your own words, this is the remarkable life that they want to live.
A lot of people make the mistake of living the life that others think they should be living. They live a life that makes their mom happy or makes society happy because the world offers up a rather limited set of paths.
It does. When we were first talking about this idea of a psychologically rich life, one of the big inspirations came from literature. You read about all kinds of lives in novels and books. There’s this character Renée in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, who lives totally by herself. She likes watching fine movies and literature and all this, but she’s outwardly probably not someone that people would consider happy and probably not what most parents in society would point to as what they want their kids to grow up to be, but her life is beautiful. It’s beautiful in a way that is not widely acknowledged in our culture, society, or in psychology, to be quite frank.
Can I say why?
Yes. Go for it.
It’s because the people who study this stuff live boring lives.
You said it. Not me. I’m not disagreeing with you.
They’re academics. They have basically chosen a government job.
I think about that all the time.
Their big excitement is once every seven years, they go on sabbatical. What do they do? They go to another industrialized country and work at another university. That’s their let-me-change-it-up experience.
Our peak experience is academics. It’s a different IRB. There are different faculties in it.
It’s basically life adjacent. It helps. It’s better than not doing it, but it’s not that rich.
One of the examples of this that comes to mind, and it comes to mind cause it’s such an aberration, is a casual friend of mine who did what she called a sailbatical where she went on a sailboat for her sabbatical for the whole time.
Is she single?
No, she’s not.
It seems like a thing a single person would do.
It struck me. I was like, “How marvelous and unfortunate that so few of us use what’s an incredible opportunity.” Sabbaticals as a concept are a luxury. When you think of what we could do with them and what we do with them, this is a little bit of a judgment call, but it’s a little bit sad from our perspective. They may find it happy and meaningful, so kudos to them.
The idea is this. Can you inspire people to think a bit differently rather than defaulting to this one particular style of taking a break from your work? You did an obituary study. You talked about these college kids and their expectations for life. What happens when someone looks back on someone’s life and writes about it?
The obituaries are interesting because one of the downsides to studying people’s lives is that we typically don’t know how they end. There is this old saying by Solon, who’s a Greek philosopher, “Count no man happy until the end.” We’re like, “If they’re dead, we know how their life turned out.” We went and looked at a bunch of obituaries. Some are from a local Virginia newspaper, some from The New York Times, and some from other newspapers around the world. We coded them for how happy, meaningful, and psychologically rich these people’s lives were, especially the folks in The New York Times. These are some pretty remarkable lives. They had a The New York Times obituary.
That’s my goal.
I was like, “Aim high.”
I’m not going to be in the wedding section, but maybe I can make the obit section.
It’s the next goal. What was interesting about these obituaries was the variety of lives that we saw. We saw lives that were absolutely what you’d consider happy conventional lives. There were lives in there that were meaningful philanthropists and Mother Teresa-like lives, but we also saw a variety of these lives that very much exemplified what we mean by the psychologically rich life.
One of my childhood heroes, Eugenie Clark, died and had an obituary written during the time of our study period. Eugenie Clark was one of the first women scientists who studied sharks. She was a marine biologist, and her life was wild. She was married and divorced multiple times. She traveled all over the world. She swam with sharks and discovered all kinds of interesting things.
It’s possible her life was happy and it’s possible it was meaningful, but it was very clearly psychologically rich. She was very clearly always stepping out of her comfort zone to explore the world and did so beyond most of our wildest imaginations and succeeding in doing that. Seeing these kinds of lives in these obituaries brings home how much it’s not just having a happy couple of days in your life or a couple of meaningful moments. It’s about your life as a whole and what that looks like over time. It was inspiring reading a lot of these obituaries.
Are you going to stay a professor forever?
I’m in my fourth year as an assistant professor. That means I go up for tenure in two more years. We’re ending my fourth, not 2024, but I’ll send my packet in at the end of 2024. I feel like that’s my first mountain. We’ll see what comes next, but I do think that I can’t imagine being just a professor for my whole life if that makes any sense.
