The power of purpose: How our deepest intentions shape our health

An illustration of a person kayaking on water, with the word "Purpose" spelled out on the water behind them

Vic Strecher

Professor, Health Behavior and Health Education

Before my daughter passed away, I hadn't thought about purpose at all. I knew of a couple researchers who were doing some studies on purpose, but I thought it was such an esoteric and ethereal subject. How do you measure purpose? Is purpose really all that important? 

Then, when my daughter Julia died very suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack when she was 19 years old, I went through a period of deep grief and then depression. 

My journey of self-discovery began in solitude, on the cold expanse of Lake Michigan, in the weakest moment of my life. Alone in a kayak without a life preserver, I paddled outwards, lured by a subconscious desire to escape my grief—or perhaps, to chase the intangible. There, in the calm of spring's dawn, surrounded by water and sky, I experienced an awakening. The sun's rays, shimmering like gold, carried the spirit of my daughter, urging me to overcome the consuming sorrow and to realign my existence.

Her words resonated profoundly, sparking the ignition of purpose in my life. This profound moment led me to ask serious questions about what it means to truly live. Facing the shore that morning with new clarity, I made a pivotal choice: to survive with intent.

Listen to "Vic Strecher: Living with a greater sense of purpose" on Spreaker.

The transformation was not instantaneous, but rather a deliberate process that began with a simple piece of paper and a question: What truly matters in life? This introspection evolved into what I now call “be-goals”—a developmental blueprint connecting the essence of who I want to be with purposeful actions (i.e. “I'm here to be ____”).  It redefined my approach to teaching, shifting my perspective to view each student with the same care and consideration I had for Julia. I aspired, and still aspire, to influence each individual positively, offering them knowledge, nurturing their growth, just as I would have done for my daughter.

My professional endeavors, too, took on new meaning. Through research and collaboration, I've looked at the remarkable way purpose influences everything from our genetic expression to our daily behaviors. Individuals with a solid sense of purpose not only tend to live longer, but they approach life and its various challenges with healthier attitudes and actions. Even amidst adversity and societal upheavals, such as the pandemic, it's purpose that directs people toward altruism over fear, and solidarity over isolation.

This realization drove me to develop the Purposeful app, aimed to extend the reach of this message of purpose to millions. In my mind, the application of purpose in one's life is not a privilege but a necessity. It's hope encapsulated, the driving force that allows every individual—regardless of their status—to find meaning and direction and live healthier lives.

"Even amidst adversity and societal upheavals, such as the pandemic, it's purpose that directs people toward altruism over fear, and solidarity over isolation."

The heart of purpose lies not in its achievement but in its pursuit. It’s in the aspiration to be a certain way, to impact the world around us, to find fulfillment in the paths we carve out of our circumstances. It's a universal journey that we navigate differently, but it's also within these aspirations that I find a collective thread that binds humanity.

If there’s one take-home message I wish to impart with you, it is this: embark on your own pursuit of purpose. Start small, with reflection and honesty, write down what matters—and then, launch yourself into a life redefined by purposeful intent. It's never too late to begin, and the transformation you will experience is not just a personal renaissance, but a vital contribution to the health and well-being of our global community.

About the author

Vic StrecherVic Strecher (pronounced Streker) is a Professor in the Department of Health Behavior Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. His recent focus has been interventions targeting root causes of health and wellbeing, including life purpose and related wellbeing factors as well as social determinants of health.