ideal life

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You’d think that when prompted to fantasize about the ideal life, people would come up with some very out-of-this-world expectations. But instead of wishing they were super-smart, wealthy, and young until they reach 1,000 years old, most of the participants in a recent study were more reserved. For instance, even when there were no limits to the extent of intelligence and longevity they could possess, most people chose relatively modest ideals.

The ideal life isn’t all rosy

“Our research shows that people’s sense of perfection is surprisingly modest,” said psychological scientist Matthew J. Hornsey of the University of Queensland, first author on the new study. “People wanted to have positive qualities, such as health and happiness, but not to the exclusion of other darker experiences — they wanted about 75% of a good thing.”

Hornsey and colleagues analyzed data on 2,392 participants in Australia, Chile, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Peru, Russia, and the United States. China, Hong Kong, India, and Japan are classified as holistic cultures, meaning they’re predominantly influenced by religions or philosophies (such as Buddhism, Hinduism, or Taoism) that emphasize a more holistic worldview. The other five regions — Australia, Chile, Peru, Russia, and the United States — are classified as nonholistic cultures.

Each participant had to fill in a questionnaire, responding to a series of questions that were meant to gauge their ideal level of intelligence, longevity, health, self-esteem, personal freedom, and happiness. They were asked how long they wished to live under normal circumstances but also during a hypothetical situation where a magic pill grants eternal youth.

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The participants rated their ideal levels for each parameter on a scale that ranged from 0 (none) to 100 (maximum). Using the same scale, the participants also rated their ideal levels of societal characteristics, such as morality, equality of opportunity, technological advancement, and national security.

Instead of going overboard, most participants tended to rate their ideal levels of individual characteristics to be about 70-80%. On average, people indicated that they’d ideally like to live until 90 years of age, which is only slightly more than the current average life expectancy in developed countries. When they had to imagine their ideal longevity if they could preserve their youth for all remaining days, the median ideal age jumped to 120 years old. The media score for an ideal IQ score among the participants was 130, which classifies a person as ‘smart’, but not a ‘genius’.

Interestingly, participants hailing from holistic cultures chose ideal levels that were consistently lower than those from nonholistic cultures. Holistic cultures tend to value notions of contradiction, change, and context. Western cultures tend to focus more on individual factors, independent of their environment.

“This makes sense — these Eastern philosophies and religions tend to place more emphasis on the notion that seemingly contradictory forces coexist in a complementary, interrelated state, such that one cannot exist without the other,” Hornsey said.

A separate study with 5,650 participants from 27 countries produced similar results, but with one important caveat: the participants from the Philippines and Indonesia — regions that are characterized as collectivist but not holistic — showed ideal levels of traits that were similar to other nonholistic countries. Collectivistic cultures emphasize the needs and goals of the group as a whole over the needs and desires of each individual. These findings suggest that the differences in ideal life goals between holistic and nonholistic cultures are unlikely to be explained by collectivism.

“This principle of maximization is threaded through many prominent philosophical and economic theories,” Hornsey notes. “But our data suggest that people have much more complex, blended notions of perfection, ones that embrace both light and dark.”

Scientific reference: Matthew J. Hornsey, Paul G. Bain, Emily A. Harris, Nadezhda Lebedeva, Emiko S. Kashima, Yanjun Guan, Roberto González, Sylvia Xiaohua Chen, Sheyla Blumen. How Much Is Enough in a Perfect World? Cultural Variation in Ideal Levels of Happiness, Pleasure, Freedom, Health, Self-Esteem, Longevity, and IntelligencePsychological Science, 2018; 095679761876805 DOI: 10.1177/0956797618768058.