Trust me, I understand. A quick aside, tenure gives you more opportunities to pursue richness. The average professor just keeps doing the same thing over and over again. Maybe you’ll break that mold.
I already have some unconventional ideas. One of the actual joys of being a researcher studying psychological richness is that it pushes us or me outside of my comfort zone. A lot of our studies consist of just giving people questionnaires. You can’t study richness that way because that’s not what richness is. I’m so excited about this. We’re working with a fire ecology researcher here at UF who takes students out and teaches them how to do prescribed burns.
A student and I are going to start going on these burns with them where they burn down a chunk of the woods for ecological reasons. We’re told that this is a transformative experience to participate in that people or the students go through this, catch the firebug, and they’re like, “This is what I want to do with my life.” Doing that kind of work and research has already pushed me outside my comfort zone. It pushed me outside of that sticking to what I know works and I know is publishable to take some risks and see what these different experiences look like in the real world.
I had my personal experience pre-tenure leaving the lab to write my first book, The Humor Code. That included me and my co-author traveling to the West Bank, for example, and going to Palestine and spending time in Hebron. Also, me getting on stage and performing comedy at a professional comedy club. It pushed me.
These were rich experiences. The lesson, if someone’s reading this, is like, “We’re not professors, so stop talking about that.” There can be degrees of freedom within a profession, work, and life to pursue this richness. Can you better describe what richness is? How do you operationalize it? Can you give a couple more examples of people living psychologically rich lives?
These are my favorite items. We have a lot of ways to measure this. We say, “If you were on your deathbed and you were looking back at your life, what would you say about it?” Someone that’s lived a happy life might say something like, “I had a good time.” Someone that’s lived a meaningful life will be like, “I had a lot of laughs. It was great.” If you had a meaningful life, you might say something like, “I made a difference.”
If you lived a rich life, there are a few different things you could say. You could say, “My life would’ve made a great story. I learned a lot, potentially. I experienced all the world had to offer.” We use items like this to get at these distinctions. Is your life interesting? Is it happy? Is it meaningful? Also, when you look at it more globally, what best describes this kind of life that you’re leading?
One of the lives that stood out to me from the obituary studies as a psychologically rich life was Louis Cha, who was a famous novelist. He wrote a lot of Kung Fu kinds of novels, and that is what he’s best known for. He also led a remarkable life as a journalist and as a political dissident in China. He fled the country because there were death threats made against him by the government. He moved around from country to country. He was exiled.
In the meantime, he was writing all of these incredible novels. One day, he decided he was done with fiction and he was going to move on to another chapter of his life. It’s such an interesting case of someone who led a remarkable life in many ways, both in terms of creativity and creative contribution. Also, in terms of political dissidents and standing up as political activists who also literally experienced, because of all these activities, a lot of the world and a lot of different ways of experiencing the world. What I think is the most critical part of psychological richness is that it’s not only doing a lot of stuff because that could be hedonic. Jetting around the world and partying all the time isn’t a rich life.
I would call that being a tourist versus being a flâneur.
It’s exactly that difference. It is not just experiencing a variety of new and perspective-changing events, but taking that time to let them change your perspective on who you are, on what the world is on, and what this thing is that you’re experiencing. When we were talking, you were explaining how you’ll have those days and you’re hitting your four beats every day, and then after a few weeks of that, you’re like, “I need something new.”
There is a lovely dance there between doing things that are familiar, routine, happy, and meaningful, and taking some time to explore, to do something else, and to immerse yourself in a different way of being, and coming back and bringing those perspectives back to your old life. It’s that perspective change, that deep engagement, and what we call cognitive restructuring of taking in what you’re experiencing and letting that change you. That is key to psychological richness.
If someone who’s inspired by this and living Groundhog Day, what are some strategies that you would prescribe for someone who wants to shake things up?
