Can a UNK business professor practice what he preaches after his wife is diagnosed with cancer?
Kyle Luthans, B.S., M.A., and Ph.D., from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and the Becker Professor of Business at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, is a leading researcher in his area of positive psychology in the workplace and management education.
He’s an expert in seeing the very real science and empirical evidence behind the concept of positive psychological capital, or PsyCap for short. Briefly, PsyCap is the recognition that a person’s key psychological resources can be leveraged for success for improved outcomes.
For example, PsyCap has been linked in prior research with positive workplace outcomes such as lower employee turnover, high-rated work performance, higher employee commitment and satisfaction, entrepreneurial success, and leadership effectiveness in a variety of industries such as banking, health care, transportation and manufacturing.
A growing body of PsyCap research, he says, suggests that workers perform better when they possess the psychological resources of the HERO within:
Hope. (The will and the way for reaching goals.)
Resilience. (The ability to bounce back, and beyond, from setbacks.)
Optimism. (An expectation of future success.)
“I’ve taken my research in another direction,” Luthans says, “and I’m looking at the impact of academic PsyCap on important educational outcomes like student engagement and academic performance.”
A fascinating thing about PsyCap, he says, is that the research also suggests it’s malleable. In other words, it can be changed and developed within individuals. That’s why he loves to teach this concept to his students. He knows PsyCap-boosting strategies could help them not only in the classroom, but also in their personal lives and future careers.
Sometimes, Luthans shares a story from his own life with his students, a story that shows how PsyCap helped him cope, and find hope, about seven years ago, when a phone call shattered his life. The call came in 2012. It was the doctor for his wife, Dina.
Her biopsy results were in.
I’m sorry …
She had pancreatic cancer.
“It really was just a bolt out of the blue,” Luthans says. “She was just the picture of health. She had a healthy diet. She never smoked. She exercised. She did all the right things.”
They’d met over 20 years ago in study hall at Lincoln East High School. She was on the student council, Singers, and the Apollonaires dance team. Their first date was the prom: Enchantment Under the Sea. She was blond and beautiful in her black dress.
After receiving her B.A. and M.A. from UNL, she became an elementary teacher, then became a stay-at-home mom and substitute teacher while their two kids were little. She loved to watch Emma dance and Will play sports. She was their rock.
“She taught me to have a little more compassion and a little more empathy for others,” Luthans says, “to realize that a lot of people go through difficult times.”
The diagnosis overwhelmed him at first. He was depressed and full of worry and doubt.
“I think I was even crying in my dreams,” he says. “And I’d wake up stressed and wondering: How am I going to take on this day?”
But it soon dawned on him that maybe he should practice what he preached and find strength in the strategies he knew worked so well in the workforce.
He knew, from his PsyCap research, that building good relationships on the job was important, so at home he tried to stay in the moment with Dina and their kids and maintain their close bond. He kept coaching Will’s basketball team, even though at first he’d wanted to quit. He kept up with friendships and fishing trips.
In a way, he faked it until he could make it.
“Traditionally, we think that if we work hard and are successful, we will feel positive,” he says. “But, we should turn it around and say that positivity — and having the right mindset — leads to success.”
He tried to keep Dina’s spirits high. One day, for example, when she was feeling low, he played a song for her with the volume high.
Pearl Jam’s “Alive.”
Oh I, oh, I’m still alive
Hey, hey, I, oh, I’m still alive
Hey I, oh, I’m still alive, yeah oh
He knew, from his research, that healthy living was important, so he made sure the family kept eating right and exercising. He and Dina kept going on long nature walks in the park beyond their backyard gate.
He continued his normal load of classes and research at UNK. He earned the Becker professorship, which made Dina proud.
He knew that gratitude was important, so every night, as he lay in bed, he made himself think of three great things that had happened that day.
It all worked.
He felt alive again. And Dina lived longer than expected.
“I definitely think Dina beat the odds by battling the disease over three years,” he says. “A big part of that, I think, was the care she received at UNMC. But then again, I go back to PsyCap — she had such a positive attitude and the mindset that she was going to beat the disease or extend the fight as long as possible.
“And, interestingly, those PsyCap strategies helped me support her through this and also helped with my own psychological well-being.”
He’s grateful for his job at UNK. One of the things he likes the most about being a professor, he says, is the impact he can have on students.
“Probably the greatest satisfaction I have is when I see my students graduate and I see the successful careers they’re having,” he says. “A lot of our graduates go on to successful business careers, and we even have placement data to suggest that a lot of them stay right here in Nebraska and have a big impact on our region and in our state and within our local community in the central Nebraska area.”
And a lot of them, he says, are affecting the lives of the people around them in positive ways. At work. At home. …
“We love what we did,” Sharon Holyoke said. “And we just hope we leave the world a better place than we started.”