By In Happiness, Ideas, Value Theory Comments (7)

Lorraine L. Besser: The Fundamental Value of the Interesting

Think of the most recent remarkable experience you’ve had. Perhaps it was reading an engrossing novel that opened your eyes to a new depth of poverty, stamina, and kindness. Perhaps it was attending a sporting event you thought would exemplify stereotypes on the basest level yet turned out to deliver an unexpected but welcome insight into empowerment and dedication. Perhaps it was a sappy movie that helped you to cry when you most needed it, and then to laugh it off, so that you emerge with a fresh emotional state. Perhaps it was simply the wrong turn you took when trying to get across town that led you to discover a playground full of Somali immigrants, dressed in beautiful colors, playing soccer.

Shige Oishi (psychology, UVA) and I have been researching these kinds of experiences, which we take to comprise a “psychologically rich life”. We define a psychologically rich life as a life characterized by complexity, in which people experience a variety of interesting things, and feel and appreciate a variety of deep emotions via first-hand experiences or vicarious experiences such as novels, films, and sports on TV. A psychologically rich life can be contrasted with a boring and monotonous life, in which one feels a singular emotion or feels that their lives are defined by routines that just aren’t that interesting.

Thus far, the empirical research led by Oishi and his team at UVA has focused primarily on establishing the psychologically rich life as distinct from the forms of the good life most commonly studied within psychology, which are eudaimonistic/meaningful lives and happy/hedonistic lives. What I’d like to focus on here, though, is one important philosophical implication that emerges from our conceptualization of the psychologically rich life, which is has to do with the value of that which is interesting.  

In highlighting the “interesting”, I mean the sense of being engaged, enthralled, or captivated by a certain experience. This is somewhat similar to the conception of desire Chris Heathwood employs to anchor his defense of hedonism; to desire something, he argues is “simply to favor it, to be for it, to be “into” it”[1]. But I think the interesting is not something appropriately tied to either desire or pleasure, and that it is a distinct, irreducible phenomenon tied to a dynamic synthesis between the agent and the experience: Experiences are interesting when there is a synthesis between whatever an agent is bringing to the experience and that experience. Sometimes what that agent brings is simply lack of experience: here the novelty of the experience generates its interesting feel. Sometimes the agent brings expectations that turn out to be false, in which case the clash of expectations generates its interesting feel. And sometimes the agent just brings a sense of curiosity, which allows her to find things interesting that others may have very well overlooked. The interesting is thus importantly different and not to be confused with “interested”, which describes experiences that align with an agent’s particular, pre-existing interests. Sometimes the interesting derives from pre-existing interests, but often it is the case that an agent finds experiences interesting even when they do not align with her interests.   

It seems to me that given the dynamic quality of the interesting, its value is fundamental. It isn’t dependent on any particular attitude; it doesn’t depend upon a particular skill or the exercise of particular capacities; it doesn’t depend upon success; it doesn’t depend upon one’s own values or any kind of objective value the experience might possess. It does arise from a synthesis between the agent and the experience, but, again, that synthesis is itself largely unspecifiable. It is, indeed, a unique form of value.  That it is unique gives it a fundamental value, insofar as its value is inexplicable by appeal to other sources.

In both philosophical and psychological discussions for the good life, pleasure—and positive affect more generally— has come to have a value that is uncontestable. We can argue about how valuable it is, or how to define it, but very few question its status as a value.  While I don’t disagree at all that pleasure is valuable and important, I do question whether or not pleasure is the only value like this. Indeed, as I think through the nature of the psychologically rich life, I’m beginning to think that the interesting might on its own be valuable in the same sense in which the pleasant is, on its own, valuable.

What would be involved in recognizing the fundamental value of the interesting? To start, we’d need to recognize that something doesn’t have to be pleasant, or to be a form of pleasure, in order to be valuable. This means resisting the urge to re-describe the interesting in terms of pleasure. This also means recognizing that, for some people, at least, leading a good life will entail prioritizing the interesting over the pleasant, and even over the meaningful.

Recognizing the interesting to be a fundamental value thus not only validates those who choose to live lives full of interesting experiences, it also opens up a new dimension of the good life for pursuit.  Affirming the interesting as a fundamental value can encourage individuals, even those with limited opportunities and resources, to find the interesting in life.

