In the beginning of June 2018, the participants of the international interdisciplinary research seminar “Quality of Life in Conditions of Global Transformation of Mankind” gathered at the TSU’s Aktru International Research Station. The seminar was organized by the Laboratory for Comparative Research in Quality of Life of National Research Tomsk State University headed by professor Eduard Galazhinskiy and the International Laboratory of Positive Psychology of Personality and Motivation of the Higher School of Economics headed by Professor Dmitry Leontiev.
Among the participants was Kennon Sheldon, one of the world’s most cited psychologists, professor at Missouri University (USA), an academic advisor at the International Laboratory of Positive Psychology of Personality and Motivation of the Higher School of Economics. He came to the Aktru station with his wife and colleague Professor Melanie Sheldon. After the seminar, we had an opportunity to conduct an interview with them in order to learn about their impressions of the event and the venue.
What professional and personal goals brought you here?
Kennon Sheldon: I am here for several reasons. One reason is that I am funded to help the research group, to conduct the collaboration between Russian psychologists at the Higher School of Economics and some American psychologists. Therefore, I am trying to help bring together western and Russian psychology, take the best of both, and make new research. That is a professional goal. However, I also have a personal goal of seeing beautiful places in the world. My wife and I travel together and it is very exotic and different for us to come to this place here. Our friends have never heard of this place and we had to get out a map and show them where we were going. They were afraid we would never come back alive. But we feel very good here so far!
Melanie Sheldon: I am here mostly because Kennon is not happy traveling alone. But also it is a wonderful opportunity to meet new people and to learn about new cultures, to experience new things, which I have valued all my life. Talking about work here, I will be giving a lecture on how the evolutionary psychology and natural selection shaped human behavior and human mind, and maybe I will give some insight into how we can think about quality of life from an evolved prospective.
Do you think it was a good idea to conduct such an event in this particular place? Do you think that if the seminar were held in some other place, it would have different outcomes?
К. Sh.: This has been a very good idea because it lets us all see a new place that we had never been before and it puts us all on common ground. I am also very happy to see people experience the wilderness for the first time. I have seen many mountains, and these are spectacular. I am glad I can enjoy them with other people.
The results of the conference might be different if it was held some place else, but it is difficult to say how different, because it would be a completely different experience for all of us. We would have more of a focus on work, perhaps, here we are focusing both on work and enjoyment of the mountains around us. I think that enjoyment is helping us to think more clearly and creatively.
M. Sh.: I think that the setting that we are in is actually contributing to the overall functioning of the seminar and it is adding an extra element to it. The way that it would be coming down would be different if we were in a different setting, but at the same time, being in all this experience together adds something to the group. It is helpful more than anything else. Being outside everyone’s comfort zone bonds people together. Finding a way to do that always facilitates finding common ground.
What has been the most unexpected and the most difficult thing for you so far?
K. Sh.: There are many unexpected things that occur to us, when we are in Russia. That is one of the reasons, why we like to come here. When we went to the Blue Lake yesterday, it surprised me very much. I was surprised that our guide would take us to a place that was that high and that dangerous. He just took us all up, showed us how to walk through the snow, and we all made it safely. There were some places where an accident could have happened that would have been difficult to deal with.
M. Sh.: I expected that this experience would be typical of what we usually expect of Russia. People would be very nice and there would be very little English. I expected to see beautiful mountains and those expectations have been met. I expected that people would do their best to make us comfortable and that has been more than met. We have been very comfortable and very entertained and very amused and we are very thankful to Tomsk State University for that.
The biggest challenge for me was the hike yesterday, which was much more demanding than we were expecting. But at the same time, everybody was helping each other and it was just a wonderful experience. I want say that it was the most demanding experience I have had in the wilderness or in the mountains, because it was not. However, I was not expecting to be part of a guided tour of people who had never hiked in the mountains before. And we went to such an extreme place.
This station is one of the TSU’s places where research is conducted and where we invite our colleagues to join us to work on projects or to participate in summer schools and seminars. Do you think it is important for TSU to hold on to these places and support them?
