What can science tell us about living a good life?

Given the state of the world, it seems apt to wonder how to find purpose and joy in dark times. How can one live a good life when it feels as if things just keep getting worse?

It’s a question that many people have asked themselves in the last 18 months. Good news for us: A small group of scientists has put a great deal of thought into trying to answer that question. In this issue, social sciences writer Sujata Gupta explores how people can find fulfillment, even in disastrous times.

Gupta argues that the pandemic is a prime example of a perspective-changing moment. Last December, as she was researching pandemic fatigue, she stumbled across a related line of work suggesting that novel or aesthetic experiences can help people lead rich lives. Gupta, who used to travel extensively, was intrigued. But before she could learn more, she, her husband and their young daughter got COVID-19. They recovered, but the episode left the family reeling. “I thought, ‘Wow, I need to make some changes,’ ” Gupta told me. “I need to pay heed and listen to what this [crisis] is saying.”

As she dug deeper into writings on how to live a good life, she saw herself reflected in the nascent rich life research. That feeling grew stronger as she spoke with philosopher Lorraine Besser of Vermont’s Middlebury College and social psychologist Erin Westgate of the University of Florida in Gainesville. They both told her that richness could be cultivated, even without wild adventures. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, it’s me.’ I had never connected with research quite like that.”

New, creative experiences can feel hard to come by while isolated in a pandemic, but Gupta found a way: Learn to make pottery. “It’s a creative outlet, and I put zero stress on it,” she said. “You don’t have to be good.” The act of creating those lovely, often wobbly, pots has restored some of the richness she used to feel while exploring the world.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.