 

[1] “The Reduction of Sensory Pleasure to Desire,” Philosophical Studies 133, no. 1 (2007): 25.

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Lorraine L. Besser is a philosophy professor at Middlebury College, her primary area of research is in moral psychology.  

7 Responses to Lorraine L. Besser: The Fundamental Value of the Interesting

  1. Nicole Hassoun says:

    Thanks Lorraine, can you please tell us more about the psychological aspect of your research? I’m interested! 🙂

  2. Lorraine Besser says:

    Sure! Our main goal at this point is to show the psychologically rich life to be distinct from meaningful and happy lives, and I should note that Shige Oishi has taken the lead on the empirical research. Psychological richness involves more than interesting experiences (although my hunch is that the value of the interesting is what makes the psychologically rich life choiceworthy) and so our research has tried to explore the package of experiences we associate with psychological richness, including complexity, variety, interest, and novelty. We’ve developed a psychologically rich scale, which we’ve used in conjunction with scales ranking degrees of happiness and meaning. We used these scales in one study in which we asked college students to report the extent to which their lives have the characteristics of a happy life (e.g., stability, comfort), a meaningful life (e.g., meaning, purpose), or a psychologically rich life (e.g., varied, interesting). Factor analysis upon these self-evaluations shows that a 3-factor model best fit the data: that is, that the best explanation of the data is that some students led meaningful lives, some led happy lives, and some led psychologically rich lives. While this initial study sought overall evaluations of one’s life, in a related study, we had students complete daily diaries ranking the degrees to which they experience these characteristics. We hope this latter study will allow us to learn more about the correlates of daily fluctuations, and whether or not whether daily fluctuations in psychological richness were distinct from daily fluctuations in happiness and meaning. We’ve also had research assistants conduct an obituary study, exploring whether lives summarized in the New York Times’ obituaries would include a dimension of psychological richness, distinct from happiness and meaning. This allowed us to again use confirmatory factor analysis to establish that some people led a life high in psychological richness, while others led a life high in happiness or meaning. These obituary studies have been fascinating, and have given me much to think about in terms of psychological richness. Oliver Sack’s obituary (https://nyti.ms/2k9IEC9) provides a great example of what we are after.

  3. Nicole Hassoun says:

    Very cool, thanks Lorraine!

  4. […] Interestingness: is it a fundamental value? — Lorraine Besser (Middlebury) on “the sense of being engaged, enthralled, or captivated by a certain experience” […]

  5. Eric Walker says:

    (1) I wonder if there’s something here that would contribute to an account of aesthetic experience.

    (2) What conception of “experience” are you using here? Another way to ask this question is: What’s the criterion you’re invoking to distinguish between my experience of something and what I bring to that experience?

  6. Lorraine Besser says:

    Thanks for your comment, Eric! I’m sure this could contribute to an account of aesthetic experience–it would be great to think that through. I’m just now at the brainstorming stages and really trying to conceptualize the interesting and understand its value for the good life. In response to your second question, though, I take the interesting to be a quality of our experience, where experiences arise from an agent’s engagement in an activity (broadly understood). When I read a book and find it to be an interesting experience, the activity is “reading a book”, but the experience results from the synthesis between that activity and what I bring to that activity.

  7. Eric Walker says:

    Lorraine, thank you for you responding! I’ll have to think more about this.

    Here are a couple of threads I was thinking one could pull at regarding interestingness and aesthetic experience:

    (1) If interestingness is one way of helping us conceptualize aesthetic experience (especially, perhaps, the experience of beauty), and if interestingness is independent of pleasure, then we might have a way of conceptualizing uncomfortable (unpleasurable?) yet somehow enjoyable aesthetic experiences – e.g., watching horror films, listening to atonal music, or even watching terrible movies that are “so bad they’re good.”

    (2) If the value of interestingness is somehow connected to aesthetic value (i.e., if the former is a part of the latter or vice versa, or is a species of the latter or vice versa, and so on), then it might give us a way to cash out the ideas of those who want to reclaim a place in the good life for aesthetic concerns, and a way to do so without exposing their ideas to charges of advocating “mere pleasure-seeking” or sensualism or libertinism.