Might variety be the spice of life?

May 27, 2022


‘Variety is the spice of life’. That’s something we commonly say to justify trying something new. A recently published article by US researchers Shigehiro Oishi and Erin Westgate seems to emphatically underpin that.

After a comprehensive series of studies and reviews, Oishi and Westgate suggest that a life with a variety of interesting and perspective changing experiences – psychological richness – should sit alongside happiness and meaning as a valid aspect of living ‘a good life’.

When asked to choose between three alternatives, most study participants said they would prefer a happy life. The second most popular choice was a meaningful life. However, 7% to 17% of people said they would prefer a psychologically rich life. Not an insignificant proportion.

Philosophers since Aristotle have contemplated what it is to live a good life. A life of pleasure, a life of honour, a life of wealth or health or eminence were Aristotle’s top contenders.

Modern psychological science has gravitated towards thinking of a good life in terms of either hedonic or eudaimonic well-being – a sense of happiness or a sense of meaning.

In their work to establish the significance of psychological richness, Oishi and Westgate questioned several hundred students studying in the US, several thousand studying abroad and people of nine different nationalities in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the US.

In a novel turn, rigorous examination of hundreds of obituaries in the New York Times, a local Virginian and a major Singapore newspaper provided data for entire-life experiences of happiness, meaning, and richness.

A life rated as particularly rich was led by Paula Zo, who died at the age 62. Although she experienced disability due to multiple illnesses, Ms. Zo spent her life advocating for foster children in her job as a social worker. She loved theatre and starred in her self-authored one-person play “Crazy Mama.” Ms. Zo was working on a second autobiographical comedy about her life as “a handicapped wheelchair bound woman” when she died.

Importantly, Oishi and Westgate found that complex, difficult and even upsetting experiences contribute to psychological richness. These experiences can shift perspectives that contribute to valued improvements in empathy, creativity, and an appreciation of life’s brighter moments.

People come to Brave Starts looking for change that they feel is either forced upon them or something of personal choice. Of over 5500 people surveyed by Brave Starts, over 2000 said that learning something new was an important factor when thinking about the next 10 to 15 years of their working lives. An Aviva report published in 2021 found that over 60% of respondents are planning career changes.

Oishi and Westgate’s studies predict that psychologically rich lives are facilitated by curiosity, time, and energy. Further, they present evidence that links psychologically rich lives with personalities that tend to be strong in ‘openness to experience’ and ‘extraversion’.

Could a psychologically rich life be just what you want – and might variety be the spice of your life?


Oishi, S., & Westgate, E. C. (2021). A Psychologically Rich Life: Beyond Happiness and Meaning. Psychological Review. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/rev0000317

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