Leading a psychologically rich life involves a calculated-risk taking mindset that involves deeper introspections, evolving emotions that helps you craft your own wisdom Image Credit: Shutterstock

Imagine yourself at peace, reflecting on a long and fulfilling life. What accomplishment or feeling would resonate with you, the most? 

“I made a difference!”

"I had fun, I was happy!”

"What a journey - I’ve seen so much!”

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We asked a few UAE residents, and received a range of answers. Dubai-based Nivriti Sharma, a homemaker, prefers the second category. “I just want to look back and remember that I was happy, with my family. That’s all. I want to feel peaceful and relaxed,” she says. On the other hand, Freya Wallace, an Abu Dhabi-based media professional wants to make a significant change in the world, even if it is a small one. On the other hand, Jason Williams, an American Dubai-based corporate professional and jetsetter as he calls himself, wants to tick off items on his ever-expansive bucket list. He has meticulously noted the countries that he wants to visit, the many things that he must do, which include skydiving and deep-sea diving. “I might even aim for a polar plunge one day,” he reveals.

A psychologically rich life

Everyone has a different happiness language. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Most of us have our own perception of what we want to do with our lives, whether for our own satisfaction, or for other purposes, such as supporting others or making a positive impact on the world. Traditionally, philosophers such as the Greek thinker Aristotle have classified a ‘good life’ – a life that is well lived from our own perspective – as being either ‘hedonic or eudemonic’. That is, either associated with happiness, security and comfort – or with fulfilling our potential, living lives of virtue and good character. It indicates, settling down with a family, a stable job and giving back to society. Everyone has a different happiness language.

Building on these traditional views, researchers have proposed another dimension of a good life: A psychologically rich life. A team of researchers, led by professor Shigehiro Oishi from the US-based University of Virginia and Erin C. Westgate from the University of Florida, 2021, had set out a few years ago to investigate the possibility of a different type of good life – one that need not be conventionally happy or settled. According to the study, they showed that that there was a characteristic that stood out separately from happiness and meaningfulness in life – psychological richness.

These range of new, challenging, perspective-changing experiences, could make you go ‘Whew, what a journey!’ by the end of it. The researchers asserted that by leading such a life, you would be rewarded with the wisdom of occurrences.

While solo travel, adrenaline-pumping activities, and transformative gap years can be enriching, a psychologically rich life encompasses more.

‘A calculated risk taking…’

A psychologically rich life will be your own unique experience; it’s not standard. Image Credit: Shutterstock

How do you know that you have actually led a really ‘good’ life? Well, here are the common aspects:

•A happy life is characterised by pleasantness, safety, security, stability – and also material and relational wealth.

•For a meaningful life – think societal contribution, purpose and growth.

Although related to each other – a difference is that they can be monotonous and repetitive. Whereas a psychologically rich life is by definition, not so, explains Nashwa Tantawy, a Dubai-based clinical psychologist, managing director of Nafsology Psychology Center, Dubai. 

Tantawy elaborates, “Whenever you ask someone on their perspective of a happy, fulfilled life, they’ll say stability, security, yet while having fun. Perhaps, some will say a life with purpose and social responsibility. Yet, while these are satisfactory, on their own, it might not classify as enough. And so, the concept of psychological richness changes the outlook.”

Whenever you ask someone on their perspective of a happy, fulfilled life, they’ll say stability, security, yet while having fun. Perhaps, some will say a life with purpose and social responsibility. Yet, while these are satisfactory, on their own, it might not classify as enough. And so, the concept of psychological richness changes the outlook...

- Nashwa Tantawy, clinical psychologist

It’s a deeper idea and doesn’t have limits. “It’s a mindset of discovery and exploration. It’s about exploring experiences from different perspectives, and feeling deeply, be it negative or positive,” she says.

Maybe it is more complicated, yet it’s what adds more meaning to your life, explains Tantawy. She elaborates with an example: If you travel to a different country, you see it with a deeper lens. It’s not just about having fun, and enjoying delicious food. You learn about the people, their culture, how they see your culture. These learnings compel you to constantly reflect, and experience a range of rich emotions that make you more open to experiences. “It is a calculated-risk taking mindset that involves deeper discussions with people, evolving emotions that helps you craft your own wisdom. It will be your own unique experience; it’s not standard.”