Our conversation about what we as professors do is interesting because it suggests that it’s probably easiest to start small. We have a study we’re trying to run now to see if this works. What do you do every day? What’s your routine? Is there a way that you can do that differently, whether that’s starting something small? You could start small like getting to work somehow differently. You can take the bus or take a different route.
I don’t think that’s going to magically transform your life into a psychologically rich life, but if it’s what you need as training wheels to be comfortable with switching up what’s happening, it’s a place to start. Ultimately, it is sitting down, taking some time, and being like, “What are my dreams? What are the things I would do if I didn’t have these constraints of having to be in these places and do these things all the time?”
For instance, I would love to be an underwater photographer. That would be amazing. My life doesn’t prevent me to go doing that professionally, but I live in Central Florida. Can I go scuba diving every weekend? Yes. Can I take my camera with me? Yes. Can I do some of that and bring some of those elements into my life? Yes. We sometimes think in terms of these all or nothing thinking, but we can certainly look at where we want to go and take steps in that direction, even if we aren’t planning on going all the way there.
Would you say seeking variety plus challenge would be a short prescription?
I do. I like that you brought up the seeking challenge because one reason we don’t seek out psychologically rich things is that they’re uncomfortable. It’s one of those things where it’s not it’s uncomfortable but rich. Often, it’s rich because it’s uncomfortable because that discomfort is because of growth and change. You can’t have the richness without experiencing the discomfort too. It’s like climbing Mount Everest. You can’t have a comfortable mountain climb.
The challenge is a sign that you’re on the right path. It is seeking out challenges deliberately, being okay, sitting with it, and recognizing that “This might hurt a little bit or be uncomfortable. That means I’m on the right path and I’m growing. I am embracing this psychologically rich experience.” Here is something my mom always told me growing up. Whenever anything would go awry, she’d always say, “This will make a great story.” Anytime, if things are going wrong and that thought pops into your mind, it’s probably a rich experience you’re having right there. Being comfortable with that and seeking it out and looking for it is a great place to start.
I’m not much of a drinker, but I would love to have a drink and hear these stories. I do this thing where when I start a new project that has legs. For example, the humor research, and now the SOLO project, I envision it as a ten-year project. I put this cap on it. Part of it is to create some urgency. Ten years is a long time, but it’s not a long time when you think about a major project because there are people in our field who study the same thing for 40 years. I do that in part to create some urgency but then also to say that I’m going to sunset this thing and start something new.
I’ve had an increasing conviction looking at my own research and other people’s research that there’s only about 7 to 10 years of good stuff, and after that, you’re starting to get way down into the weeds.
You need someone else to take the baton. I do believe that.
Someone else might have interesting things to say about this at this point, but not me. You’ve had enough of me on this topic. I see that in my own work too. You asked how I got into doing research on psychological richness as a boredom researcher. Part of it was I’ve been studying boredom for years now. I’m at that point where I’m like, “We contributed this nice new model. It seems to have some legs. It’s useful. Is that where I need to be spending my time and effort, or are there interesting new projects where I’d make a bigger impact?” After I get tenure, we will see, but I love this idea of sunsetting a project and saying, “I have ten years to have a fantastic time doing this, and then after that, I’m going to pull my head up and see what else is out there.”
You are bored with boredom research. I can’t help but make that bad joke.
My dissertation was originally titled Why Boredom is Boring. My dissertation advisor is like, “You can’t call your dissertation that.”
We talked about the challenge and seeking out challenge and variety. There’s a downside to pursuing a psychologically rich life. You’ve made a convincing case for its usefulness, but where’s the challenge? Where’s the problem with doing this?
There are a couple of problems. One is that we only have so many hours in a day and anything you’re doing that’s making your life richer is, at best, probably not making your life happier. For instance, we have some data at this point that shows that this is the most well-done finding I’ve ever had. People with happy lives are happy more often, but people with meaningful lives are also happy more often. People with rich lives, there’s just no association between feeling good and richness.
