Do you have what it takes to be a hero? We all like to think that we’d be the hero when the time came, but it’s so hard to know. For most of us, we’ll never have a situation where we have to rescue someone from a burning building or jump into a freezing lake to save a puppy. So what does it really mean to be a hero in everyday life?
It’s possible to act like a hero in everyday situations without being forced into danger. Let’s go over what it means to be a hero and how you can implement these things into your own life.
The Scientific Study of Heroism
This field is relatively new, but experts are increasingly interested in what it means to be a hero in modern times. We still have remnants of our old school views of heroes, swashbuckling, chivalrous men who stand up for what’s right at the risk of their safety and lives.
The idea of selfless actions has traditionally dominated our understanding of heroism, but some researchers maintain that it’s more complicated than this. In one study, experts Franco, Blau, and Zimbardo outlined a more complex definition of what it means to be a hero:
- Heroes perform actions in service to others who are in need
- The acts are purely voluntary
- Risk and sacrifice are understood and acknowledged
- These potential risks are willingly taken on with full understanding
- There is no expectation of reward or recognition for these acts
This complexity adds a layer of understanding and willingness to be a hero when no one is looking. If you expect accolades for what you’re doing, much like some knights of old, are you a hero? Can you ever perform acts of such good that you’re considered a hero?
These are perplexing questions. As researchers delve deeper into the pure definitions of hero, it lies in stark contrast to our more fleshed-out understanding of evil.
Evil, we know, can be fostered by the dehumanization of groups of people, paving the way for others to consider them less worthy of compassion or rights. It also lies in blind obedience to authority with no consideration for the moral effects of actions.
It also lies in unjust systems in which no one considers an alternative and the complete abdication of responsibility some people feel to examine those systems and individual actions. These definitions of evil go directly in the face of what it means to be a hero, but we can’t just think of heroism as the “opposite of evil.” We need something more precise.
Characteristics of Heroism
In a different study, researchers identified different common characteristics that could be used to describe modern heroes. These characteristics give us a much different picture of heroism and a clearer understanding of how to mold our expectations of heroes.
A hero has strong personal integrity that involves the respect of others. This empathy is evident in their actions, even when no one is looking. While people often make mistakes, and even heroes can make a wrong judgment from time to time, the willingness to correct errors is strong.
This compass guides all their actions from start to finish. They don’t have to have anyone watching, and no one talks them into doing the right thing. It just happens.
We never know how we’ll react in times of struggle, but heroes display the trait of bravery. Whether it’s jumping into a dangerous situation with no hesitation to save another or its the willingness to sit with others in times of grief, bravery defines a hero’s actions.
In some cases, bravery means making decisions that support those around them without being too afraid of the future to do the right thing. In modern times, bravery has many definitions, but heroes don’t shy away from doing what’s brave.
It’s not enough to make the right decision. You have to follow through with that decision. Sometimes, heroes have to make decisions that have long term, long-lasting consequences, and they must have the conviction to see it through to the end.
Sometimes, it also means standing up for what’s right, even if everyone else disagrees. During the holocaust, few Germans participated actively in the internment camps, but many chose to ignore what was happening in their back yards. The ones who did something had conviction.
Courage is different than bravery. Courage is a long term characteristic that goes beyond the singular moment of danger. It gives the individual the determined nature of conviction, allows them to make the brave decision in the moment, and gives them the fortitude to follow through.
Courage is evident in the way heroes make decisions and the way they speak. It takes courage to have personal morality during times of struggle and to follow through.
Self-sacrifice is a critical aspect of modern-day heroism. In hero tales of old, heroes did many things for glory, but in modern times, we understand heroism differently. A true hero does heroic things without thought for their safety and may die without anyone ever knowing what they did.
The willingness to sacrifice themselves for the good of others is a critical aspect of being a hero. This characteristic also travels over to the idea that they’ll do things without any recognition or reward.