A splash of colours

You need to ensure your basic needs first, before aiming for a psychologically rich life. Image Credit: Pexels.com

There are many stories of people finding this ‘richness’. Dubai-based Aisha Khan had been working in the sales industry for over a decade. It wasn’t her first choice; she just believed that she didn’t have other options. In 2020, the pandemic struck. Khan continued with her work, yet, feeling more stifled inside. “I had played it safe for so long, and it was now getting to me. I felt dull, as if there was nothing more to me anymore,” she explains. One day, she doodled in boredom, while on a call. Impressed with her own doodle, she kept working at it, even making a comic sketch. “I discovered a long-lost love for sketching; something that I never thought would amount to anything,” she says. So, every day, she practised her sketching, while receiving feedback from friends and family. She experimented with water colours, too. Sometimes, it didn’t work; it could all be a splotch of colour. Yet, when it did, she was proud.

By 2022, she had the courage to host her own exhibition. “I won’t forget the joy when my first painting was sold, or hearing different interpretations of my art, even if it was something different to what I had imagined,” she says.

It’s 2024 now, Khan has left her sales job and enjoys freelancing for different book companies with her sketches and doodles. “It was quite the risk, but I am glad that I took it,” she says.

‘Not everyone is up to making a difference’

Yet, how do we start visualising this life for ourselves?

Dubai-based psychologist Reema Baniabbasi connects the ideals of such a rich life to American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which organised human needs from the most ‘basic’ to the most advanced. Maslow's argument is that the most basic needs must be met before people can move ‘up’ to the more advanced needs.

In the context of a psychologically rich life, first we need to pursue basic needs, that involve safety and security. You need a secure platform, in order to explore new experiences and take certain risks. Otherwise, you’re in just in a state of stress and survival, and a psychologically rich life isn’t within your grasp, she says.

Imagine this scenario:

•You're constantly worried about having enough food or finding shelter (physiological needs).

•You feel unsafe in your environment due to constant threats (safety needs).

•You lack social connection and feel isolated (love, belonging needs).

•In this situation, your main focus would be on securing these basic necessities. You wouldn't have the mental or emotional space to consider traveling to a new country (psychologically rich experience) because the basic needs create a constant state of stress and survival.

Now, let's flip the script:

•You have a stable job and access to healthy food (physiological needs met).

•You live in a safe environment with a support system (safety needs met).

•You have strong social connections and feel loved (love, belonging needs met).

•With these basic needs fulfilled, a sense of security and stability emerges. This frees up your mental and emotional energy. You can now consider pursuing experiences that enrich your life in a different way. This might involve learning new skills, travelling to new places, and volunteering. These experiences, which contribute to a psychologically rich life, wouldn't be readily pursued if your basic needs were constantly under threat.

It's not just about making a difference and grand experiences; it's about nourishing relationships, creating a value system. It's also about leaving behind a legacy...

- Reema Baniabbasi, clinical psychologist

Once we fulfil our basic needs, we work towards achieving personal growth and trying to achieve our potential in the form of experiences and perspectives. These desires are just beyond hedonism and happiness, and aligns with this perspective of a mentally stimulating life. As Baniabbasi explains, it is about nourishing relationships and creating a value system too. It’s not just about creating a difference, she adds; neither do all experiences have to be so grand. Your life needs to bolster a sense of value; a legacy, something that you leave behind after you’re gone.

‘A sense of curiosity, spontaneity…’

A psychologically rich life has a lot to do with novelty seeking, looking for something that is interesting and having a sense of curiosity. As Bene Katabua, child and education psychologist at Intercare Health Center, Abu Dhabi, had earlier told Gulf News, “When you’re thinking about a psychologically rich life, it has a lot more to do with how to stimulate yourself. For instance, thinking about spontaneity, creativity and becoming more autonomous over time,” she says.

What happens over time, when you kind of give yourself those kinds of experiences, is that you should have the kind of neurons that help your brain with plasticity - to remain malleable over time. So when you’re older and age, you’re able to do a lot more.” In short, while you have that wondrous life that you always dreamed of, it also requires cognitive restructuring. This is a process where we change our mindsets due to some thought-provoking events and experiences, she explained.

How to integrate psychologically rich experiences in your life:

• Embrace novelty: Instead of sticking to routines, be open to trying new things. It could be a new restaurant, a different route to work, or even a new hobby.

• Take risks: Psychological richness uniquely predicts a behavioural measure of risk taking, as well as everyday engagement in novel and routine activities.

• Perhaps just being present. Be open minded, observe situations and analyse them. Don’t stop being whimsical.

• Focus on experiences, not just outcomes: Don't get too fixated on achieving a specific goal. Sometimes, the most enriching experiences come from the unexpected detours and challenges along the way.

-With inputs from Sraddha Sabu, Special to Gulf News