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

Visionaries: Peter Diamandis says innovation will increase exponentially

Peter Diamandis: To innovate, we must be fearless dreamers

Peter Diamandis is founder and chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation and co-founder of Singularity University, a TEDMED 2011 speaker, and author of “Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think.”

What kinds of external conditions lead to innovation on an individual and societal level, and how can we bring those conditions to more people? 

We need to be a society that is full of people who are willing to dream and are willing to take risks. We also need to be a society that also doesn’t pre-judge who can come up with a breakthrough.

The challenge is that right now, we’re unfortunately filled with fear, and that is problematic. If you’re fearful, you become risk averse. You have to view failure as acceptable, because trying something new requires the ability to do that.

If you really want to have a breakthrough, know that the day before it’s a breakthrough it’s a crazy idea, and that you’re going to have multiple failures on the way to success.

In Silicon Valley failure is accepted – two, three failures before success are considered normal. In other parts of the world, failure represents a black mark that you’re going to have a hard time overcoming. It’s mostly old-world Europe, and Asia and Japan. It’s less so in the U.S., which is why we have such a high rate of entrepreneurship.

Was there any era in human history particularly conducive to innovation, in your opinion?

There was a lot of innovation at the turn of the century when people were experimenting, and if you failed and screwed up in a royal fashion you could move someplace else and no one would know and you could start afresh. The ability to have a frontier to move to was very important. Now, if you can screw up anyone can find out on the web. But the web also promotes the rapid exchange of ideas. As populations increasingly move into cities now, too, people are exchanging ideas that drive innovation.

If, per your TED talk, we preferentially pay attention to negative news, what does it take to point people towards the forward-looking optimism that innovation requires?

I think it’s basically to make sure that you are cognizant of the fact that the news media is a drug pusher, and negative news is the drug.

When you hear something negative you need to realize that it’s not probably a full story.  You need to make sure to proactively look at whatever field you’re aware of to find the good news.

Launching the Google Lunar X PRIZE

There are websites and blogs like Singularityhub.com and Kurtzweilai.net that will share with you each day the latest breakthroughs in curing cancer, life extension, imaging molecules, new ways of communicating, and new discoveries on the elements of physics. It makes you realize how fast things are progressing.

We have, and will have more of, access to personal technology. Do people value intangible benefits – better communication, access to knowledge across fields – as part of human abundance?  If not, why not?

When humans get a new capability, they accept this new baseline, and they don’t value it until it’s gone and they lack access to it. It’s like, ‘What has technology done for me lately?’ This stuff didn’t exist two years ago – Google, YouTube.

We get this new stuff this is cool, this is great, it improves our lives and that becomes the new normal.  You forget that it didn’t exist before.

Plus, I think when we get something new, we expect it to work right away.  We’ve become spoiled to some degree.

Have we become accustomed as well to an ever-greater influx of new innovations?

Yes, and that will continue.  The rate of innovation is a function of the rate at which ideas exchange and mutate. As there are more people connecting online – five billion on the Internet by 2020, up from two billion in 2010 – that’s going to increase the rate of exchange.  Tools of artificial intelligence and cloud computing, and our move to the cities, will also allow us to exchange ideas at greater rates.

Can you speak to some specifics as to what abundance brings to medical advances, such as research data and drug discovery and dissemination?  Do you have case studies to share?

What we’re going to be seeing is an increase in pro-active diagnostic tools.  We have recently announced the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE, a competition that will award $10 million dollars to any team in the world who builds a hand-hand mobile device that can diagnose you better than a board of certified doctors.

We have also launched the Nokia  Sensing X Challenge.  This is about developing a new generation of biometric sensors that will detect the air you breathe, the food you drink, the body’s vital measurements and all of the sensory information that will become part of a Tricorder chip.

When I drive my BMW, it has about 60 to 80 microprocessors monitoring what’s going on in the engine at any time.  When I fly my plane, we’ve got about an equal number of microprocessors. But as a human, I get only a few bytes of data once a year from my doctor.  I should be living in a world where I get a few gigabytes of data daily. This allows me to become the CEO of my own health. I can monitor my own data and know when anything is out of whack. Plus, if you have millions of people being monitored, we start to have knowledge of what’s going on, such as disease breakouts in environmentally dangerous places.

Can you speak further about how inventions like Dean Kamen’s Slingshot will actually help us either create new resources – energy, materials, food – or make better use of what we’ve got?

Technology takes that which is scarce and makes it abundant, and makes more of what we’ve got.  We talk about scarcity of water, but we live on a watery planet.  We talk about energy scarcity, but we live on a planet bathed in energy.  We have vast amounts of mineral deposits.  For planetary resources, we’re looking at mining asteroids.

It seems we already have the technology that would lead to greater abundance for those in dire need of essentials in developing nations.  What kind of capacity-building forces, market or otherwise, need to come to pass to make these innovations commonly available?

I think that is happening automatically. Much of the technologies that are being developed today are frankly going end up in the developing world anyway.

Many of the top technologies in the Tricorder chip, for example, may not end up in the U.S. because of regulatory concerns.   A lot of things may begin in Africa because there are fewer regulations.

–Interviewed by Stacy Lu

Click here to watch Peter’s 2011 TEDMED talk.