What’s interesting about that is that it doesn’t mean there’s an inherent trade-off necessarily, but most people do like to feel good most of the time. Choosing to pursue a rich life or rich experiences or choosing to seek out that challenge does potentially mean discomfort. It does mean moments of distress. I live in Florida, and we have hurricanes. Something I have been looking at is whether hurricanes make our lives psychologically richer. It seems like they do, but I don’t think any of our readers here are like, “I hope a hurricane hits my house now.” “Fantastic. Let me move next to a volcano.”
There’s still value to having those experiences, but they’re not necessarily ones that I would advise people to go seek out. The other point about seeking out variety and prioritizing exploration is that can come at the cost of that stability and developing expertise in one specific thing. There’s a risk, if not done well, of becoming someone who’s not seriously engaging in any of these things and only consuming experiences somewhat blindly. That’s neither rich, but it’s also surely not happy or meaningful. I don’t think that’s a rich, happy, or meaningful life.
I’m heartened to hear that these things are independent and that happiness and meaning are independent and richness would suggest that you can pursue them simultaneously. Also, recognizing that there are opportunity costs and there are challenges. I think about this when I get on a plane and I go somewhere else. My sleep gets disrupted. My GI system gets disrupted. I’m not as productive as I would like to be. To avoid Groundhog Day, I need to make some sacrifices to my health, to my productivity, to my goals, and so on. However, when I come back, I come back refreshed, inspired, and ready to get back to it.
I do think that’s something that compared to happiness or meaning is somewhat unique to richness. This idea is that there are clear costs almost or potential costs that have to be paid.
I’m going to get to some spicy stuff here for a second, Erin. We’re going to have some fun with this. Before I do that, I want to try to articulate this in the context of a model that I’m writing about. I call this the Foundation Flourish Model. There are lots of models of well-being and of living a good life. The overarching notion is there’s no one remarkable life. There are remarkable lives, and there are remarkable lives within life. We’ve covered that.
This model has these two elements. It has this foundational element. It is taking care of your health, taking care of your wealth, connecting to the community, and how that serves as a basis for a remarkable life. To use the metaphor that Scott Barry Kaufman uses, think of this as the hole of a sailboat. It keeps you afloat in turbulent waters. We’ve covered two parts of this. It is this idea of happiness, positive emotion, having lots of laughs, having good sex, and enjoying good food. A pleasant positive existence is one path.
Of the flourish path, you can think of the sail, the thing that helps you catch the wind. I would call this a subset of having a purpose or doing something great for the world or doing something great for yourself. It is something that’s achievement-oriented, let’s say. The last part is engagement. It is a creative life, like the life of an artist, the maker, and so on. The nice thing about Scott’s sailboat metaphor is that you can catch the wind in different ways, but you can also take your sailboat in different directions. There’s no one path to living this remarkable life.
At first, I was struggling like, “How do I fit this into the model?” What I’m hearing you saying is we talk about this as a moderator. You can make life more or less interesting as you pursue these different paths by introducing variety and challenge into it. How does that sound to you as I do a half-ass job articulating this?
I love that analogy of the sailboat. I can see where you’re struggling because it feels like it could slot into a lot of different places where there is an element of where you want to steer your boat to it too that some people may not want to go over to psychologically rich island over there at all.
It’s a little too scary.
It’s dark and stormy. It’s beautiful.
That is shark-infested waters there.
For me, I’m like, “Shark-infested waters? Sign me up.”
“Let’s go. I got my camera.”
I feel like there’s an element of where you want to steer your boat, but I also think that there’s an element of what’s filling your sales and how you change that up as well. We know that there are some things that are good for richness but are also good for happiness and meaning.
What are those?
For instance, we find that money is generally good across the board. It’s strongest for happiness, but it certainly helps to have a meaningful and rich life.
It solves a lot of problems.
