Vic Strecher

Can purpose help us in hard times?

Well-being researchers discuss the benefits of purpose in a crisis and how we can cultivate it at home and at work

According to a Harris-Kumanu survey conducted in October 2020, only a third of U.S. employees know their company’s purpose. And less than a third feel that they—or their coworkers—share that purpose. Without a sense of shared purpose at work, the survey found, people are not only less engaged at work but also more depressed and anxious.

Right now, under the threat of COVID-19, it might not seem like the time to be talking about purpose. People around the world are facing unprecedented stress and anxiety, unemployment, and loss. But based on our work with organizations, as well as the research we’ve done on well-being and purpose as professors at the University of Michigan, we believe that purpose is particularly relevant in challenging times.

In the midst of the pandemic, we sat down for a conversation about finding purpose in times of uncertainty, hosted by the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations. Here is an edited excerpt of our discussion.

Robert E. Quinn, Ph.D.

Robert E. Quinn

Robert E. Quinn: During the pandemic, many people have lost their jobs and are financially stressed. Essential workers have faced exhaustion and fears for their health. What can purpose mean to us now?

Vic Strecher: There’s probably never a better time to think about your purpose. One of the modern fathers of purpose is Viktor Frankl. Viktor Frankl was a Jewish physician who became the concentration camp doctor in three concentration camps as a prisoner. He lost his whole family. In going through these camps, he also was an incredible observer.

He observed that the people who were surviving (if they weren’t murdered outright) were the ones who were transcending, who maintained a purpose in their lives—who even, with new prisoners coming in, would say, “Here’s my food. You’re going to need it.” And those people very often ended up surviving and growing after these camp experiences. They experienced what we might call “post-traumatic growth.”

So think about this pandemic time. Buddhists talk about how suffering produces growth. We’re not in a concentration camp, by the way. We should be able to grow from this; we should be able to identify strengths that we didn’t know we had. Hopefully we’ll find new paths to what really matters most in our lives, and what matters most forms the core of building a stronger purpose.

REQ: Do people have time to think about purpose when they’re just focused on basic survival needs?

Vic Strecher, Ph.D.

Vic Strecher

VS: Being in public health, I’ve done a fair amount of work in developing countries. In particular, Africa in the 1980s and early ’90s. A good friend of mine, James Arinaitwe, became an “AIDS orphan” when he was five; both of his parents died.

He was taken care of by his grandmother in Uganda, and they were 300 miles away from Kampala, the capital of Uganda. His grandmother walked him 300 miles to Kampala when he was very young, and knocked on the prime minister’s door—basically the gate where the guards were. His grandmother finally had to go back, but James just stayed there and lived by the gates. They finally opened the doors and he got to meet the prime minister’s wife. She gave him an education. That’s what his grandmother wanted, for him to get an education, and he’s given back by creating Teach for Uganda, which teaches young girls and boys.

I remember asking him, “So what about this idea that purpose in life is at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy for people who have everything else?” He laughed and said, “Well, maybe you Westerners think that, but people who have nothing understand that purpose gives you hope. Without purpose, you really have nothing. Purpose helps you think about what you could be. It helps me care about what I care about the most. Without purpose, we have no hope. It is essential for poor people.”

So I would say that purpose is incredibly important to people in all socioeconomic strata. And, by the way, when we look at purpose by income and ethnicity, we see purpose is strong in poor people, we see purpose very strong in different ethnicities. African Americans and Hispanics in the U.S. have stronger purposes than whites, for example. Purpose is important; it gives you hope.

REQ: What are some of the benefits of purpose that are relevant to times of crisis?

VS: Just having a purpose isn’t enough, whether it’s a company or an individual. It’s being purposeful. You start acquiring greater agency, self-efficacy, and consciousness about “what do I care about?” I want to not only figure out what I care about, I want to care about what I care about. And as soon as that happens, this really interesting thing happens. You start becoming less buffeted by the perturbations of stressors like COVID.

From our December 2021 Harris-Kumanu survey of over 1,700 U.S. adults, we found that people with a strong purpose are better able to manage their emotions. They use more effective coping strategies, such as seeing a big picture, finding a silver lining, engaging in family or religious rituals. All of those things come in handy right now. This seems to be at least one reason why purpose is so important to our emotions and our emotional well-being.

I’m fortunate to work with neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania, putting people into a magnetic resonance imager and asking them to think about their purposeful core values: “What do I care about? What’s important? What do I value?”

When they do that, more blood flow goes into this part of the brain called the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. This area is associated with executive decision making. It also becomes active when we’re asked, “Who are you? What is your identity?”