Putting others first is another characteristic of a modern hero. Heroes in ancient times were respected and praised, but many of their stories involve them doing acts of bravery to save themselves rather than others.
Nowadays, you can find heroes who will give up their lunch to someone in need or do what’s best for their family without regard to themselves. It’s this conviction that sets apart heroes from those doing good deeds for glory.
Determination is a lot like conviction, but this is the characteristic of action rather than belief. It works together with belief (conviction) because determination (action) always follows through with what’s right.
Personal morality is meaningless without the right action. In Buddhism, the right action is part of the eightfold path, allowing practitioners the chance to put their beliefs into action rather than remaining in theory.
Don’t think of this as getting a reward. A true hero not only performs acts of bravery and conviction but inspires others to do the same. A hero is magnetic, often helping others understand their own beliefs and change their behavior.
Heroes can also unite people to a common cause for good without a thought of reward. This inspiration is infections, often spreading a hero’s beliefs far beyond what they were able to accomplish.
Heroes may not always be able to sacrifice themselves for others or put themselves in direct danger, but they are almost always helpful to those around them. Whether it’s their elderly neighbor who regularly needs yard work done or the homeless person on the corner who always gets food, they’re ready to spring into action for small things.
This helpful nature is an inherent characteristic. They don’t ask for something in return and never think of those things as favors with strings. It just happens.
Protective heroes never allow harm to come to their loved ones or anyone around them if they can do something about it. They’re also protective of their convictions and aren’t easily swayed by what’s popular or what the crowd is doing.
This protective nature shields them from being swayed by influences and allows them to put their hearts into doing the right thing by the ones they love.
Heroes are unfailingly honest, but this doesn’t mean just saying whatever’s on their minds. They’re honest about their struggles, their beliefs, and they’re honest to themselves about their motivations for doing something.
This type of honesty makes them trustworthy even when no one is looking, and no one will find out. It gives them perspective and helps them maintain their convictions when the going gets tough.
You can still be a hero without ticking off the entire checklist of characteristics, but those with more of them than fewer skew more quickly towards acts of heroism.
Types of Heroes
There are a few different types of heroes. When we’re discussing what it means to be a hero, we’re usually referring to a few of these distinct types.
A spontaneous hero is someone who makes a split-second decision to do something courageous. Think about news stories of people jumping on suicide bombers to save hundreds or someone who jumps into swiftly running water to save a drowning animal.
These heroes don’t have time to prepare for their acts; they just do them. It can be challenging to know what kind of hero you would be in these situations because we often act on instinct. Which instinct will kick in? Self-preservation or heroism?
Research isn’t sure what causes people to make these split-second decisions, but they often exhibited other heroic traits in their day to day lives. Imagining ourselves making those decisions in times of trouble could be one way to build that instinct.
In some cases, the decision to act is well thought out and fully understanding of the consequences. For example, those who decided to aid slaves on the road to freedom often did so in coordinated efforts for months or even years.
This type of heroism may be easier to begin, but it requires a great deal of determination and conviction to uphold. What will you do once you’ve said that this will be your course, and the consequences begin piling up?
Methodical heroes must have the conviction to stand behind their decisions for the long term. Even when the going gets tough or there seems to be no reward for doing so, methodical heroes still do what’s right.
Some heroes act out of duty to others. In one case, an earthquake in China collapsed a school. While a little boy was running away, he ended up going back to save two others because he was their hall monitor and felt it was his duty to save them.
This often extends to acts of heroism for our families, our congregations, our neighborhood, or our coworkers. These acts happen because we feel an obligation to ensure that these people remain safe while they’re in our care, much like the brave hall monitor.
Heroes In The Ancient World
In contrast, heroes in the ancient world were often inspired to do great things for the accolades and glory. These heroes, many of whom we know from Greek tales, were often superhuman and accomplished their deeds through feats of strength or other types of superpowers.