Social connection too, we find it strongest for meaning and happiness, but it’s there for richness also. Likewise, new experiences are an interesting category because they can take a lot of flavors. Doing something new can range from, “You’re a big foodie and you’re going to go to that new restaurant that just opened up,” which is probably going to be psychologically rich for you, but it’s also, more importantly, probably going to be meaningful and enjoyable. However, doing something new could also consist of going to a monster truck rally. Part of it’s the degree of newness, but also, there are different flavors of newness as well. That’s going to push you in different directions.
I’ll give you a personal anecdote about this. I got a little fellowship to visit another university. My dear friend and co-author of a lot of my early work on emotions, Jeff Larsen, was at Texas Tech. For people who don’t know Texas Tech, it is in Lubbock, Texas. It is in West Texas, and it’s in the middle of nowhere.
By the way, it is the most cosmopolitan place in West Texas. There are other towns called Levelland and Brownsville. There are not even interesting names. They are basically like, “This is a brown town. We’re going to call it Brown Town.” This is West Texas living. I was going to be there for nine days and I was staying in their guest bedroom. They have kids and a dog. They’re living the escalator life.
I said, “What can we do in Lubbock, Texas?” I said, “We’re going to do everything West Texas this week.” We went to a Friday Night Lights high school football game, for example. I made him take me to a rodeo. I made him take me to a Baptist church. We did all these stereotypical West Texas things to get a sense of what’s life like in Lubbock as a regular everyday person. Erin, I have to tell you, we had so much fun.
The people were incredibly warm and welcoming. I told them what we were doing. It was great. We got a slice of life. I don’t need to go back to a Baptist church necessarily and I never want to go to a high school football game ever again, but that was a great little dip-my-toe-into-another-culture experience.
I grew up in Southeast Texas. This is funny. I love hearing that. The number one thing I love doing when people visit my hometown is dragging them on for a few days of that. Now, we’re going to a crawfish boil and we’re going to go to the swamp. There is a real joy to it. It is psychologically rich, but it also can just be fun. Psychological richness doesn’t have to be pain, suffering, and challenge. It can be a good time.
It was a great time. These high school people were like, “Why are these grown men tailgating before a high school football game?” I was like, “Let’s do it.” Before we get to the spicy stuff, I want to ask you a question. I’ve been writing about the agrarian age, our decision to farm, and our decision to domesticate wheat and other crops. An anthropologist joked that wheat domesticated us.
We moved from being hunter-gatherers to being farmers. I lament that in some ways. A solution to things like food insecurity has led to industrialization. I know a bunch of innovations and so on, but the life of the hunter-gatherer, in some ways, is a good life. I want to make an argument that the hunter-gatherer life is a psychologically richer life than the life of the farmer.
I would agree with that. When you look at what farming requires, it’s shackling you to a specific place or tasks that have to be done at specific times, and a specific sequence often with specific people. It’s because often, you can’t do it alone depending on the crop that you’re built growing. Farming does not lend itself well. I’m a big gardener. Growing things in general does not lend itself well to switching them up. Plants don’t like you to switch things up on them at all. Once you have the operation going, you’re committed to that spot. You can’t just pick it up and take it with you.
You’re at the mercy of the weather. You’re at the mercy of bandits. You’re at the mercy of the government. You have to create these systems to keep things secure versus when you’re a hunter-gatherer, when things become insecure, you move on.
When you think of the day-to-day tasks of what people are doing, too, it’s not only on this more broad level of being able to pick up and move. There’s more freedom within the day to do a variety of things. “It’s raining. I’m going to stay inside and work on something else.” One of the ideas that we talked about in my boredom research that is applicable to richness is the idea of fit and of tailoring the activity to where you’re at at the moment.
Doing something like writing a paper, sometimes, I love that. Sometimes it’s the best thing in the world. Sometimes it’s way overstimulating. Sometimes it’s a project I don’t care about anymore and it’s boring. One of the things that I think as academics we have a lot of freedom to do is to switch up the specific tasks that we’re working on to fit where we’re at mentally and energy-wise within a day. When I think about that in terms of your questions about the hunter-gatherer versus agrarian lifestyle, cows have to be milked at the same time every day. It doesn’t matter what you’re feeling.