And when this part of the brain gets more blood flow, it can govern an ancient part of the brain called the amygdala, which is associated with fear and aggression. So when we think more purposefully, we’re better able to manage that emotional fear and aggression center. When COVID comes, we don’t run to the grocery store, strip the shelves of toilet paper and buy AK-47s, and pull all our money out of the bank. We’re better able to moderate negative emotions.

A company has a prefrontal cortex—an executive decision-making function—as well. It also has a fear component.

REQ: What role do workplace leaders play in creating a sense of purpose in challenging times?

VS: I have always felt that great business leaders are very much like great coaches. The people who survive in coaching understand how to connect everybody on the team to a shared mission. If you had only a third of your players saying, “I don’t know which goal I’m going to,” or “I don’t know what position I’m playing,” or “I don’t think my teammates really care and I would just as soon be playing for the other team,” you would lose all the time, and you wouldn’t be a coach for long.

I think we can learn a lot from coaches. There’s a great book by Tracy Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine, and it started with a CEO of a company who is at the bow of his sailboat. A nasty storm was coming right at them and the people on his boat were really nervous. But he was rock steady, and people started simply believing in his confidence.

And we’re going through that storm right now; we’re going through a COVID storm. So the C-suite executives, if they’re not calm, you’re lost. People will follow you if you can clearly convey where you’re going. Then, when the storm’s over, they’ll get out of the boat and say, “Wow, I can sail through anything now.” That’s called post-traumatic growth.

This article is adapted from “Finding Purpose in Times of Uncertainty,” the fireside chat between Robert E. Quinn and Vic Strecher as part of the Center for Positive Organization’s Positive Links Speaker Series. 

Greater Good Science CenterThis essay was created in partnership with the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley and originally published on Greater Good. The Greater Good Science Center studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.

Finding Purpose in Times of Uncertainty

A conversation with:
Vic Strecher
Professor, University of Michigan Schools of Public Health and Medicine
Founder and CEO, Kumanu, Inc.
Hosted by:
Robert E. Quinn
Margaret Elliott Tracy Collegiate Emeritus Professor in Business Administration
Emeritus Professor of Management and Organizations
University of Michigan

About the talk

Creating a strong purpose is essential to wellbeing in our lives and our organizations during times of uncertainty. With an authentic purpose, individuals and organizations become more resilient, creative, and engaged with their work and the world around them. And employees realize a greater sense of meaning and empowerment.

Join us for a conversation with Vic Strecher hosted by Robert E. Quinn to learn more about the science and practice of building purposeful, thriving organizations. Together, they’ll explore the current scientific research illustrating the positive impact an authentic and well-communicated purpose can have on individuals, teams, and organizations, as well as some keys to help you unlock your own potential.

About Strecher

Victor J. Strecher (pronounced Streker), PhD, MPH is a visionary leader and expert in the fields of behavior change, digital communication, and wellbeing. His pioneering research led to successful ventures, reaching millions of lives. He’s Founder & CEO of Kumanu, a next generation wellbeing company, Professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, renowned speaker, and author.

In 1995, Vic founded the U-M Center for Health Communications Research, studying the future of digitally-tailored health communications when fewer than 15% of Americans had Internet access. In 1997, he founded HealthMedia, a digital health coaching company that was sold to Johnson & Johnson in 2010. More recently, Vic created Kumanu (Maori for “nourish” and “cherish”), a digital platform designed to help individuals and organizations live more purposefully.

Vic and the organizations he founded have won numerous national and international awards, including two Smithsonian Awards, the Health Evolution Partners Innovations in Healthcare Award, the National Business Coalition on Health’s Mercury Award, and the Health Enhancement Research Organization’s (HERO) Mark Dundon Research Award. In 2010, Vic won the University of Michigan’s Distinguished Innovator Award. In late 2017, Dr. Strecher was the Donald A. Dunstan Foundation’s “Thinker in Residence” in Adelaide, Australia to develop a “Purpose Economy” of business, government, and communities. His 2009 TedMed presentation has been cited by MPHonline as one of the “Top 10 Ted Talks on Public Health.”

His latest neuroscience, behavioral, and epidemiologic research; his two books, Life On Purpose and the graphic novel On Purpose; his free massive open online course Finding Purpose and Meaning in Life, which in its first six months has over 75,000 enrollees; and the Purposeful application his business (Kumanu) created are all focused on the importance of developing and maintaining a transcending purpose in life.

About Quinn

Robert E. Quinn’s life mission is to inspire positive change. He does this as a faculty member, author, consultant, and speaker. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and one of the co-founders of the Center for Positive Organizations.

