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”. 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.
 “The Reduction of Sensory Pleasure to Desire,” Philosophical Studies 133, no. 1 (2007): 25.
Lorraine L. Besser is a philosophy professor at Middlebury College, her primary area of research is in moral psychology.Like