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Blog and Insights, Dr. Vic Strecher

AI Coach: An Angel on Your Shoulder

How over 30 years of research have become reality with advances in Good Theory and AI.

June, 2024

A 30-Year Quest. For over thirty years, I’ve been creating and working with teams of software engineers, behavioral scientists, designers, and communicators on a mutual quest: to create an “angel on your shoulder.” A voice of reason that gives encouragement and maybe a bit of wisdom. An inner mentor that helps you build a better, healthier life. A spiritual guide that provides just the right help at the right time.

Ancient Greek philosophers called this angel the daimon, an inner divine life coach guiding personal actions and decisions. Being in touch with this voice creates eudaimonia — not a fleeting state — but a lifelong pursuit that involves finding purpose in various domains of one’s life, including family, work, community, and personal growth. As Plato stated over 2,400 years ago:

“Keeping well-ordered the daimon that lives within him, he must indeed be supremely happy.”

In modern times, we generally equate “happy” with immediate, transient pleasures. The Greeks called this form of happiness “hedonia,” contrasting it with eudaimonia, which they felt was a deeper form of happiness.

The concept of “eudaimonic wellbeing” is very much alive today and the focus of both mental and physical health researchers. In 2013, the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson led a team of researchers “to map the potentially distinct biological effects of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being.” The “biological effects” they were looking at were the expression of antiviral agents and antibodies (good for us) or pro-inflammation cells (bad for us).

What they found turned heads. Participants scoring high on the hedonic scale were far more likely to have increased inflammatory gene expression and decreased expression of genes involved in antibody and antiviral response, whereas participants scoring high on the eudaimonic scale had the opposite. In other words, participants with greater eudaimonia were physiologically healthier. Since then, both the mental and physical benefits of eudaimonic wellbeing have been clearly demonstrated.

For the past four decades, my interest in providing individuals access to a “eudaimonic angel” at a low cost has remained, and with every new generation of interactive, digital communications, we’ve been able to get closer to this goal. Beginning with research using tailored print materials (remember the Laserwriter?), soon followed by laserdiscs, personal digital assistants (remember the Apple Newton?), touchscreen kiosks, and, of course the Internet, we’ve found new ways of reaching more people, at an increasingly lower cost.

Increased access to these technologies, however, is only the first step. Two advances were required to create programming that deeply enhances wellbeing in various domains of life, including family, work, community, and personal growth.

Good Theory. The first advance is in the theories and empirical research of how people actually learn and change. The psychologist Kurt Lewin stated that, “There is nothing so practical as good theory.” Our conceptual framework for AI Coach begins with good theory. Self-Determination Theory, Values Affirmation Theory, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Motivational Interviewing – the conceptual frameworks that form the basis of our programming – all begin with the roots of behavior: our purpose, our core values, our roles, our goals. From these intrinsic motives, our behaviors form like the branches of a tree. This approach of starting with the “why” of our behaviors, is supported by literally thousands of studies.

In addition to understanding how and why people change, it’s essential to understand how people learn. Some people go to classes. Others make check-lists. Some like to journal. Some prefer quick close-ended questions. Some people want to engage daily. Others want to engage weekly or monthly. AI Coach helps you in the ways you prefer to learn.

Artificial Intelligence. The second advance required is Artificial Intelligence (AI for short). Since the company’s inception, Kumanu has actually been using AI. Advanced predictive modeling, a type of AI, allows us to use vast amounts of data to make predictions of future behavior and to intervene at the right time with the right message. Natural language processing allows us to examine words and word phrases to determine sentiments and emotions.

And now, generative AI allows us to provide reflective feedback, examine deep patterns of behavior and emotions, and make insightful recommendations. AI Coach provides more empathetic and tailored support via brief daily check-ins. It integrates emotional, mental, financial, social, and physical wellbeing to deliver whole person support in one integrated experience, reducing the need for multiple point solutions. Carefully tested, with the right guardrails and the right conceptual training, we’ve created a digital life coach – an angel on your shoulder.

AI Coach. Purposeful has now integrated good theory with artificial intelligence to create AI Coach a true game changer. AI Coach fills a gap by providing an effective tool for preventing both mental and physical health problems. No one wins Nobel Prizes for preventing depression, suicide, diabetes, or cancer. Prevention is invisible. It is, in the words of Sherlock Holmes, “The dog that doesn’t bark.” As a result, prevention is often under-utilized and under-valued by both individuals and the organizations who pay for the high cost of treating mental and physical illness.

Kumanu designed AI Coach to ensure that all user personal data remains private and secure. The feature is entirely opt-in, at the organizational and individual user levels, ensuring user comfort and control.

So now organizations can provide personalized, science-based support to a broader audience, starting with the root causes of positive health behavior change, at a fraction of the cost of traditional programs. Welcome to the new angel on your shoulder!

About the Author


Vic Strecher, PhD, MPH

Founder and Chief Executive Officer

Vic Strecher (PhD, MPH) is a leader and visionary in the fields of purpose and wellbeing, creating new solutions that operate at the intersection of the science of behavior change and advanced technology. In 1998, Vic created Health Media pioneering Web-based “digital health coaching.” Since January 2014, Vic has given keynote presentations about the role of purpose in life to over 1,500 organizations. Kumanu was launched as a major paradigm shift in how individuals engage in the pursuit of purpose, meaning and wellbeing while offering organizations a more insightful means to support positive culture and behavior change.

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