It doesn’t matter if you’re sick. The cows need to get milked.
If you’re tired or don’t feel like milking cows is meaningful this morning, you have to go do it. Something we see with boredom is that it’s not that constraint itself is boring, but that constraint limits our options for ways to choose tasks that are meaningful and optimally engaging to us. On a grand level, you see the same thing with psychological richness. It’s easier to live a psychologically rich life when you have the flexibility to tailor what you’re doing to the moment.
It’s a perfect segue. I want to argue, and I’m going to take an extreme position here, that the solo life has the potential for psychological richness more so than married life.
I would actually agree with you. I’m biased. I’m single. I’m interested to hear your reasoning because I have thought about this as well.
I want to hear yours. You’re the star here.
It’s similar to what we were talking about the agrarian versus hunter-gatherer lifestyle and being shackled to other plants’ needs or other cows’ needs, but also to other people’s needs is a form of constraint. To be clear, this is something that brings great enjoyment and meaning to many people’s lives.
You have to defend married people. They’ve got so many people defending them.
However, it also means that you have someone who might not want to go fly fishing this weekend because you heard about it on a radio show and want to try it, or who might not want you to go by yourself to go do this, or who has things of their own that they want to do. It is the freedom and flexibility that comes with not being accountable to somebody else like that in your life. What I’d say is it’s not necessarily a psychologically richer life, but it creates the greater potential to live your life in psychologically rich ways.
I talk about how singles have more optionality. By virtue of having optionality, the ability to make a choice gives you more license to pursue a psychologically rich life. It doesn’t mean that you will. It doesn’t mean that you do. You can be a single person and essentially mimic the nuclear family minus the spouse and kids. You could live out in the suburbs and watch a lot of TV. You could go to work and do your 9:00 to 5:00 and all those things.
It’s neither necessary nor sufficient to be single to live a psychologically rich life. However, if you choose to do it, you have fewer constraints. I travel on one-way tickets, as an example of this. The thought experiment is if I had a partner, might she be not so excited that I bought a one-way ticket without knowing when I might be coming home from the trip?
I was out kayaking with friends all day, and first off, two of my friends, Anna and Peter, I love them to death. They’re married. They have a baby. They had to be home by 3:00 PM because the babysitter was leaving then. Meanwhile, I didn’t have to be home. On the car ride on the way back, I got a text message from a friend asking if I wanted to do an after-hours night dive at this local sinkhole that usually isn’t open after dark and party there afterwards. I was like, “Why not?” It’s this crystallized moment where I was like, “There is absolutely nothing in the world stopping me from saying yes to this.”
Erin, I think about this sometimes. For some people, what we’re talking about being so unencumbered is scary. It’s not appealing. They crave stability and they want stability. Again, there are remarkable lives. There’s no one remarkable life, but it’s nice to hear someone talk like this because I think about this sometimes. I think how much I limit myself in some ways by not thinking bold enough. On a Friday afternoon, I could just, in twenty minutes, pack a bag and go to the airport.
I could go to Vegas now if I wanted to. I could do anything I want because I don’t have to ask permission to do that. It’s enough just to recognize that you can. Knowing you have optionality is important. It’s freeing, even if you don’t take advantage of it. I do think there is something that’s very exciting rather than sad about the single life in that way you can choose an adventure that’s going to best fit you at that moment.
What stood out to me and struck me about this moment when I got that text message was that my first thought was like, “I can’t do that. I need to go home,” but why? I don’t have to go home. As we were talking about it on a Friday afternoon and realizing, “You couldn’t just go somewhere,” I was like, “I could just go,” so I went.
It’s tough because the world is built for two. What ends up happening is we get a very limited set of role models, stories, and systems that are set up for this very stable life. Governments want stability. They don’t want a bunch of us running around doing whatever we want all the time.
I’m laughing imagining a horde of psychologically rich people.