К. Sh.: This is a very special place and I very much hope that TSU will continue to maintain this location. I have been around the world in the mountains and these are special mountains. This is world class Alpine scenery. It reminds me of Chamonix in the French Alps. It is a venue unlike any other that I have ever been for conferences. It is kind of magic, it is uplifting, it is inspirational, it is an excellent facility for the university.
М. Sh.: We have quite an experience as foreign tourists. We have not only been in Moscow, but Saint Petersburg, Golden Ring around Moscow, we have been to Kamchatka, Petropavlovsk, Vladivostok, and even Tomsk, we have been there both as scholars, collaborating, and as tourists. There has not been historically a lot of attention paid to how to make wonders of Russia accessible to foreign tourists. There is very little English, and many things that foreign tourists expect when they go to foreign travel is not part of the Russian infrastructure. In the last seven years, we have seen Russia make many efforts in that area. I think that a place like this, the research centre here is an excellent laboratory to think about how to make your amazing land more accessible to foreign tourists. This particular place is a place where people would come from all over the world, because the people who climb in mountains are the people who want to collect them all around the world. They go everywhere around the world to experience new mountain settings just because it is new and different. This particular place here is different in so many ways because it is Russia and it is equal to any other alpine area in the world in terms of drama and excitement. However, there are no foreign tourists here. Very few. It is inaccessible to them. In addition, anyone who is a scholar benefits from coming to a place where researches have been done and people have new experience.
Can you think of any situation when somebody helped you here?
K. Sh.: There have been many situations when we have been helped here by random people, as well as by our handler who has taken such good care of us. She has anticipated all of our needs and made sure we were happy and comfortable at all times.
Here is one example. When we were coming down from the Blue Lake yesterday, the water had come up with the stream and became much higher. My wife was trying to cross the stream on the rocks, it was too bigger jump, and she did not know what to do. And there was a man, we did not know him, he got up and run over, and gave Melanie his hand. That is a good example of the hospitality of Russians that we see.
M. Sh: I have been helped so many ways on this trip. I have a whole list of food that I cannot eat and that makes it really difficult for me to eat food that everybody else is eating, but somehow there always has been something that I can eat and enjoy. So that is the way that people have gone their way to help me. We have found that Russians in general, even though we do not speak a common language with them, they are very helpful to everyone. If they see a situation in which they can be helpful, they just reach out and help.
What will be the very first story you tell your family and friends when you get back home, your “must tell story”?
К. Sh: Probably, the first story that we will tell is the story of how we got up here in the giant vehicle, it was a box with huge tires and we were shaking in it for two hours. At first, the windows were all closed, but we found the button, we pushed it and the driver realized that there was something wrong. That is a good example of how things often go in Russia. There is not so much attention to comfort, but when you point out that something could be done to make things better, it is usually done.
М. Sh: There are so many stories and it depends on who I will be telling the story to first. Probably, I will come home to my house and see my son who has been watching my cat. To him I will tell the story about the hike to the Blue Lake. When I meet with my friends, I will talk about the wonderful friends that we have made here and the things that I learnt about the people.
We know that you are very experienced backpackers, but still, people say that every new adventure adds something to personality. Have you found anything new in yourself here?
К. Sh: I cannot think of anything that I added to myself while I was here, I hope that I have lost some parts of myself, maybe about five pounds. The main thing that we have gotten here is new memories. We cherish our memories and our photographs, and it makes life richer to have these experiences that you can think about and talk about.
М. Sh.: Every experience I have shapes me as a person. Professionally, actually, I have been surprised by the number of conversations that I have had. There have been a lots of ways that I have grown here.
Do you think that if you are invited in the future to come to some other extreme place TSU maintains, you will want to come?
К. Sh.: Yes, we would be very interested to find out more about the other research stations that TSU runs.
М. Sh.: We like to see new places. And we would like to see new places in Russia. Of course, we would go back to some places. Tomsk is amazing as a town and we would go back there.