SUSU Project on Vital Capacity of Human Beings: From Helping Cadets to Training Psychotherapy Clowns

During the first year of project-based learning at the Faculty of Psychology of the SUSU Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities, a new big-scale mega project was initiated, among the participants of which are students of the 3rd to the 5th years of study. We have talked to the supervisor of the project on Vital Capacity of Human Beings, Doctor of Sciences (Psychology), Associate Professor, and Head of the Department of Developmental Psychology and Age Related Counselling Elena Rylskaya, on the specifics of the project, on development of vital capacity in different categories of people: from orphans to cadets of military academies, on distinguishing between the concepts “vital capacity” and “sustainability”, on preventing suicides, psychological technologies of corruption behaviour, and more.

– What is the essence of the global project? And what each subproject is dealing with?

– The project on Developing Vital Capacity in Modern Human Beings in Different Living Conditions is a big-scale one. Its structural plan includes a number of mini-projects, for instance, the Modification of the Test on Vital Capacity of Human Beings. Such test already exists, but after additional research has been performed, there has appeared a need to include a new scale system to it. Another mini-project aims at developing a program of supporting and enhancing the vital capacity in children without parental care. This project is being fulfilled in orphan boarding school No.13. The project is managed by Doctor of Sciences (Psychology), Associate Professor Elena Rylskaya.

Elena Rylskaya


One of the projects is being fulfilled within the frameworks of an order made by the Chelyabinsk Branch of Air Forces Military Education and Research Centre “N.E Zhukovsky and Yu.A. Gagarin Air Force Academy”. The project is managed by Candidate of Sciences (Psychology), Associate Professor Irina Shlyapnikova.

The project on Preparing to Independent Life and Prevention of Social Maladjustment of Children without Parental Care is being supervised by Candidate of Sciences (Psychology), Associate Professor Elena Gudkova.

– Why are projects on enhancing vital capacity are so relevant today?

– If you ask a person with sound mind: ‘Do you want to live?’ s/he will reply ‘Yes!’ But the whole world and all the age groups show very worrisome statistics with regard to suicides. For dozens of years, the average frequency of suicides has been equalling 14 cases per every 100 thousand people around the world. It is troubling that we are loosing not only the value of our own lives, but also that of other people, what often results in grave crimes, which are also being committed against children. Therefore, the crucial and vital function of giving birth and bringing up a human being, as a value-based advantage of the existence of the whole civilization, falls under a threat. A society killing its own future lacks vital capacity. We are seriously concerned about the problems of literally living a life according to egoistic scenarios, which are becoming more and more popular with young people: “child-free”, “live in the moment”; “enjoy your life to the fullest”. The infantilism of public conscience is accompanied by non-reflexive chaos and eclectic axiological sphere. Unleashed growth of material needs leads to rampant corruption, which corrodes the foundations of the life of human beings. Taking into consideration the complex, dynamic and stress-inducing character of our life, absolutely everyone needs to enhance his/her vital capacity.

– What measures does suicide prevention include?

– Suicide prevention means exactly the development and maintenance of the vital capacity. The vital capacity does not only imply that a person will not commit suicide. In general (if we put it simply), the vital capacity is the ability to solve life-related tasks. Mathematical talents show in the ability to successfully solving mathematical problems, linguistic talents – in solving linguistic problems, and so on, and in the same way the vital capacity shows in solving of life-related problems. These are everyday tasks, by solving which a person can provide for normal conditions of his/her existence. These are social tasks, the ones of the interpersonal interaction, a model of how a person is able to establish contacts. These are also professional tasks: how well a person can succeed as a professional. And finally, these are the tasks on searching for and finding the meaning of life: how well a person can determine the meaning of his/her life and act accordingly, and not drag on his/her existence, like the Russian literary character Oblomov. As a biological individual Oblomov is healthy, but socially speaking he lack the vital capacity. When we analyse what causes people to try to commit suicides, it often turns out that on the outside people can be doing quite well, and it is totally hard to understand why life loses its meaning for them. A person who lacks the vital capacity is not necessarily an underclass representative. Often, homeless people want to live very much. They create pseudo-families, try to love, and satisfy their aesthetic needs. And the essential human qualities, including the lust for life, are the last things that underclass people lose.

The project on developing the vital capacity is a relevant task both for our university, Chelyabinsk and our region in general. This is a unique project. No one has ever worked with our population with regard to developing and enhancing their vital capacity. And here we should mention important differences between vital capacity and sustainability.

–  How do these differ?

– Vital capacity and sustainability are similar and yet different concepts. If we take their semantics: sustainability is the ability of a person to stand up to difficulties. But once s/he does that, what’s next? S/he falls? But if s/he is truly capable of standing up to them, s/he can keep developing. This is the specifics of vital capacity and the uniqueness of our project.

– The projects that you’ve mentioned are different… Cadets in an academy need one thing, and kids in in an orphanage need another...

– The programs include various exercises and situations. Their structure has an invariable part, which is based on developing the structural components of vital capacity (ability to adapt, self-regulate, and spiritual ability, and meaningfulness of life). This invariable part of the program can be common for everyone (except for the content of the exercises). The exercises also comprise an invariable part, which includes the analysis of difficult life situations. For teenagers, certain types of life situations are give, for junior school children – different ones, and for cadets – other types of situations. If we speak about organizational psychology (and we do plan on working with personnel of organizations), there will be yet another type of life situations.