What ends up happening is it is that the typical narrative limits our imagination. As a result, we end up living a life too adjacent to the nuclear family life. I agree with you. There’s nothing wrong with it. I argue that being a solo, having a sense of completeness and wholeness, having a sense of self-sufficiency, and autonomy, and being an unconventional thinker, allows you to move in and out of relationships.
You can have a partnership that allows you to fly on a one-way ticket. You can have a partnership in which that person is happy to climb on a plane and go to Vegas with you to roll craps tonight. It’s not necessarily the case that it’s about relationship status per se. It has more to do with the psychographics. Nonetheless, the people who are best able to go solo are singles. I do believe that. There’s something very exciting that, as a single person, it gives you an edge if you want to pursue richness.
It creates room in your life to think about it.
Just the very simple fact that you don’t have to get permission. I’m going to go even spicier. Are you ready?
I’m ready for this.
We’re talking about variety. We’re talking about challenges. Is it the case then that a non-monogamous life is a psychologically richer life?
That’s a fantastic question. It’s one that I strongly suspect theoretically the answer is yes. If we were talking about travel, for instance, instead of relationships and I asked you, “Which of these people have a psychologically richer travel life?” is it going to be the person that always goes to the same place every year and does the same thing? We all have a friend that does that. They always go to Disney every year or Myrtle Beach. Is it the person that goes to a lot of different places and does different things and connects in sincere ways with lots of different worldviews and experiences?
There’s a sense that our culture is reluctant to make that same conclusion about relationships, but I don’t see any theoretical support for that. I am collecting some data on this because I’m curious as well about whether it is the case. It’s a little bit of chicken and egg. The kinds of folks who are most likely to seek out consensually, non-monogamous relationships are probably already predisposed to leverage lives to begin with.
It’s that unconventionality.
To the extent, we can tease them apart. I suspect very much that’s the case. I taught an undergrad seminar on peak experiences. This isn’t exactly the same thing, but it’s loosely related. One of the weeks we spent some time talking about BDSM practices in the context of psychological richness, peak experiences, and transformation.
There’s some very cool data coming in showing that those can be deeply transformative experiences for people. They didn’t ask about psychological richness per se, but I would be floored if we didn’t see the same thing for richness. Anything that we’re doing that is leading us to have this perspective-changing variety of experiences. Whether that’s traveling, sex, or relationships, I suspect that it’s going to have similar payoffs for richness as well.
Non-monogamy is not for everyone. People find it distasteful. They find it stressful. They find it disruptive to their relationships. I’m not advocating that per se, but it does flow. The best evidence I can provide is Esther Perel has made herself famous by pointing out the paradox of stability, which is that people like it in their relationship like monogamy. They like the predictability and so on, but they get bored. Sex has this incredibly pleasurable, wonderful, positive thing and suddenly becomes monotonous and routine.
It’s not as exciting. “I can’t wait to get home and have sex with my partner tonight.” She has done a nice job of introducing ways to try to rekindle that excitement or novelty, but it’s this constant tug between stability and novelty that monogamous couples have to deal with. Non-monogamy creates those challenges that we were talking about but introduces the variety and challenges to that.
Your BDSM examples are interesting. I’ll speak honestly here. When I have a new partner, I’m learning a new repertoire with that partner. Maybe that person is into a particular kink, and I’m trying to figure out, “Can I satisfy that kink? Do I want to satisfy that kink?” I find myself buying books to try to understand that kink and so on. I’m growing. I’m challenging myself as a result of this. It certainly creates a richer sex life.
I was thinking about that point earlier when we were talking about single versus partnered people. Other people can limit us, but they can also, especially when there’s a variety of them, introduce us to things that we wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
I have to tell you the story. I have a friend who got caught cheating because he used a new move with his girlfriend.
“It didn’t come from me. It came from somewhere else. You didn’t learn that with me.”
I am not happy with his infidelity, and this was a long time ago. He was like, “I used a new move and I got busted for cheating.” I was like, “You are learning from other people.”
