At the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference in Las Vegas, behavior scientist Vic Strecher talked about purpose.  The University of Michigan professor taught that people who pay attention to applying your best self to what matters most, function better.

Purpose matters.  Without it, people get sick and die.  Research has shown that when a person has a clear purpose or deep intrinsic motivation, there’s an increased likelihood that they have good resilience, DNA repair, antibody production, longevity, sleep improvement, diet improvement, smoking cessation, job satisfaction, and are less resistant to change.

On the flip side, if there isn’t a sense of purpose, people experience a decrease in resolving cognitive conflict, higher fear response, are pro-inflammatory, have decreased cell production, and they are more prone to suffer from depression, stroke, heart attack, Alzheimer’s, and burnout.

Strecher relayed the painful story about losing his daughter, who passed away unexpectedly at age 19. “Losing a child – you just don’t care about living, instead you seem to passively exist,” he said.  While living in this ‘veg-life’ state, he began to think about the boiling frog problem – the story of the frog sitting in a pot of water on a stovetop that slowly warms up without the frog realizing it’s life threatening predicament.

In a trance, Strecher left his house wearing only boxers and a t-shirt. He stepped into his kayak and started paddling on an icy cold Lake Michigan. Venturing two miles from shore, he envisioned his daughter telling him, “Get over yourself and live for what matters most.” This gift, which coincidentally came on Father’s Day instilled him with purpose.

How does one identify their purpose? Strecher’s advice is to start by writing one-word answers to these two questions:

  1. What matters most? Create a list – when this question was posed to the group, a word cloud produced words like family, friends, health, peace, respect, team.
  2. What am I like when I’m at my best?  Similarly, words included: happy, focused, productive, calm, confident, loving, energetic.

Following this process, he landed on his own purpose statement: “To enjoy love and beauty, to be an engaged son, husband and father, to teach every student as if they were my own daughter, to study purpose in life and related concepts, to help over 1 billion people find purpose in their lives.”

There are two parts of the brain that are important for purpose. The amygdala is the reptilian part of the brain that triggers fear and aggression. The guru brain, where our identity is shaped, is our younger brain in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. In a study, participants went through an MRI screening and were shown scary images which sparked the amygdala to action, responding to the perceived threats. A healthy person’s brain responds to the threats and two seconds later bounces from the “I am scared” thought to “what am I going to do about it?”

So often, when one is stuck, it’s this self-affirmation that is missing. It is the root system of who you are, identity, that helps re-align behavior to match the belief system we have of ourselves. Hence, purpose really matters.


  • Liz Carlston

    Workplace Culture Mobilizer

    Works with O.C. Tanner to help people thrive at work, connecting employees with purpose, accomplishment, wellbeing and recognition.