Some type of meaning is embedded in everything we do, whether we realize it or not. Public health can—and should—leverage this idea. It’s easy to say that being healthy is important, but it’s another matter entirely to make health-related behaviors a must-do on a daily basis. By shifting the focus—and meaning—of healthy behaviors from biometrics and future outcomes to well-being and daily quality of life, we can infuse behavior with a more profound purpose and better achieve lasting motivation and sustainable behavior.

Research shows that people are more likely to stick with healthy behaviors like physical activity when they reframe such behaviors as a means of self-care that enhances daily life, rather than as an antidote to disease. When we view our behavioral choices as evolving from and fostering growth and development, the meaning of health changes. It’s no longer about medical prescriptions and biomarkers as it is about well-being, self-realization, and relationships.


Michelle L. Segar. (2013) “Health Promoters Should Stop Promoting Health: New Science of Behavioral Sustainability.” White paper available here.

E. Wijnand A.P. van Tilburg, et al. (2013) “On the Meaningfulness of Behavior: An Expectancy x Value Approach.” Motivation and Emotion (37):373-388.

From Gratitude to Meaning to Health

In a new study on virtues and health, SPH Professor Neal Krause is looking at the role that positive virtues play in social relationships, and how these in turn affect health. Based on findings from a nationally representative sample of people 50 and older, he believes humility is “the fundamental virtue. People who are humble understand the flaws of their own lives, and the pain that’s associated with those, as well as the flaws in other people’s lives and the pain that’s associated with that—and that makes them more compassionate. More compassionate people help others. When you help other people, you come down to a deeper sense of meaning in life.”

What’s meaning got to do with health? People with a strong sense of meaning tend to be grateful, and Krause’s research shows that grateful people have better health. They’re more likely to take care of themselves. They have better mental health and deal better with stress—and because they have a deep sense of meaning, they have something to live for.


On Purpose

“Epidemiologically, we know that people who have a purpose live longer and have far lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, heart attack, stroke, and depression. People who develop a purpose even have greater repair of their DNA. Victor Frankl talked about man’s search for meaning—he felt that we had a basic need to find purpose in our lives. In my own work, I’ve been thinking about motivation in ways I never had before. I was used to focusing my attention on disease and death as motivators, but flipping the arrows around, we might think that life, rather than death, can be a motivator—that purpose and meaning in life, as Frankl said, can be our most important motivator for positive health behavior change.”

Victor Strecher, Professor and Director for Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship, U-M SPH; author of On Purpose (2013)


New York Times columnist Jane Brody sheds light on the power of feelings in driving healthy decision-making. “If you ask me why [I exercise], weight control may be my first answer, followed by a desire to live long and well,” she writes. “But that’s not what gets me out of bed before dawn to join friends on a morning walk ... It’s how these activities make me feel: more energized, less stressed, more productive, more engaged and, yes, happier—better able to smell the roses and cope with the inevitable frustrations of daily life.” Brody’s insights demonstrate why it is so important to emphasize the emotional “benefits” of decisions that favor health instead of just their logic-based utility. She also shows how the decisions we make—about everything from diet to sleep to movement—reflect our core values and create meaning in our lives.

To learn more:

Jane E. Brody. (2012) “Changing Our Tune on Exercise.” The New York Times. August 27, 2012.

Hannah H. Chang, et al. (2013) “Affect As a Decision-Making System of the Present.” Journal of Consumer Research (40):42–46.

Michelle L. Segar, et al. (2011) “Rebranding Exercise: Closing the Gap Between Values and Behavior.” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity (8):94.