To your point, there are ways that it can be uncomfortable or challenging. Maybe a central theme is that psychological richness is challenging but also potentially rewarding.
Laura Grant has been on the show a couple of times. She’s a solopoly. She has multiple relationships. I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but she was like, “You can critique my lifestyle in a number of ways, but you can’t say I’m not connected. I have very rich varied connections.” Her life has a lot going on because she has more people in it romantically and sexually than in the typical escalator relationship.
There are layers there. Sometimes, people will joke to me like, “The opposite of psychological richness is psychological shallowness.” I’ll laugh, but in some ways, like, “Yes.” If you’re juggling multiple, especially with polyamorous relationships, multiple loving relationships with all these different people, it’s creating depth and texture, not just between your relationship with each of them, but their relationship even if indirectly between each other. That’s incredibly rich that there is a complexity there that a relationship between two people is never going to be equal. I don’t say that in a negative way at all, but objectively, there are more possible layers of connections and more possible ways for people to connect when there are multiple people involved.
I’m not prescribing anything. To me, whether you stay single your whole life, whether you partner up with two and only two, or if you partner up with more, or you move in and out of those three different categories, my feeling about it is you get to choose. No one else gets to tell you you’re making the wrong choice.
Peter, to your point, there are plenty of people out there defending marriage. There aren’t as many people out there defending choices to partner with nobody or to partner with multiple people. There’s value in explicitly recognizing that these things have value. As I said, one of the things I love about the concept of richness is not so much that it’s something new, but that it puts a name to something that people experience and value in their lives.
Do you have a parting thought for the audience reflecting on either this conversation or about your work more generally?
One of the things that I am most excited about going forward in my work, and this goes back to what we were talking about putting that ten-year moratorium on a line of work, is I am so excited to hear not only about happy lives and meaningful lives and rich lives but all the other kinds of lives out there that people are living that have a value that we’re not naming and we’re not capturing.
For me, doing this work has made me realize how psychologically shallow our understanding of the good life in psychology is. What my parting thought here would be that if folks are living a life, and I don’t know why we feel that our lives need to be validated, but apparently we do, but if you’re living a kind of life and it’s not neatly captured by any of these three things, there’s still a ton of value in that. Also, I want to hear from you.
I want to hear about those kinds of lives that are out there that are so not neatly captured by the lines that we’ve drawn. I’m excited, and I feel like I see psychology as a whole, your work, our work, and lots of folks’ work moving towards addressing and recognizing the point that you’ve made that there are many ways to lead remarkable lives out there.
For me personally, recognizing that a psychologically rich life is what I want and being able to put it in the literature, get it out there, and have people talk about it has made me feel like it’s more okay to go out and do that after hours dive at Blue Grotto or to go and take those risks and chances. There’s a way that it’s empowering, and I hope that some of the readers found this conversation empowering for them too.
I’ve read a lot of papers in my life. Your paper is what I call a tenure paper. It’s going to be in your tenure packet. It’s going to move you along. Erin, thank you so much for doing this. I had a wonderful time. I wish you the best underneath the ocean with your camera.
Thank you so much. I hope you have a psychologically rich day.
- Erin Westgate
- A Psychologically Rich Life: Beyond Happiness and Meaning
- Lisa’s Second Mountain – Past Episode
- The Elegance of the Hedgehog
- The Humor Code
- Laura Grant – Past Episode
About Dr. Erin Westgate
Dr. Erin Westgate is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Florida, where she studies boredom, interest, and why some thoughts are more engaging than others. She received her PhD in social psychology from the University of Virginia in 2018, and her undergraduate degree from Reed College. Much of her research has been on the conditions under which people enjoy or do not enjoy their own thoughts. She has extended that work to the larger question of why people become bored, developing a new model of boredom that explains what boredom is, why we experience it, and what happens when we do. As part of this, she is investigating our desire for a life full of interesting, perspective-changing experiences – or a “psychologically rich” life. She spends her free time looking at fish and diving in the local Florida springs.