April 12, 2016
Imagine your employees or health plan members embracing healthy change, not because they should but because they want to.
Welcome to the coming seismic shift in population health.
JOOL Health, started by Vic Strecher PhD, MPH (founder of HealthMedia), is a health and technology company operating at the forefront of health-related organizational behavior change. At JOOL, we’re redefining what it actually means to be healthy. For us, healthy change is not about a negative — and thoroughly demotivating — focus on the avoidance of disease and death. Instead, we view health as the active, self-directed and game-changing pursuit of a self-examined, vibrant and purposeful life well lived. A life activated and energized by meaningful, emotionally powerful experiences. A way of being that naturally embraces and maintains healthy behavior as the fuel that drives connected engagement and fulfillment — both personally and professionally.
In his book Megatrends, John Naisbitt wrote: “The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.”
We believe, in fact, that it will be a combination of the two; that as we better integrate technology with what it truly means to be human — let’s call it “meaningful technology” — we’ll become empowered, as never before, to act as our own best health advocates. Our own data-focused researchers of body and mind. Our own insight-driven philosophers of living.
Time For Some Healthy Change
We all know the problem. We’ve all lived it. And it can best be summed up in one, simple question: “Why are people so resistant to healthy change and what can be done about it?” The familiar metaphor of the boiling frog seems a good fit for health issues in the workplace. Put a frog in boiling water, it jumps right out. Put it in cool water and gradually turn up the heat, the frog passively, gradually succumbs. Most of the problems we face in the workplace—sedentary behavior, poor collaboration, lack of focus and commitment, low energy, presenteeism, absenteeism—to name just a few, are slow, incremental “boiling-frog” problems. But merely pointing out an increasingly dire reality generally fails to do much good. Tell a frog to jump out of slowly warming water and you might hear: “What do you know? Who made you the expert on boiling water? This water isn’t so hot. And besides, I know other frogs surviving in much hotter water.” That’s the “self” getting defensive—a function of the ego—and a kind of “castle wall” that bolsters and shields an individual’s sense of self. This built-in defensiveness, however, also frequently contributes to maintaining a precariously skewed view of reality. The result, as we’ve witnessed for decades now, is little lasting positive change, a lack of ongoing engagement (even with financial or other incentives in play), and a continuous spiraling up of healthcare costs—all while populations are becoming less healthy across the continuum of care.
We think it’s about time we moved from the uninspired (and uninspiring) focus on maintenance, prevention, and avoidance to an innovative new approach: Cultivating ongoing individual and organizational engagement, passion and commitment to living increasingly vital, purposeful, and healthy lives—day after day; year after year.
Some leading healthcare organizations have started to talk about a perceived difference between the terms “wellness” and “well-being.” We support this notion as a mechanism for reframing the entire healthcare discussion. Wellness has the feel of something out there beyond the horizon—a state of health to be achieved sometime in the future; aspirational, but also somehow never quite obtainable. Well-being, for us, describes something akin to a continuous state of being well. A living, breathing, evolving state of health that is always present in the moment—a state of being within which each of us can flourish.
We believe this distinction plays a key role in the failure of many wellness programs to achieve active and ongoing engagement with large populations of employees. These programs fail to execute because they fail to excite passion and commitment in the present moment, focusing instead on an imagined future state of improved health that in fact doesn’t—and can never—exist except in the here and now.
Change: Happening Here. Happening Now.
As Stanford’s Kelly McGonigal (The Neuroscience of Change and The Willpower Instinct) points out, we’re all continuously in flux. Changing and renewing ourselves right down to the cellular level moment to moment. So, change, at its essence, isn’t really the issue. And depending on how you frame it, change isn’t really all that much work either. All it takes is a moderate amount of effort expended over a sustained period of time—a longitudinal commitment to consistency. But there’s a rub: Commitment and consistency require motivation. So, what’s been missing all these years on the motivation front? From our point-of-view: purpose and meaning are two powerful emotional levers that, until now, have been AWOL from the healthcare arena. Purpose and meaning—we believe it’s these two elements that allow individuals to see beyond their current circumstances—and beyond themselves—to a larger, personal vision of engaged, healthy living.
Recently, JOOL Health founder Vic Strecher was part of a team studying the impacts of purpose on the neural activity of 67 sedentary adults. While in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI), half the participants were encouraged to affirm their own purposeful values – values such as friends and family, independence, money, and spirituality. The remaining participants did not affirm purposeful values. Then, while still in the scanner, all participants received 50 health messages related to the importance of increasing healthy, physical activity. Compared with a control condition, participants who had affirmed their values-based purpose demonstrated greater activation in a part of the brain related to the perception of self. This activation, in turn, accurately predicted significant increases in objectively monitored physical activity for those participants over the course of the following month.1 This is new, groundbreaking science confirming what’s been intuitively known and understood for millennia: purpose and meaning are central to leading a healthy, fulfilled life.
But the benefits of purposeful living extend far beyond the sphere of meaningful motivation. 2009 Nobel Prize recipient Elizabeth Blackburn and co-discoverer of the telomerase enzyme, has been studying the impact of mindfulness meditation and purpose affirmation on well-being—demonstrating that these practices can strengthen and even repair age and stress-related chromosomal damage2 — the kind of damage often associated with cancer and other ailments.
Two thousand years ago the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote, “When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.” A harbor, or purpose, in life and in business can serve as a compelling meta-goal that engages an employee’s focus while enhancing productivity, innovation, and performance. Organizations often express a higher order purpose through a mission statement, however, those missions often fall short unless authentically implemented and lived at every level of the company. But how important is this really? A recent study of 28 “Firms of Endearment,” primarily selected for the strength of, and commitment to, their corporate purpose, found a seventeen-fold return on investment from 1998 to 2013, compared with a threefold return among so-called “Good-To-Great” companies, and an even less impressive doubling of return among S&P 500 companies.3
Viewed in this light, it’s beginning to become clear that the positive impact of purpose and meaning on the lives of humans—or in driving the success and longevity of companies—is measurable at a variety of levels; from the micro view of repaired telomeres keeping chromosomes intact, to the macro perspective of the corporate balance sheet and bottom line.
– Vic Strecher and David Rossiter
1 Falk EB, O’Donnell MB, Cascio CN, Tinney F, Kang Y, Lieberman MD, Taylor SE, An L, Resnicow K, Strecher VJ. (2015). Self-affirmation alters the brain’s response to health messages and subsequent behavior change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 112(7):1977-82.
2 Elissa Epel, PhD.,1,* Jennifer Daubenmier, Ph.D.,1 Judith T. Moskowitz, Ph.D.,2 Susan Folkman, PhD.,2 and Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD. (2011). Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 2009 Aug; 1172:34-53.