January 2016 Member Highlight: Robert Cummins
January 2016 Member Highlight:
Robert Ashley Cummins
- Describe your background, experience, and research as it relates to Quality-of-life studies.
My academic career commenced almost 40 years ago, in 1973, at the age of 29 years. ‘A late starter’ as some people kindly say. In truth, I had lived through the 60s at an age to mesh the zeitgeist perfectly. In between social engagement, I earned my living as a cab driver. But eventually my long-term survival genes kicked-in, and I started passing, instead of failing, my undergraduate psychology and physiology examinations. To my parents’ amazement, I graduated B.Sc., enrolled in a research masters, and became part-time demonstrator in physiology at the University of Queensland.
Two aspects of my new job impressed and shaped the remainder of my life. One was the pleasant life of an academic compared with driving a taxi. The other was my instantaneous love-affair with research; which infatuation still remains. I quickly started publishing academic articles with fellow-student Roger Walsh, accepted a fixed-term lectureship in psychology at the University of Western Australia, and completed my PhD in neurophysiology. Then what? By this stage I had created the obligation of a young family and needed a tenured position. So we moved to Melbourne where I became Senior Lecturer in a small college, teaching in the area of disability.
- What initially attracted you to the field of quality-of-life studies?
Burwood State College had no animal facilities, so my research now took a different path, directed to intellectual disability. Then another seismic change. A colleague casually asked if I was interested in joining researchers investigating ‘quality of life’. My habit of reflexively saying ‘yes’ to anything that looked interesting paid-off, and I found myself with two of the most outstanding early researchers in the area of subjective wellbeing (SWB). Alex Wearing and Bruce Headey were the first to publish longitudinal results showing that SWB was not only surprisingly stable but also that, after it changed due to some life event, it tended to return to its earlier level. Their ‘equilibrium model’ greatly influenced my thinking and led me to the idea of ‘homeostasis theory’, which I have been developing ever since.
- What are some areas of quality-of-life studies you feel are lacking attention?
Two aspects of research into SWB impede the progress of understanding. One is the paucity of theory. How does SWB work? This area of theoretical weakness is quite curious because there is such strong material for theorists to work with. It is now well established that SWB: (a) is normally positive; (b) is quite stable; (c) it normally returns to baseline after displacement; (d) evidences a ‘set-point’ for each individual; (e) mainly comprises affect with a minor cognitive component; (f) correlates strongly with most other positive constructs (e.g. self-esteem, optimism, perceived control, extraversion) and negatively with depression; (g) displays sensitivity to resources, such as money, and evidences saturation at high levels. It is therefore disappointing that only one theory attempts to account for these properties, as the Theory of Subjective Wellbeing Homeostasis. There is a real need for competing theories to be developed.
The second issue impeding the development of understanding is nomenclature anarchy.
In 2013 I conducted a private study, just for fun. I invited established authors in the area of SWB to respond to the question ‘What is your current favourite definition of SWB?’ The results from the 73 replies were shocking, displaying an extremely low level of agreement. Since people responded on conditions of confidentiality to the group, the detailed results cannot be divulged. However, my response to the group was “the elders of our subjective wellbeing tribe each have a clear idea of how SWB should be defined. However, these ideas differ so much from one to another that we are very often talking at cross-purposes. This, in my view, is the dominant single factor impeding advancement of knowledge in this area”. My hope is that journal editors will require authors to define the constructs they use.
- How has your involvement in ISQOLS impacted your career/research/advancement in your knowledge of QoL studies?
I discovered the ISQOLS community in 1997, at the second conference, in Charlotte. It was a delightful, small affair. With only one session running, and everybody in one room, the collegial intimacy index was high. There was also an after-hours room, well supplied with wine, and I fondly recall debating the meaning of life with graduate students until the small hours.
This and subsequent conferences also introduced me to people who think in strange ways. That is, ways different from me. As an unreconstructed reductionist scientist, my view of what questions are worth asking in QOL research is challenged by colleagues trained in philosophy, economics, or sociology. ISQOLS has played a special role in broadening my horizons. I thank my differently-thinking colleagues for their forbearance and interesting conversations.