What Leads to Heroism? Lessons from a 7-Year Study of 908,096 Soldiers
Acts of courage offer tangible insight into what you care most deeply about. You might say a pet is deeply valued – but would you enter into a burning house to save them? You might claim religion is important – but what pleasurable events will be sacrificed for regular rituals and practices? You describe someone as a best friend – but how much criticism and persecution will you absorb to protect them? As a human virtue, we want to know how to incubate courage in ourselves and those we care about. Which begs the question: What leads to courage?
Think of prototypical heroes. Firefighters. Emergency room physicians. Public defenders in the criminal justice system. Whistleblowers. Military soldiers in combat. In popular culture, there is an all-too-common portrayal of unhappy heroes. A medical student works 80-100 hours per week, sacrificing sleep hygiene and social relationships to become a healer. An angry sergeant barks out orders to military cadets to run faster, push harder, and stop complaining. Months and years of toiling trains minds and bodies. Once they were weak, now they possess fortitude when called upon. Intentional or not, there is a storyline that unhappiness is the price of admission for entering the province of heroism.
Does Happiness Lead to Heroism?
Several psychological scientists viewed this layperson theory as a question to explore: are happier adults more or less likely to engage in heroic acts? This is a tough question to explore scientifically because you need to study people’s well-being prior to entering the arena of confronting a bully or abuser, protecting political secrets, or risking bodily harm for a meaningful cause. Several scientists gained access to 908,096 Army soldiers who completed a series of questions about how often they experience positive emotions (such as joy, calm, and inspiration), negative emotions (such as anger, anxiety, and sadness), and optimism (expecting good things to happen during uncertain times). Over the next four years, these researchers went beyond asking the soldiers whether or not they are courageous. Instead, these researchers tallied up the most prestigious, heroic awards bestowed upon to soldiers. We’re talking about The Medal of Honor, Silver Star Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Soldier’s Medal, Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart.
Exactly 802 soldiers received a military award for heroic deeds. With this incredible sample, researchers explored what psychological characteristics of these soldiers predicted the receipt of heroism awards four to seven years later. The results were clear. The happiest soldiers, those with the most frequent positive emotions and infrequent negative emotions, were four times more likely to receive an award than the unhappiest soldiers. Every point increase in positive emotions led to a 13% greater likelihood of being acknowledged for heroism. Every point increase in optimism led to a 15% greater likelihood of being acknowledged for heroism. These are huge effects.
Some importance nuance exists for negative emotions. How frequently soldiers felt negative emotions failed to distinguish who did and did not receive recognition for heroism years later. This dovetails with work suggesting that in small to moderate doses, anger motivates people to step forward and even be creative in finding alternative routes when obstacles arise. Anxiety also has benefits, motivating people to be vigilant of danger, ensuring that only calculated (rather than reckless) risks are taken. You can imagine the value of situationally tailored anger and anxiety in soldiers. But you can also imagine the social unattractiveness of soldiers with intense anger and anxiety, and there is a body of research showing that anger leads to elevated job-related stress, hostility, mind-wandering, and aggression, and decreased cooperation and social support.
Creating a Culture for Heroism to Rise
While it might not fit our mental image of heroes, happy soldiers get the job done to protect and serve, and this is visible to peers and leaders. If you want maximal effectiveness, provide the conditions for happiness to emerge on a frequent basis. Consider the workplace. Work culture is visible and can be felt. It inhabits the stories that team members tell and the beliefs held. It can be observed in the physical décor and how people speak, express emotions, physical distance, small gestures of camaraderie such as high fives after impressive presentations, and norms about what to do when someone expresses ideas that run counter to existing practices. A culture can be built that allows for joviality and compassion. A culture can be built that encourages the healthy expression of doubt, anxiety, guilt, and anger.
Emotions spread in social networks. If a soldier is surrounded by disinterested, pessimistic characters expect them to be infected. Reconsider recruiting people who extinguish the well-being of others through social interactions tinged with intolerance and indignities. Incentivize kindness and compassion. Reward group accomplishments, not just the performance of individual stars. Drop rituals and practices that induce unwarranted anxiety, embarrassment, and shame for no other purpose than testing a persons’ resolve. Aim instead to increase social bonding, where people “catch” joy, pride, amusement, curiosity, and hope, using these emotions as social glue. Facilitate productive conflict – where people resist making assumptions and conclusions and instead continually gather information and perspectives while testing hypotheses. And never let negative emotions and crises go to waste. Use them as opportunities to show colleagues that they will be listened to, understood, and cared for. Short-term deviations from happiness can be the origin of building stronger, healthier relationships.
You can train relentlessly, overcome adversity, and continuously develop strengths, knowledge, skills and still be happy. Army soldiers offer evidence for happiness as one of many ingredients that increase the odds of courageous action. Time to upgrade our stereotypes of who is on the frontlines, defending freedoms, challenging unhealthy norms, and innovating. Happiness doesn’t just feel good, it leads us to do good.
A hopeful outlook might be an antidote to the fear and frustration that prevents us from being courageous in the future. Build your sense of hope by taking stock of what goals you’ve accomplished in the past. Think of what skills you’ve learned. Think of what knowledge you’ve acquired. Think of the social networks you’ve created and maintained. There is nothing subjective here and nothing that can be dismissed. An objective audit of prior accomplishments allows us to enter an uncertain future with greater agency. With greater agency, we can be bolder.
View yourself as a brave character in search of a situation to express heroism. A customer service agent being unfairly criticized by a customer. Someone entertaining a crowd with an ugly slur against a person or group. A child or adult who appears scared, trying to make eye contact with passersby. Avoiding a passive-aggressive comment, text, or email and instead, being blunt and assertive to someone. Search for situations and use your strengths. Do not wait for the ask. Do not wait to be picked.
This post is an homage to Dr. Ed Diener (known as Dr. Happiness), senior author of the military research discussed, one of the founders of positive psychology, who died on April 27, 2021.
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Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is Professor of Psychology and leads The Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University. His latest book, available for pre-order, is The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively.