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‘Pay Attention to Reality’

‘Pay Attention to Reality’

On the eve of the new year we spoke to the head of the International Laboratory of Positive Psychology of Personality and Motivation, Dmitry Leontiev about why positive psychology does not solve problems but keeps them at bay, is uncertainty dangerous and why shouldn’t we battle with anxiety about the future.

‘How can we change ourselves without betraying ourselves?’

The name of our laboratory falls into two parts - on one side is personality and motivation and on the other - positive psychology. Addressing the concepts of personality and motivation connects us to the broad area of general psychology which has been developing at an accelerated rate in recent decades.

The psychology of motivation today has absolutely nothing in common with the discipline of the same name 50 years ago. While we used to think that there were distinct desires and motives which could be divided and examined separately, we now see clearly that researching them interweaves with cognitive psychology and with the psychology of control activity.

The HSE International Laboratory of Positive Psychology of Personality and Motivation was organised in the spring of 2014. The Academic Supervisor of the Laboratory, Ken Sheldon is one of the top twenty most cited psychologists in the USA.

While for most of the 20th century the psychology of personality was studied as diagnosable fixed characteristics of a human which pre-determined her behaviour in the future, then the focus has shifted to something which allows us to change, to adapt to a changeable situation. The world is becoming more susceptible to change and more complex which presents us with a whole row of challenges which weren’t so conspicuous in the 20th century. We are dealing now with a situation my teacher Alexander Asmolov described as ‘a changing personality in a changing world’. Using Ludmila Antsyferova’s formula you could say that our laboratory is trying to answer the question, ‘How can we change ourselves without betraying ourselves?’

Why solving all our problems doesn’t make us happier

Throughout the 20th century people studied psychology mainly to correct dislocations, to get rid of some fault or unfinished job, some damage in a person (the most acute and urgent problems were of that kind). But about 15 years ago we began to realise that psychology is overlooking the reality in which people not only survive and adapt but where they try to live well. It is this reality that we study in positive psychology.

It appears that if you cure a person of all illnesses he doesn’t become more healthy because health is a kind of other quality. In the same way people don’t become happier when all their problems are solved. What is happening in the ‘positive’ zone is based on other logic than what is taking place in the negative zone in the way a person functions. As Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology says, ‘We know how to get from -7 to -2 or 0 but we don’t know how to get from +1 to +4’.

By trying to predict the future on the basis of the present we are deceiving ourselves and cutting ourselves off from the opportunity to react quickly to what is actually happening.

In positive psychology the accent has moved towards preventive measures, to cultivating character, goodness, a person’s strengths  and psychological resources which help them to take steps in advance to avoid many problems cropping up and having to become a patient of clinical psychologists.

The psychology of peaks of personality

Back in the 1930s, two great psychologists - Victor Frankl and Lev Vygotsky - began to talk about ‘peak psychology’ or ‘the psychology of peaks of personality’, which balances simultaneously the depths and surfaces of psychology. The highest, specific, human displays, forms of motivation and structure of personality - these are my sphere of interest and our laboratory is built around them. It is everything that relates to self-regulation, the ability to take responsibility upon oneself, to the mechanisms of personal growth.

We can respond in two ways to any challenge, either reject it or take it up. Accepting a challenge means getting involved with the answer, trying to keep up with the world. Of course, whatever we do we can’t seize everything, the world will move faster but the path of entanglement, realising one’s capacities and developing one’s potential is a valid human path. But in the modern world the choice between these two strategies is not a question of life and death there is a mass of opportunities to progress and an equal number not to - the niches are many and varied so it’s largely a matter of taste.

Who is to blame?

One of our laboratory’s main projects is research into motivation in the Russian population. Do we consider ourselves to be the reason for what happens to us? Or are we sure that we cannot influence our own lives as 87% of the population responded in a sociology survey several years ago?

This year we’ve launched a parallel cross cultural research project in the USA and Russia in different regions and we are trying to find out people’s attitudes to various categories of aims, self-regulation, mechanisms of freedom and responsibility.

Uncertainty: ways of interaction

Another piece of research we are conducting with support from the Russian Research Fund is into how a person deals with uncertainty.

In Russia the past and the present are just as unpredictable as the future. People see one and the same picture and examine it from the position of various explanatory models. So I would say that uncertainty is one of the main psychological problems today.

Uncertainty is quite a heavy burden for a person. Particularly for those of us who consider certainty the norm. You can divide people up according to how they tolerate uncertainty, by their readiness to admit that it is a part of our everyday lives. Those who are able to stop resisting it and understand that without uncertainty we cannot live our lives are much more successful in harnessing its power to solve the problem of choice. 

There is a concept in psychology called self-fulfilling prophesy. A person who believes she can bring about change behaves differently from someone who doesn’t. And each of us arrives at the place our own actions have led us to.

We can find an analogy in our attitudes to any of the elements. Uncertainty is an element exactly like water for example. If we can’t swim deep water fills us with horror. But if we can swim, if we have the capacity to work with this uncontrollable and unpredictable force of nature we can find ways to interact with it and even get pleasure from it. We need to begin by understanding that this is the way the world is (there is always uncertainty) and it cannot be otherwise. Certainty is always relative and is often wishful thinking, remember the saying, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans’.

A moderate dose of worrying is normal

It’s important not to confuse fear of the future with worrying about the future. Worrying is a negative and uncomfortable emotion but it is an important expression of objective reality. The future is unpredictable. Our anxiety about the future is a reflection of the circumstance that we cannot see into it. Someone who feels no anxiety about the future is pathological. Because by its very nature the future is unpredictable. Pretending that the uncertainty doesn’t exist, that we know exactly what is going to happen means that we are aspiring to godly omniscience.

A limited dose of anxiety is normal, unavoidable and even good for you. And, if you try to get rid of it, it will only get stronger, become disproportionately large and take on a pathological form. We shouldn’t fight anxiety but rather learn to coexist with it and keep it within moderate limits.

Today we are experiencing another twist of increased uncertainty. I would recommend everyone to read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestsellers The Black Swan and Antifragile,which are available in Russian. Taleb argues that all the most important things that happen to us in our private lives and in business and politics are events that could not have been predicted beforehand. By trying to predict the future on the basis of the present we are deceiving ourselves and cutting ourselves off from the opportunity to react quickly to what is actually happening. The future is what doesn’t exist yet. It’s important to be ready for something that hasn’t happened before and not to pretend that we can foresee and calculate it. That is the most important advice I would give.

And another thing - lean on what is directly around you, pay attention to reality and look for resources in yourself and in those close to you. Don’t listen to the media too much, or to politicians and ideologists. They are extremely far removed from the realities which influence your life the most.

If you believe that you can have an effect on something, then you really will. There is a concept in psychology called self-fulfilling prophesy. Your view of the world always enforces itself. In one case it can work in your favour and another against you. A person who believes she can bring about change behaves differently from someone who doesn’t. And each of us arrives at the place our own actions have led us to. 

Ludmila Mezentseva, HSE News Service

Photos by Mikhail Dmitriev

See also:

‘The Mind is Not a Mystical Entity That We Can Only Discuss in Theoretical Terms’

Melanie Sheldon, an instructor at the University of Missouri – Columbia, recently offered a lecture course at the HSE Winter School 2015 on the psychology of motivation, which was organized by the International Laboratory of Positive Psychology of Personality and Motivation, headed by Dmitry Leontiev. She also offered an open lecture on 'Sex and Evolutionary Psychology' at HSE. Melanie recently spoke with the HSE news service about her experience taking part in the HSE Winter School.