During the COVID-19 pandemic, the major massive open online platforms and educational institutions have reported increased interest from learners in their content.

But the University of Michigan’s Vic Strecher was not quite expecting 100,000 enrollments in eight months for his “Finding Purpose and Meaning in Life: Living for What Matters Most.” The free MOOC on Coursera is popular all over the world, with the 10 leading countries of enrollment the United States, India, the Philippines, Canada, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Brazil, Australia, Mexico and Germany.

In this Q&A, Strecher, a professor of public health and founder and chief purpose officer of Kumanur, talks about what leading a life of purpose means and why this is especially important in the midst of the pandemic.

What will people learn who take the Finding Purpose and Meaning in Life MOOC?

The intention of this course is to help people understand both the science and the philosophy of purpose and purposeful living. And by purpose I’m referring to a goal or set of goals around things that matter most in our lives.

Aristotle, Michelle de Montaigne, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, on through Viktor Frankl — I could go on and of naming philosophers who have thought a lot about the importance of having a purpose and meaning in life. And now there’s a science to it. Over the last 20 years, there have been over 1,000 studies and articles that have examined the concept of purpose in life.

Personally, I’ve lately been examining purpose through neuroscience, where we put people in MRI and have them think about their purposeful core values, or through epidemiologic studies, where we look at people who have a lot of purpose versus people who don’t have a lot of purpose and follow them for five or 10 years in large cohort studies and then see what happens to them, or in experiments, where we try having people just think about their purpose and then see what happens when we when we manipulate various aspects of their environment.

All of these studies have yielded so much evidence about the importance of having a purpose and direction in your life.

You have told this story before but for those who haven’t heard it, you have said your journey to find purpose came about after the loss of your daughter.

When my daughter Julia was in nursing school at the University of Michigan, she died very suddenly of a heart attack. And it was quite unexpected. When that happened, I lost one of the big purposes in my own life, and I found myself about two miles out in Lake Michigan on a kayak and starting to paddle maybe toward Wisconsin, which is another 86 miles, and of course I wouldn’t have made it. And it was 5:15 in the morning, the sun was just beginning to come up, it was about 40 or 50 degrees outside, and I wasn’t wearing a life jacket, I was wearing my boxer shorts and T-shirt I’d been sleeping in. Not very smart.

It was two months after she had died, and I was kind of wondering what I should do in my life. I was at a crossroads, and when I saw the sun come up — I don’t know how else to say this — other than I felt my daughter in me, and I felt my daughter saying, “You’ve got to get over this, Dad.”

You know, it wasn’t like “you have to get over this,” it was like “you have to get over yourself,” you have to get over this grief and turn it into something. So, I turned my kayak around and paddled back to shore. That morning I started thinking, “Well, I’m a behavioral scientist, I should be able to fix myself. If I can’t fix me, what good am I as a behavioral scientist? It was like I was looking down on myself, saying, “What should you do, Vic?”

The first thing I decided would be to write down the things that matter most in my life. Grabbing a piece of paper, I wrote “my students.” I wrote the names of my family members and other people, causes and things I cared about. Then I started thinking, how could I build a new purpose around these things? And that prompted me to call the university, who’d given me the next semester, and even time after that, off. I called that afternoon and said I’d like to teach again — as soon as possible. It’ll be helpful for me, and I’m going to teach every student as if they’re Julia.

That kind of opened a whole new world to me. It suddenly created this goal that required taking care of myself. So, I started sleeping better. I started meditating more on a regular basis. I started being much more physically active walking to work. I started trying to be more creative. I started trying to eat better.

And I started observing — becoming a researcher of myself. Collecting data on my sleep, my meditation, physical activity, creativity and eating behaviors helped me learn what gives me the most energy, the energy I need to teach my students — all 400 of them — as if they were my own daughter. I found, for example, that being creative was one of the most important generators of energy for me. Sleep, of course, and meditation turned out to be really important. 

How does living with purpose change one’s life?

When people start finding greater purpose in their lives it means a couple of things. One, is that they’re going to be more focused and directed toward those things that matter most, of course, but they’re also going to be less directed at things that don’t matter.

So, it actually frees up a lot of time and allows you to focus and free up time from, maybe it’s social media, whatever mental junk food you’re binging on. Do I really need to watch what Kim Kardashian is doing today? I don’t think so. She’s probably a really nice person, but I couldn’t care less about what she’s doing right now. I want to devote the precious time I have on this planet to what matters.

Then, once I set goals around things that matter, I start thinking about becoming purposeful. How do I live my life in alignment with my purpose. Wow, I think, I’m going to need energy. I’m going to need to be calm. I’m going to need to be open minded. These are the behaviors that will help me fulfill my purpose and being more purposeful gives me a bigger life.

So that’s why I want a life that’s purposeful. It becomes a bigger life — as if I’m living three times what I was living before. I don’t want to be a wallflower, waiting for life to ask me to dance. I’m going to get out there and dance, to be willing to make an ass of myself.

Is it harder to find purpose in this pandemic when we can’t engage, serve, relate, etc.? What are you telling people in your course right now about how to navigate this time?

A pandemic is a great time to discover what really matters most in your life, what you care about, what’s most important. This is the foundation of a life purpose. Pandemics are a time to discover strengths you didn’t know you had.

Will you look back on this period and be proud of how you acted? Did you find ways to help others in greater need? Did you learn new, useful behaviors that help you become more purposeful? Did you learn to bake? To volunteer? To meditate? To use a new computer program? To play a musical instrument? To build a closer relationship?

Can finding purpose help us out of some of the despair that has been such a part of this last year and looks to be part of the future for some time yet?

Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, said later in his life that we need to be “good ancestors.” Will our grandchildren and their grandchildren look back on us and say, “Wow, I’m so proud of my ancestors. Even in a pandemic, they managed to think about others.”?

Let’s hope they don’t say, “When the pandemic hit, my ancestors stripped the shelves of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, pulled their money out of the bank and bought an AK-47.” Let’s hope that, though this is a dark time, we avoid being hijacked by our reptilian brain and find greater strength, courage and compassion.

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