In 2010, Vic Strecher’s 19-year-old daughter, Julia, a heart-transplant recipient, died suddenly.
The loss sent Strecher, a behavioral scientist and professor at University of Michigan, on a harrowing journey that ultimately brought him to his purpose–a process that he said showed him how organizations can revolutionize their own approaches to employee wellness.
A few months after Julia died, Strecher told the audience during his keynote address at the opening session of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference in Las Vegas on Wednesday, he found himself aimlessly kayaking on Lake Michigan in only his boxers and T-shirt. “I just didn’t care about living anymore,” he said.
While on the water, the sun started rising and he heard his daughter’s voice, telling him to “get over yourself.” When he returned to shore, he realized it was Father’s Day–and he took the experience as a sign that he needed to turn his life around, which he said had been gradually spiraling after the loss of his daughter.
To center himself and start to move forward, Strecher, who has since written a book titled Life on Purpose, said, he started thinking about what his true purpose was and created his own mission statement: to enjoy love and beauty; to be a good son, father and husband; to teach all of his students as if they were his daughter; and to help 1 billion people find their own purpose.
Living purposefully, Strecher said, means “applying your best self to what matters most”–an approach he said can have a multitude of benefits, both personally and professionally. Strecher cited a number of studies on the power of purpose, such as in one in which three groups of people were asked to carry a heavy backpack up a steep hill while blindfolded. The group that was told their backpacks contained nothing but dead weight assessed the hill to be a 42-degree incline–those who were told their packs were filled with important scientific equipment deemed the hill to be just 31 degrees.
In another study, researchers found that, when individuals in a meditation group focused on improving their purpose in life, they produced more telomerase–which is connected to a chromosomal structure that can reduce stress and elongate life.
Purpose improves resilience, longevity, job satisfaction and sleep behaviors, Strecher said, and decreases conflict, fear response, depression and risk for Alzheimer’s Disease and heart attack.
Purpose is “trans helpful,” he added. “Instead of influencing one area, purpose in life is helping lots of different problems. So as a scientist,” he said, “I have to ask, what is going on?”
That prompted Strecher’s team at University of Michigan to undertake its own study on the power of purpose. Researchers placed study participants, who had been pre-determined to have sedentary behaviors and in need of more physical activity, in an MRI machine, showing them frightening pictures like a growling dog and measuring the responses of the amygdala (which responds to fear and aggression) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (which Strecher calls the “guru” part of the brain, which allows us to think about our individual identities). Ideally, right after the amygdala activities, the guru portion of the brain should respond, providing a bounce-back.
While in the scanner, researchers told participants they needed to improve their health and showed them resources for how to do that–but one group was first asked to perform self-affirmation, identifying words to describe how they feel when they’re at their best.
Researchers found subjects who started with self-affirmation had more blood flow to their prefrontal cortex–suggesting stronger resilience. And, one month later, that same group significantly reduced sedentary behavior when compared to the group that did not incorporate self-affirmation.
That finding, Strecher said, has been supported by similar results from 113 experiments in 51 studies.
However, instead of helping employees connect with their deeper drive to improve themselves, many workplace-wellness initiatives, he said, use incentives to encourage participation.
“Are incentives really the deepest motivation you can have?” he asked.
Employees should “set a goal around what matters most to them and apply themselves to that. That becomes a purpose,” he said. Group affirmation, he added, can also help build motivation and encourage employees to see themselves connected to a broader mission.
Moving forward, he said, technology could be key in enabling employees connect to their purpose. For instance, his digital platform Kumanu uses advanced behavioral and data science to coach employees through finding their purpose–with an aim of ultimately enhancing workplace engagement.
“Over time, we’re going to be getting smarter about what drives that person and helping them focus on purpose, to the point where we shouldn’t need to be paying people to take part in the program because they can see that it’s intrinsically helpful,” he said. Strecher noted that advances in artificial intelligence can help HR and benefits professionals move beyond offering “broccoli and treadmill” content as part of their wellness programs to more meaningful and personalized items.
“All of our jobs have some degree of importance but, at the same time, all we may be doing is creating little more than ripples in a pond,” he said. “However, if we all thought more about the movement for helping people find a greater purpose, we can create much more than just a ripple. We can create an actual change in how we work and how we think about employee health and employee benefits.”