Thursday, 12 March 2015

Successful Research

Credit: Tim Ellis, Wellcome Images
The open event at the Wellcome Trust was for me, as for Michael and for Zoë, a very powerful experience for a variety of reasons. It gave me a chance to explore the space where Hub residents research and know more about what opportunities a genuinely collaborative and interdisciplinary research group can offer.

I also got to brainstorm with people who want to reflect on the theme of success from different disciplinary backgrounds from mine, but have partially overlapping research goals.

Thinking about the theme strengthened my motivation to embark in the journey of exploring success.

Successful research

What makes an interdisciplinary research project successful? Some of the psychological research I am reading right now identifies the characteristics of successful agency with preparedness (being ready for set-backs and responding well to challenges) and with engagement (interacting with the physical and social environment in a productive and supportive way). Those also strike me as plausible criteria for the success of interdisciplinary research projects that aim at addressing (and learning from) the public.

As researchers, we need to be ready to step out of our comfort zones and learn to speak other languages (the language of other disciplines, or the language of the layperson) when we want our ideas to move beyond the constraints of our labs, offices, studios, and classrooms. We need to embrace new ideas, follow up new connections, be creative with our methods of investigation. These activities usually occupy a mental or virtual space (the space in our minds, the space of our inboxes, websites or blogs) but wouldn't it be much more exciting if they could also occupy a physical space, a space that changes together with the ideas that are being explored within it?

Striving and thriving

When the phrase "striving and thriving" was mentioned by Michael and Zoë at the meeting, it brought it all together for me. I have been interested in what success entails and in the extent to which success, intended (very roughly) as pursuing and achieving the goals we set for ourselves, contributes to wellbeing and mental health.

From personal experience and by reading psychological research, literature, and the popular press, it seems clear to me that achieving the goals we set for ourselves (as individuals and groups, or as a society) is a source of satisfaction and helps us see our lives as meaningful and coherent, as going somewhere. However, the pursuit of such goals (the striving) can carry considerable psychological costs (e.g., the yellow lady in the picture seems very happy about losing weight, but I bet all the dieting that contributed to her 'success' was not much fun).

Even the attainment of our own goals may be ultimately disappointing, as we often do not know ourselves well enough to identify goals that would lead us to genuinely thrive (see this post on unintended consequences of our actions and choices). For instance, we may underestimate the role of supporting personal relationships in enhancing our wellbeing and in enhancing the sense that our lives are meaningful. Or we may overestimate the value of those goals that are promoted in the society where we live at the expense of goals that would fulfil our less popular aspirations.

Now, the need to unpack what we take success to be and to explore the tension between wellbeing and success applies to agency in general, and this is the level at which I would like to investigate success and its limitations. But, by entering this conversation with Victoria, Michael, Zoë and Matteo, I realised that some of the most interesting aspects of success are brought into focus in specific domains, such as the capacity to bounce back after the experience of mental distress; the need to survive a goal-driven culture in the competitive environments of academia, elite sports, business, and politics; the struggle to be original, creative, and 'different' in fashion and the arts.

I am looking forward to examining the connections between these strands of research and imagining or project as the place where existing notions of success are dissected, and new notions of success are proposed and tested!

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