As an author he has published 18 books. His best-selling volume, Deep Change, has been used across the world. His book, The Best Teacher in You, won the Ben Franklin Award designating it the best book in education for 2015. The Harvard Business Review has selected his paper, “Moments of Greatness: Entering the Fundamental State of Leadership,” as one of their 10 Must Reads on Managing Yourself.

As a consultant he has 35 years of experience and is best known for the competing values framework, a tool that has been used by tens of thousands of managers. As a speaker he is recognized for drawing on research, opening minds to possibility, and arousing the desire to grow. He is a fellow of the Academy of Management and the World Business Academy.

Positive Links Speaker Series Sponsors

The Center for Positive Organizations thanks Sanger Leadership Center, Tauber Institute for Global Operations, Samuel Zell & Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, Lisa and David (MBA ’87) Drews, and Diane (BA ’73) and Paul (MBA ’75) Jones for their support of the 2020-21 Positive Links Speaker Series.

Session Sponsor

This Positive Links is presented by the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the Managerial and Organizational Cognition (MOC) Division of the Academy of Management.

See all Positive Links events

Vic Strecher quoted in Huffington Post article on changing organizational culture

Vic Strecher was quoted in “Don’t trust training and education to change your culture” for the Huffington Post. The article stated that culture change, including making an organization more inclusive and diverse, requires system change, measures, and consequences.

Strecher is a faculty associate with the Center for Positive Organizations and behavioral scientist, professor, and Director of Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. He is also founder and President of JOOL Health.

Healthy, wealthy, and wise: Victor Strecher featured in Forbes

A recent Forbes article titled, “Ben Franklin blitz: To keep profits healthy, insurers want you wealthy and wise,” discusses the shift in health insurance towards improving overall health – physically and mentally.

The article’s author cites Victor (Vic) Strecher’s purpose-driven JOOL Health as a tool insurance companies might consider using. JOOL Health’s applications promote “sustained, healthy behavior change by engaging, motivating, and supporting people to pursue a truly meaningful life of purpose at home, at work, and in their communities.”

Strecher is a Center for Positive Organization’s faculty affiliate, director of Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, and president and founder of JOOL Health.

Life on Purpose: How Living for What Matters Most Changes Everything

A pioneer in the field of behavioral science delivers a groundbreaking work that shows how finding your purpose in life leads to better health and overall happiness.

Your life is a boat. You need a rudder. But it doesn’t matter how much wind is in your sails if you’re not steering toward a harbor—an ultimate purpose in your life.

While the greatest philosophers have pondered purpose for centuries, today it has been shown to have a concrete impact on our health. Recent studies into Alzheimer’s, heart disease, stroke, depression, functional brain imaging, and measurement of DNA repair are shedding new light on how and why purpose benefits our lives.

Going beyond the fads, opinions, and false hopes of “expert” self-help books, Life on Purpose explores the incredible connection between purposeful living and the latest scientific evidence on quality of life and longevity. Drawing on ancient and modern philosophy, literature, psychology, evolutionary biology, genetics, and neuroscience, as well as his experience in public health research, Dr. Vic Strecher reveals the elements necessary for a purposeful life and how to acquire them, and outlines an elegant strategy for improving energy, willpower, and long-term happiness, and well-being. He integrates these core themes into his own personal story—a tragedy that led him to reconsider his own life—and how a deeper understanding of purposeful living helped him not only survive, but thrive.

Illuminating, accessible, and authentically grounded in real people’s experiences, Life on Purpose is essential reading for everyone seeking lasting improvement in their lives.

On Purpose: Lessons In Life and Health From The Frog, The Dung Beetle, and Julia

When Vic Strecher lost his daughter, Julia, to a rare heart disease, his world ended. Only it didn’t. Vic’s wife, Jeri, and older daughter, Rachael, were still very much alive, as were his two demanding careers. What did end was his worldview: one based on long-held assumptions and beliefs about life, death, disease, health, risk, and ultimate purpose-subjects on which he had been writing and speaking for years-but the validity of which he now questioned.

Vic’s experience of being “broken open” (to take bestselling author Elizabeth Lesser’s phrase) set him on a life transforming journey through ancient and modern philosophy, literature, psychology, neuroscience, and Egyptology. Along the way, Vic was introduced to an unlikely role model: a six-legged superhero whose unique relationship with a ball of excrement forever altered Vic’s outlook. A self-help guide, college lecture, confessional, and time-travel adventure all rolled into one, On Purpose uses a beautiful, fantasy-fueled, graphic novel format to tell a story of self-discovery and personal growth you’ll never forget.

From the Foreword: “Writing this book has given Vic Strecher a powerful sense of meaning. Reading it may do the same for you. It did for me. The light drives out the darkness and we can experience our world anew, filled with pleasure, joy, and meaning.” – Dean Ornish, M.D.