Visionaries: Vic Strecher says living with purpose inspires good health

Why don’t we always do what’s best for us?

It’s a question that has long preoccupied Vic Strecher, founder and head of the Center for Health Communications Research at University of Michigan and TEDMED 2009 speaker.

After years of teaching health education and helping to create computer-based interactive programs that inspire better personal choices, Strecher is working on a website and a graphic novel based on new thinking in the field and on his own momentous life experience. TEDMED spoke with him about his new projects.

So…why don’t people make more healthful choices? There’s no lack of available health information, and yet lifestyle choices have led many to develop chronic diseases.

VS We know that the choices we make can slowly kill us, like frogs that will stay in water that’s slowly heated until they literally boil to death without jumping out of it. And we’re learning that one reason we resist health messaging is defensiveness. We have this wall around our ego for evolutionary reasons, and ironically our wall has been getting thicker with all the societal messaging we’re getting. With the barrage of junk information and all the choices we face, we’re less able to make competent decisions.

How do you prod people out of that warming water?

VS There’s a relatively new idea being explored called self-affirmation theory. It says that the process of affirming your fundamental beliefs — core values — reduces defensiveness. For example, if you write down or are rating your core values, such as your faith or your commitment to family, and then are exposed to a health message that you may normally process defensively, you’re more likely to accept it.

When you start to put things in writing, you realize, “Hey, my values differ from my behaviors, don’t they?” Research shows that cigarette smokers who affirm their core values are more open to anti-smoking messaging.  People are more likely to participate in diabetes risk assessments if they have just completed their values list.  So how can we get people to start making that kind of connection?

Some of your recent talks have mentioned how empathy can lead to healthier behaviors.  Can you explain? 

VS Jennifer Crocker of Ohio State University, a psychologist who studies self-esteem, wanted to take a look at people’s thoughts while they were affirming their values. And what they were doing was thinking of a connection with loved ones, their friends and family and community, and things bigger than themselves; it drew on something called self-transcendence.

What started you down this path of looking at the bigger picture?

VS Two years ago my daughter passed away; she was 19 years old. I went through a significant grieving process, which included struggling with lethargy, and as a behavioral scientist I was noting my own reactions. I began studying the old philosophers – the Stoics, Existentialists – some like Kierkegaard who were very religious, and some who were atheists.  They all said you have to have a purpose or meaning in your life. Victor Frankl, a Holocast survivor, found out people who were losing their purpose were dying faster in the death camps.

That started me thinking about the epidemiology of this in the medical and health field. People that have a purpose in life are 2.4 times less likely to die from Alzheimer’s Disease, less likely to have a heart attack, and more likely to have good sex. Having a purpose can also help repair our DNA, potentially promoting a longer life. We spend so much time scaring the crap out of people about death and disease, and we should be thinking about teaching them to have purpose in life. We’re so used to telling people, ‘Smoking is bad for you,’ and then ratcheting that fear up. Why not just focus on a totally different direction for this?

You’re working on several new projects with this in mind. Can you share details?

VS I’m self-publishing a graphic novel, “On Purpose,” working with a comic book illustrator and a screenwriter. I decided to put together a story that connects my own personal tale with the related science. It will be about the importance of finding purpose in your life in a nihilistic world, basically. It touches on themes from ancient and modern philosophy, literature, neuroscience, and Egyptology.

I’m also working on a web site. There will be a blog app for people to share their stories. I want to build a community where people can record their purpose and see others’. There will be some kind of filter to group people through their common core values, in a way they might not expect. Some of the real beauty of life is discovering things that you wouldn’t expect to discover or to agree with.

Interviewed by Stacy Lu

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