The ancient world rarely showed us self-sacrificing heroes. The stories that do swing hard towards antihero. Antiheroes are often conflicted about doing what’s right and many times make a series of wrong choices that lead to consequences. Only when the results come does the antihero finally make the right decision.
These ancient types of heroes are easy to worship because they’re often one-dimensional. They’re called by the gods or were born into a kingship that required great acts of glory. Our modern understanding of heroes, however, takes a very different turn.
Can We Learn To Be Heroes?
Many of the characteristics of heroes can be learned, researchers say. That’s good news. These personal qualities are ripe for development and could encourage us to build on the characteristics we already have.
In a famous experiment, The Stanford Prison Experiment, we found out that it’s shockingly easy for regular people to do terrible things with a little social prompting. Researchers are interested in finding out if the opposite is true – Can people be trained as heroes?
The primary researcher responsible for the Stanford Prison Experiment now has another project – The Heroic Imagination Project. In it, he imagined ways to train and encourage people to think in terms of being a hero, opening the door for ordinary people to become the heroes they wished to be.
The Heroic Imagination, according to Zimbardo, begins the journey towards becoming a hero. People are asked to envision themselves, acting in small heroic ways. There’s power in mentally preparing to intervene in situations of danger or to stand up for others at personal risk.
This could be especially powerful for children. As we prepare children to live lives in service to others, this type of visualization can set the stage for selfless acts later on.
In Zimbardo’s 2008 Ted Talk, he defines heroism as acts done at considerable personal risk when others remain passive. This puts a lot of us at the forefront of deciding what we believe is right and following through without concern for our well-being. He believes there’s a lot of value in mentally preparing children for times like these.
There’s a lot of potential in the field of heroism training. These fields emphasize training everyone from children to adults to begin thinking in terms of heroic characteristics for the greater social good. As the world gets bigger and more connected, these training sessions could be the key to solving some of our social ills.
One key component of training heroes is developing a growth mindset. This fosters the belief that people can change and improve and that our innate characteristics aren’t set in stone. You can become a heroic person even if you aren’t one now, and that’s a good thing to discover.
Simple Ways to Cultivate Your Inner Hero
There are some simple ways to cultivate your inner hero, according to experts. These little things add up over the long term and could help you begin to act more in line with modern heroes.
Imagine You’re Already A Hero
A central component of the Heroic Imagination Project is asking others to imagine themselves acting heroically in times of stress. This doesn’t just mean running into a burning building, either. It could also mean standing up to your racist family member during a family gathering for once.
These mental preparations put you in the mindset to become more heroic and to make those critical snap decisions to take action when others don’t. This mindset training involves imagining not only wild circumstances but more everyday struggles that could come up.
Be More Mindful
HIP also identifies a characteristic called the automatic self. When we behave on autopilot, our instincts may lead us down the wrong path. We may run when we should hold our ground or let something slide that needs to be addressed.
Cultivating mindfulness helps us create a sense of pause necessary to make the decisions we know are right instead of acting on autopilot all the time. These things help us monitor conflict and resolve it, develop cognitive control, and improve our attentional functioning.
We may also develop a greater sense of loving-kindness as we become mindful of those around us. Our increased mindfulness helps with empathy and helps us to cultivate a sense of caring for others even at our own expense.
Mindfulness training focuses on what’s happening in the moment. Meditation is a powerful mindfulness tool, but even pausing throughout the day to notice your breath can also help. Also, when you experience powerful emotions, practice pausing for five seconds before you respond to give your mind time to catch up.
When you have a strong sense of community, you’re often better able to act on those altruistic feelings. Heroes often are strongest when they belong to a community of people who also think like they do. Heroism is contagious and can spread.
These resources help bring heroism to life and encourage people to perform acts of bravery for their fellow citizens. Heroes also have a stronger sense of duty to others, often taking on responsibilities for those in their community who are vulnerable.
In an HIP study, heroes were often called to volunteer and volunteered substantially in their daily lives. This may lead to a renewed sense of compassion for those around them.