– How is work arranged within the project?

– The work is carried out in the following algorithm: talks, classes, solution of test problems, choice of situations. These are educational projects. We start with introducing students to the concept of a project, with its structure, with the order of its execution; we teach them the fundamentals of completing a project.

In the frameworks of each mini-project, students study theoretical and methodological fundamentals of the problem, as well as materials and sources; they learn compiling tests and complete engineering assignments.

In the project dedicated to development of vital capacity of orphaned children, students study the level of development at which the problem is, as well as articles on this topic. They engage themselves into the problem completely. At the next stage, participants of the project develop the structure and the mockup of the programme. Then they fill in its every block. In the course of completing the project, a feedback gets established; certain exercises get tested upon participants of the programme. Students conduct training sessions while using the elaborated parts of the programme. It is quite possible that some exercises appear to be poorly-efficient and will be eliminated. After testing, the programme is ready to get implemented; so it gets handed to the ordering customer and is recommended for frequent use in similar categories, in samplings.

– Please tell us about ordering customers of the project.

– SUSU's Faculty of Psychology is acting as the main ordering customer. This is our goal; we work on development of tests which our students are going to use in the future. Also among the ordering customers is Municipal Educational Institution for orphaned children and children left without their parents’ care: the Special Boarding School No.13 of the city of Chelyabinsk; branch institute of the military Science-and Education Centre of Air Force at the Zhukovsky – Gagarin Air Force Academy (Chelyabinsk); State Budgetary Institution of Supplementary Education “SMENA” Youth Palace; Department of Profession-oriented Diagnostics and Counselling; and Nadezhda Centre providing assistance to children left without parental support, orphanage No.6.

– What stage is the project at now?

– We have already finished the stage of learning the technology of working within the project. If we are to speak about the project connected with test compilation, nowadays we have accumulated about 300 initial variants of the test.

– What does the test include? What is its structure like?

– There are four scales in the test: the ability for adaptation, self-regulation skills, spiritual abilities and life understanding.

– If a man passing the test is in a stressful situation but does not recognize it, will the test help determining the man’s true condition?

– You mean checking the answers on social desirability? Social desirability of the test is mandatory to be checked during compilation of the test and improvement of its psychometric characteristics. Here we have various options. Sometimes the test includes a lie scale. It assumes that a man is insincere if giving socially desirable answers.

We checked the first test variant on social desirability. The checking showed it to be possible. We stick to the following algorithm: if the number of points upon results of the test elevate the maximal indicators, the person is more likely being insincere. This moment is mandatory to be taken into account. Insincere answers are often given by adult people, especially those who are career-oriented. They are so focused on their success that they don’t even allow the thought that they might be imperfect in some aspects. If we see elevated number of points upon results of the test, we can’t take them into account because people more likely were giving socially desirable answers.

– What are further plans for the project?

– Ahead we have the next project for which we are preparing the Project Design Abstract. We have already submitted an application. Within the second year of project-based learning we are planning to implement a project on training of psychotherapeutic clowns in hospitals. SUSU students majoring in Psychology are going to act as the clowns who visits hospitals where seriously ill children undertake their treatment. The effect of positive emotions on a person’s recovery has long since been proved. The practice of inviting psychotherapeutic clowns for enhancement of vital capacity of sick children has been used abroad for a very long time. We are planning to introduce this experience in our project.

The second project planned in the frameworks of the second application is the project regarding development and enhancement of vital capacity of a company’s personnel. Preliminary negotiations with potential ordering customers are already being held. The ability of a company to survive under complex conditions is determined by vital capacity of its personnel. This is a different type of vital capacity which might include other structural components which are not included into the structure of general vital capacity (managerial potential, leadership potential, communicative competency, stress resistance, etc.). Developing these skills will favour enhancement of personnel’s vital capacity. If they are public officials, the work will include formation of anti-corruption behaviour foundation, because public officers liable to corruption destruct vital capacity of all companies. Fighting against bribery-seeking behaviour means enhancement of vital capacity as well.

– This is a very brave idea for a project…

– Within the project on anti-bribery behaviour, we are planning to provide psychological aid to public officials. There is an entire complex of psychological factors which favour corruption. Meanwhile, there are psychological techniques allowing to prevent such a behaviour. When recruiting candidates for public service, their competitive selection includes testing on inclination to corruption. We are planning offer our variants of testing to government entities. Admissions for public service includes testing on a lie detector. We’ve got a lie detector at our Faculty. If government entities provide a request, we are ready to introduce such a project as well, and by doing so promote the enhancement of vital capacity of contemporary officials.

– How do you arrange cooperation with other Institutes and Schools of SUSU in the process of project implementation?

– Project-based learning at SUSU is being implemented within the overall process of the university’s digitalization. In the nearest future, when we modify and check the test, creation of its digital version will be a logical continuation. This is the next stage of project implementation. In the modern world, testing should be carried out electronically. We have this planned and, of course, we will need assistance of programmers from the Institute of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and the SUSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

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Text by Yulia Rudneva, photos from personal collection of the interviewees
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