Why heading back to the office could bring us all ‘psychological richness’

OPINION:

Next week, I will slowly begin The Great Return to the office. After 18 months of working from home, I’m a little nervous — trying to concentrate in a bustling newsroom, having to look tidy, the messy business of dealing with other human beings. But what I fear most is something else entirely: losing the sense of wellbeing I’ve often felt during these months of isolation.

Perhaps I have nothing to worry about. Research published on Tuesday from neuroscientists at University College London suggests that going into the office — at least the commuting part of it — might actually be good for our wellbeing, alleviating “brain fog” by generating “more diverse experiences”, and helping to make “each day more unique”.

“Diverse experiences” is one way to describe taking public transport in London. And it should be noted that this study was commissioned and paid for by the rail industry. But it just might be on to something. According to a recent paper in Psychology Review, there is a component of wellbeing that is often overlooked: having a diverse range of experiences — even if they are unpleasant — can contribute to “psychological richness”.

The question of what it means to live “the good life” is something that philosophers have wrestled with from the time of Aristotle. Since then, wellbeing has largely been seen as being made up of two main components: happiness, or “hedonic wellbeing”, which is associated with joy and comfort; and meaning, or “eudaemonic wellbeing”, which connotes purpose and making a contribution to society.

But Shigehiro Oishi, lead author of the research and professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, says this framework neglects a third dimension of wellbeing, characterised by variety and perspective-changing experiences.

“This new concept of a psychologically rich life is really to address the issue in the literature that was essentially so dichotomous in thinking — that the good life is about either being happy or leading a meaningful life,” he tells me. “It’s a different type of life goal — you’re trying to accumulate different kinds of experiences.”

Oishi and his team’s research suggests that while most people still say they most want happiness and meaning, a sizeable chunk — as many as one in six people in Germany — cite psychological richness as the most important element in their lives. Furthermore, the report finds that people with psychologically rich lives tend to be more curious and more open to social and political change.

We could use this to help us reframe what we consider negative experiences as opportunities for expansion and a change of perspective. Indeed, Oishi’s team analysed hundreds of obituaries from newspapers in the US and Singapore and found that those who had gone through major life challenges such as divorce or financial difficulties experienced higher levels of psychological richness.

The research might also help explain why places that, for me at least, seem rather uninspiring tend to rank so highly on “happiness” charts — Finland was recently named the happiest country in the world for the fourth year on the trot — while places I consider more exciting but which are more stressful, such as New York, tend to rank poorly.

Perhaps, then, we should welcome the stress that office life brings. “Your home environment is incredibly familiar, and there’s a real value in familiarity — there’s comfort, it reduces stress levels,” says Joseph Devlin, professor of cognitive neuroscience at UCL and author of the research on commuting. “However it’s not a very rich environment because there’s very very little novelty in it.”

For me, working from home has brought richness — my daily walks haven’t left me wanting in terms of variety and interest, and the stillness of home has allowed me to think deeply, which I sometimes struggle to do in a buzzy newsroom. But I hope that my “new normal” of hybrid working will allow me to keep my sense of wellbeing and even add to it, with new challenges and stresses that I will try to embrace, knowing that while they might not add to my hedonic joy or even bring me meaning, they make me psychologically richer.

– Financial Times

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