Acknowledge Your Adversity
While experiencing trauma or hardship isn’t automatically a feature of a hero, it may help us act more heroically in the long run. If you’ve experienced a type of difficulty in the past, you might be more likely to understand the suffering of others and seek to alleviate it.
Some people react to adversity by closing the door, saying, “if I had to go through it, you should, too.” This mindset is the opposite of heroism and must be addressed if you’re cultivating a modern hero mindset.
However, there is a strong connection between enduring some type of hardship or trauma and having more compassion for others. This correlation isn’t a sure thing, but the more we imagine ourselves in a heroic situation, the more we make those connections.
Do A Small Selfless Act Every Day
Choose something likely to go unnoticed and don’t mention it. For example, if you get up and shovel your neighbor’s driveway before they wake up, you make their day brighter without ever receiving recognition. Pay for the person behind you in line but ask not to be recognized.
These small, selfless acts begin to add up to a consistent habit. The habit is one essential part of cultivating that heroic mindset and overcoming the tendency to act on autopilot. They become easier each day, and you find ways to spot other activities more quickly.
Try New Things
While this may not seem to be directly correlated, getting out of our comfort zone and experiencing things outside our frame of reference can build mindfulness, cultivate compassion, and build character.
As you try these new things, you may find yourself experiencing chances to act in little heroic ways, making it easier to do those small selfless acts. Trying new things also wakes us up to our potential and helps us develop a habit of growth mindset.
Avoid Doing Nothing
While few people are inclined to act truly evil, the majority of us are reluctant heroes, as Zimbardo calls us. We just don’t do anything in either direction. Unfortunately, even though we’ve not directly acted with evil intent, we often end up supporting those who are doing evil.
The idea of doing nothing is dangerous to what it means to be a hero. To cultivate a heroic spirit, you must get out of the idea that you’re going to do nothing. Even if you don’t feel like what you’re doing means anything, doing something in the face of injustice or immorality is still meaningful.
Building a habit of taking action, even small ones, helps build the overall heroic pattern into your character, making it easier to act when things are bigger with more significant stakes. This is a step many of us miss. Doing the small things that don’t seem to matter builds that important habit and mindset for impactful circumstances.
Becoming A Modern Hero
We can develop the characteristics of being a hero much the way we practice soft skills or growth mindset. Once we commit to building these skills, we can be on our way to becoming the heroes we want to be.
There are quite a few training schools designed to guide children and adults to the qualities of being a hero. Some of them are also involved in research for these purposes.
- Heroic Imagination Project – Started by a Stanford Psychology Professor famous for an experiment on what it means to act with evil intent (The Stanford Prison Project) this project operates with the intent of not only researching what it means to be a hero but helping others practice those qualities in everyday life.
- Giraffe Heroes Project – Giraffe Heroes offers a database of everyday heroes, plus resources for those who want to cultivate those characteristics. You can nominate heroes and find school resources for K12 lessons.
- The Hero Construction Company – This project is a child-specific nonprofit that provides transformative training for building heroic responses in children and teens. It focuses on developing noble traits for compassion and action.
There are more organizations out there dedicated to this relatively new field, and we may soon tap into what it means for everyday people to develop these skills. In the meantime, we know that heroism is people taking action when everyone else refuses, regardless of the personal consequences.
When we develop our sense of right and wrong, we begin training ourselves to act according to those principles. Our determination and mindfulness could soon fill the world with everyday heroes.
We’re continually inspired by stories of those who acted bravely, jumping in to save others, standing up for what’s right, and taking a cause to their untimely end. It’s a new world in heroic research, and as we cultivate understanding, we can build societies with these characteristics.
In the meantime, taking small actions yourself is an excellent way to build those small habits that lead up to big moments. You may not make the split-second decision to face danger now, but once you develop your heroic mindset, you may find yourself acting like a hero before you know it.