August 2020

Living Life with Purpose

Author: Becca Edwards | Photographer: M.KAT Photography


Susan Burak enjoys some downtime in her backyard.

For many of us, the past several months have induced a time of introspection and self-improvement. Some of us have taken on wellness challenges like a weight-loss journey or new physical feat like long-distance biking or running. Some of us finally read that stack of books that, like kudzu, had taken over our bedside table. And some of us channeled our inner Beaker from The Muppets and got resourceful in the kitchen by cooking with pantry castoffs or got scientific in the bathroom with home hair-dying kits.

I opted to take an online course through Coursera titled “Finding Purpose and Meaning in Life: Living for What Matters Most,” by Dr. Vic Strecher. Strecher is a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and director for Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship. He is also an award-winning pioneer in the field of behavioral science, who lost his 19-year-old daughter Julia to a rare heart disease that resulted from an infant case of chicken pox. This life event challenged every aspect of Strecher’s personal and professional experience and drove him to an exhaustive search, from ancient philosophy to cutting-edge science, to pinpoint the potential and impact of purpose in our lives. (Check out his book Life on Purpose, which is available in print and on Audible and his app, Purposeful by Kumanu.)

While taking the course, the health, wealth and life benefits of living a life with purpose became abundantly clear, and we will explore this further. But one fundamental concept for you to know upfront is that a sense of purpose can come in many forms. This realization led me to survey multiple people through Facebook questionnaires, Zoom virtual interactions, and socially distanced outings, asking two questions: (1) Did they feel compelled to have a sense of purpose? (2) What was/is their purpose?

Some respondents suddenly felt the need to give back to the community by donating to our local food bank and/or supporting local businesses. Others stated that altruism, at this point, was actually being kind to themselves and getting through the pandemic without over-imbibing, over-watching the news, or over-stressing.

But for local resident Susan Burak, living life with purpose is not situational. It’s not just something you are called to do because times are tough. Instead, it is something that resides in your core that you curate with thoughtfulness throughout your life.

Burak’s mother was Polish Catholic and the youngest of 11 children. As Burak described her mother’s childhood and then her own, it became quite clear that her purpose in life can be summed up in three words: love for people.

Her love of caring for people is the reason she became a successful radiologist. Her love for her husband, Dr. William Burak, led her to be a wife and mother of two children. And her love of spreading joy is the reason why so many people lean on her for friendship and why her husband nicknamed her “Solution Susan.”

“Oh, yeah, that was a name Bill came up with,” Burak said with a laugh. “Because someone is always calling me saying, ‘Can you walk on the beach with me? I need a friend’, or ‘Do you know a plumber?’—that sort of thing.”
Quoting Mother Teresa, Burak said, “We cannot all do big things, but we can do small things with big love.” She added, “By doing little things every day, it’s cumulative.”

When Burak awakens each day, before her feet hit the floor, she thinks about what she wants to accomplish, and she reiterates her purpose. This morning ritual, as studies show, is exactly what we all should be doing upon waking; it is free and yet perhaps one of the most valuable things we can do for our overall wellness.

Strecher, as well as mindfulness researchers like Dr. Laurie Santos (a cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at Yale University who also offers online classes through Coursera), often discuss the significance of self-affirmation and setting an intention. “Self-affirmation is the process of reflecting on one’s core values or what matters most in one’s life,” Strecher lectured. “By doing this, you activate the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) or the part of the brain that asks, ‘who am I?’ and ‘what do I value?’”

As it turns out, this form of introspection slows down the deterioration of telomeres, or the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes, therefore inhibiting or slowing down the aging process.
“Imagine a drug that was proven to add years to your life, reduce risk of heart attack and stroke, cut your risk of Alzheimer’s disease by more than half, help you relax during the day and sleep better at night, double your chances of staying drug- and alcohol-free after treatment, activate your natural killer cells, diminish your inflammatory cells, increase your good cholesterol, and repair your chromosomes. What if this imaginary drug reduced hospital stays so much that it put a dent in the national health care crisis? The pharmaceutical company who made the drug would be worth billions. The inventors of the drug would receive Nobel Prizes and have institutes named for them. But it’s not a drug. It’s purpose. And it’s free,” Strecher explained.

Strecher went on to differentiate between self-enhancing (or hedonic) and self-transcending (or eudaimonic), as well as “be” goals, which answer why we want to do something, and “action” goals, which answer how we will do something.

When setting your purpose in life, self-transcending allows you greater rewards and actually increases antibodies; conversely, hedonic is pro-inflammatory. As a bit of back story for all of you etymologists out there, the term eudaimonia is etymologically based in the Greek words eu (good) and daimon (spirit). It describes the notion that living in accordance with one’s daimon, which we take to mean character and virtue, leads to a good life. Therefore, the idea is to live a life of purpose based on virtues like “love of people” and to set your “be” and “action” goals accordingly.

“My mother lived a long life without an ache or a pain because she had such a strong purpose,” Burak said. “I hope I’m following her example in life.”

If you know Burak, you know she is doing just that. Every day, Burak sets out to help people. She is the first person to greet a new family when they move into the neighborhood. She remembers the good stuff like people’s birthdays and anniversaries and the bad stuff like people’s chemo appointments. She (like her husband) is an avid volunteer. She has never met a stranger. She is currently learning the Spanish language as well as finding housing and employment to help a political refugee living in Bluffton. She values making a healthy dinner for her husband every night, not because she is provincial, but because she knows the importance of sharing one’s day over nutritious food.

“I try and help people see and appreciate all they have to offer to the world and to each other,” Burak said, and she truly believes it is more fun to give than receive.

Becca Edwards is a wellness professional, freelance writer, and owner of Female IQ (femaleIQ.com).

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