What Makes a Hero?

The surprising science of selflessness

Dissecting the Science of Selflessness

Can we really learn to lead more heroic lives?

This has been an exciting month for me. My first book, What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness, has officially launched! It's been an incredible journey so far—one that unexpectedly began several years ago. Recently married, living in Silicon Valley with my new husband, and looking for a way to feel more comfortable in the community, I joined a volunteer organization called California Community Partners for Youth. CCPY's tagline was, “If you ever wanted to be part of a miracle, this is your chance.” It paired adult mentors and coaches with San Jose high school students who were considered “at risk.” Some struggled with academics, some with drugs or family problems, and others grappled with the larger question of what to do with their lives.

As a new volunteer, I was initially skeptical, thinking I might be prodded to teach the kids tired life-skills principles from the corporate world (Teamwork! Organization!). But what I actually witnessed was a small but dedicated group of people who—quietly and without fanfare—transformed the lives of the teens in the program by giving them hope. If a kid needed a ride late at night to get out of a bad situation, they'd pick him up without a second thought. If a senior needed to pass a state-mandated English exam to graduate, they’d spend time with her after school to make sure she was prepared. The selfless service of CCPY’s staff and volunteers showed me that heroes weren't just people who engineered death-defying rescue attempts or launched campaigns to free political prisoners. A heroic life could be less showy, less ostentatious, but just as significant.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Soon afterward, new research on heroism and altruism began filtering its way to me through the Internet. Not only was psychologist Philip Zimbardo (of Stanford Prison Experiment fame) starting to get his Heroic Imagination Project underway, but the Dalai Lama had committed a large chunk of his personal fortune to the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford. I wanted to learn more about what organizations like this were up to. Is it possible to learn to become more generous? Does science offer us realistic hope to become more compassionate as a species? And do you have to make headlines in order to lead a truly heroic life? The book evolved out of my attempt to answer these kinds of questions.

If you decide to give it a read, I look forward to hearing from you. Do you think heroism and altruism can be taught? Did you take away any science-based principles about selflessness that you plan to use?

Elizabeth Svoboda is a science writer living in San Jose, CA. Her first book, What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness, comes out in September.

more...

Subscribe to What Makes a Hero?

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?