Vic Strecher has spent his career researching how to help people improve their lives, whether by eating better, exercising more or quitting smoking.
Strecher, a professor at University of Michigan School of Public Health, founded a company called HealthMedia Inc to help people make behavioral changes to boost their health.
So when Strecher’s daughter, Julia, died at 19 in 2010, he engaged in some “me-search” to figure out how to cope with the loss, looking for ways to improve his own troubled life.
“As a behavioral scientist, I thought if I can’t help myself, who can I help?”
Strecher immersed himself in everything from hundreds of scientific papers to the writings of ancient philosophers, then crafted what he learned into a graphic novel called “On Purpose.”
The title comes from Strecher’s own search for purpose. Julia received a heart transplant when she was a baby, then a second transplant when she was 9, and Strecher had committed himself to giving her a rich, full life. When she died, he not only felt grief but loss of his life’s purpose.
“Having a purpose in life is a pillar of core values,” Strecher said, explaining the importance of self transcendence, of having a reason to live that’s bigger than yourself. You focus on love, kindness, gratitude, generosity, those feelings and actions that get you focused on the world around you and those who inhabit it.
In “On Purpose” and in Strecher’s free iOS app, he recommends:
- Identifying your core values and rating how important each value is
- Writing a purpose statement for your life, with an emphasis on serving others
- Aligning your life behaviors with your purpose and goals, so you’re living your life intentionally
He also simmered down some essential behaviors that his research said would lead to increased energy and willpower, which then benefit relationships. He makes them easier to remember using the acronym SPACE.
- S – Sleep well
- P – Be present
- A – Be active
- C – Be creative
- E – Eat well
None of these seem complicated to me, nor do they seem like the things many of us exert most our energy pursuing. Nowhere on this list is making lots of money at an important job, for example. Actually, making lots of money at an important job might get in the way of sleep, exercise and eating well.
“I think most people don’t believe it,” Strecher said. “They think, ‘If I was rich, I would be happy. In fact, some of the richest people are the most unhappy, and I see strong purpose in people in many social stratas.”
Strecher has seen the benefits of SPACE personally. He started meditating again after a 20-year hiatus and found himself strengthening his self control through focus, practicing being still in the present instead of wallowing in the past or planning for the future. Plus after decades of working hard on his career, “When I was more creative, that’s when I was more aligned with my purpose.”
When I did public relations for U-M School of Public Health, Vic was one of my favorite faculty members, the kind of brilliant person who would always teach me something when we talked, while also being accessible and friendly. When I heard of Julia’s death, my heart ached for Vic and his family, and when I heard he’d channeled his grief into a graphic novel, I was fascinated. It’s an unusual choice for an academic, who might be more likely to write a scholarly journal article.
When I asked why he took this approach, Strecher first said, “I simply think very visually.” But then he added that the graphic novel format makes for a fast read, and he wanted as many people as possible to get the benefit of his research.
I downloaded On Purpose to the Kindle app on my iPad and got through it in a night. It’s beautifully illustrated by Kody Chamberlain, and blends well-researched academic insights with conversational prose and practical tips you can put to use.
If you’d like to read “On Purpose,” share a comment below about your life’s purpose — either what it is or what you’re doing to find it — and you might win a free copy of Strecher’s graphic novel.