March 8, 2012

Peter Harms Searches For ‘The Good Life’ in His Research at Nebraska

Most people do not equate their personal and professional happiness as a study topic for academic research. At the UNL College of Business Administration that notion continues to be challenged by key research in the area of positivity. Dr. Peter Harms, assistant professor of management, is advancing an area of research with a long history at CBA by taking a look at psychological capital to better understand what makes people successful in their jobs and lead happier lives.

“In some ways this is kind of a reboot of things that Fred Luthans has already done here at UNL with his psychological capital research,” Harms said. “We went as far we could asking people whether they think that they’re positive.  This new research gets to the place where we are identifying implicit levels of happiness where people weren’t aware of what we were asking them about. We’re using projective measures to measure their true thoughts and feelings and we’ve had as much or better success doing that than using our initial approach.”

Dr. Luthans, University Professor and George Holmes Distinguished Professor of Management, believes the work that Harms is doing will make a difference with the general public.

“Peter has the rare talent of making his sophisticated research program relevant to the public,” Luthans said. “He comes up with innovative ideas and research questions on how to better understand and validly measure complex leader and employee behavior in today’s organizations.”

Luthans and Harms have worked together on research that has regularly appeared in the national news media. Harms’ work has recently been referenced and quoted in Scientific American, Business News Daily, Yahoo News, the Discovery Channel, Science Daily and National Public Radio. The interest parallels the ongoing national trend toward positive thinking and self-help, and applies scientific analysis to help boost the credibility of the field.

The attention has also been recognized globally.

“It’s amazing the attention we have received internationally -- in places you might not expect like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. There’s a surging interest out there in positive psychology as a whole and so you see things like Luthans’ positive organizational behavior gaining popularity and this sort of fits that paradigm.”

Harms believes the connection between positive living and Nebraska is a natural fit.

“Beyond just raising the name recognition for Nebraska with this research, it represents something quintessentially Nebraska -- ‘Welcome to the Good Life’.  We’re trying to figure out the ‘Good Life’ here, so we’re researching it and trying to get a greater sense of it. We’re putting ourselves on the forefront of scientific research in terms of developing a positive mind set and demonstrating the benefits of positivity. It not only brands the University but it fits in well with the state of Nebraska and the people of Nebraska.”

Harms had previously been doing research on how people perceived one another and demonstrating that positive perceptions did produce positive results. If people saw their co-workers in a positive light, studies suggested that happiness, commitment and personal satisfaction were higher than those with a negative perception of their surroundings. Life was generally better with a positive frame of mind.

“What we’re getting at now is what comes first,” Harms said, “the attitude or the result of the attitude. We believe we’re getting to where we can say, ‘What you take in is what you get out.’ If you go in with a smile, then you illicit more positive results when dealing with other people.”

The next step involves turning that positive framework into a selection tool that people can use to improve their lives.

“How do we train this positivity?” Harms asks. “It’s great if we can select people to create a more positive work place, but it would also be great to take people already in the work place and make them a little less cynical with the people around them. We’re working on both the selection and the development with regard to these constructs.”