The Meaning of Courage

Man Scaling MountainCourage.  The very word conjures up images of acts of bravery in the face of life-threatening danger.   We envision roaring flames, mountainous drops, raging rivers, a hail of bullets, a screech of wheels, and some heroic soul putting it all on the line to save the life of another or reach the heights.

We love the stories.  They sing of the best in us.  We feel larger just for hearing them.  They inspire us and make us proud that we are human beings.

And rightly so, because each of us is courageous in his or her own way.  You may doubt that, and whisper to yourself, “Not me.”  But let’s talk a little bit about the meaning of courage, and the ways it shows up in our everyday lives.

 A Definition of Courage

The best way to start is to consider a definition of courage.   The one I like best is the one that Robert Biswas-Diener came up with, in his wonderful book The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver:

“Courage,” he says, “is the willingness to act toward a moral and worthwhile goal despite the presence of risk, uncertainty and fear.”

I particularly like it because he adds the phrase “toward a moral and worthwhile goal” to the definition.   It has to “contribute to some good for oneself or others without taking away the dignity or well-being of others,” Biswas-Dienr says.

Not all risk-taking signifies courage.   A mugger might be facing risk, uncertainty and fear; but to call him courageous would be to defame the trait.  Good intent is an essential component of courage.   It’s the part that lets us admire it and that touches us when we see it in action.

Interestingly, it’s that goodness that keeps us from recognizing our own courage.  When Biwas-Diener interviewed courageous people in his research, most of them didn’t see their actions as anything special.   “Anybody would have done the same thing,” they’d tell him.

We’re courageous because it seems like the right thing to do, because it’s what we expect of ourselves, or what we believe that others expect of us.

How to Grow Your Courage

Courage is one of the 24 character strengths identified by positive psychology founders Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman.  And as with all the strengths, you can learn and develop it through practice and attention.

Biswas-Diener found that courage is made up of two processes.   The first part is the willingness to take action, and the second is the ability to control fear.   Developing courage is a matter of learning how to manage fear so it doesn’t prevent you from action, and of finding ways to motivate yourself to act.

Learning to Manage Fear

The first part of learning to be more courageous is learning to handle fear, and Biswas-Diener  offers a wealth of information on how to do just that.

Because a big part of fear is often uncertainty, he suggests that we learn as much as we can about the situation that we’re facing.  Gather facts.  Prepare as best you can.  Rehearse.

Learn to relax so that you can stop “the runaway locomotive of irrational thinking.”  Try mentally putting yourself in the danger you’re imagining and figure out what the best way to handle it would be.  Then rehearse that.   Learn how to do progressive muscle relaxation; practice mindful breathing or youga regularly; practice meditation or prayer.

Surprisingly, one of the ways to overcome fear is to get angry.  It’s the one emotion, Biswas-Diener says, that’s strong enough to overpower fear.  But you need to use it strategically in a limited number of situations.  Otherwise it can backfire.  Anger makes it difficult to think clearly, so you only want to ignite when you need it.

One of the last suggestions you might expect from a scientist is to use magical thinking.  But Biswas-Diener makes a strong and logical case for adopting a talisman—a lucky token of some kind—to bring you “good luck.”  It could be anything from a “lucky” piece of clothing, to a photo, or a stone, or a coin, or a small toy.  Whatever works for you.

He also suggests that you convince yourself that you’re a lucky person.   Tell yourself that you are.  Keep a lucky journal and regularly write down the lucky things that happen to you, such as bumping into an old friend you haven’t seen in ages or finding a ten dollar bill on the ground.  Thinking of yourself as lucky boosts your confidence.

Motivating Yourself To Act

One of the best ways to increase your motivation to act is to think about those who would benefit from your action.  Open yourself to feeling their need and how your action will help them.

If, for example, you’re about to give a speech or presentation and you’re shaking in your boots, think about how useful and worthwhile the information you have to give will be to your audience.

In an excellent article on the types of courage, blogger Brett McKay refers to this other-orientation as moral courage.  He gives this advice for motivating yourself to act:

“Moral courage thrives on empathy and compassion, the ability to understand the needs and hurts of others. .  . If you weekly work with the homeless and poverty-stricken, you will have the courage to fight for policies and programs to help improve their lives.

“Thus, the best way to develop moral courage is through offering regular service to others. When you work with people face to face, you gain the courage not to turn away and to fight for the right thing for them. You will find that this courage will not only apply specifically to the groups of people you directly serve, but will expand your compassion, and thus your courage, to do what is right for all people and in every situation.”

Another way to boost your willingness to act is by putting yourself in brave roles.  Tell yourself that your job is to help others in need or to take initiative and small risks to serve others; then practice acting boldly.

You can avoid being trapped by the bystander effect, where you stand by while someone needs help, by following what Biswas-Diener identifies as The Five Steps to Lending Aid:

  1. Notice the event.
  2. Understand that the event is urgent.
  3. Assume responsibility; decide that you are the one to step in here.
  4. Know what kind of aid to deliver.
  5. Decide to act.

He also tells us that when we’re lending aid and need the help of others, instead of saying “Someone call for an ambulance,” point directly at one person and say, “You! Call for an ambulance.”

Fear of Failure

Few things rob us of our courage more than the fear of failure, especially when the failure will be public.   “By accepting, even actively embracing, the possibility of failure, you can boost your willingness to act and increase your overall courage quotient,” says Biswas-Diener.

Sure, failure is always painful.  But learning to frame it as a part of a larger process, such as learning or developing a skill, can definitely help us cope with it.  Learn to focus on the process that you’re involved in rather than looking at the ways it can go wrong, and keep reminding yourself of what you’ll gain by taking the next step forward.

The Payoff of Courage

Having courage helps you have better relationships, perform better at work, and feel more fulfilled.  But it goes beyond that.  It’s contagious.  Your courage builds courage in others.

In the conclusion of his book, Biswas-Diener shares this beautiful description of why courage matters:

“Of all our basic virtues, courage is the one that helps us to live exactly the way we want and provides the psychological fuel we need to create, take risks, help others, and face hard times.  I am not overstating the case when I say that courageous action is humanity at its finest.”

In expressing the meaning of courage, perhaps poet Maya Angelou says it best:

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.  You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”

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This article is part of a  continuing series based on the 24 Character Strengths.   To find the others, click the “Articles Index” tab at the top of the page and scroll down to “Strengths, Individual.”

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