We all know that heroes are inspiring, but our research on heroes also reveals several non-obvious ways that they improve our lives. Here are five psychological benefits that heroes provide that are somewhat surprising:
1. Heroes produce a recently identified emotion called “elevation”
Recent research suggests that heroes and heroic action may evoke a unique emotional response which Jonathan Haidt at NYU has called elevation. Haidt borrowed the term elevation from Thomas Jefferson, who used the phrase moral elevation to describe the euphoric feeling one gets when reading great literature.
When people experience elevation, they feel a mix of awe, reverence, and admiration for a morally beautiful act. The emotion is described as similar to calmness, warmth, and love. Haidt argues that elevation is “elicited by acts of virtue or moral beauty; it causes warm, open feelings in the chest.”
2. Heroes heal our psychic wounds
Tens of thousands of years ago, when humans first tamed fire, tribe members huddled around a communal fire at the end of each day for warmth and protection. But the act of gathering around fire encouraged another activity -- storytelling. The first stories told were no doubt tales of heroes and heroic action, and these tales were a salve for people’s psychological wounds.
Hero stories calmed people’s fears, buoyed their spirits, nourished their hopes, and fostered important values of strength and resilience. Life now had greater purpose and meaning. There’s no doubt that humans today are no different from our early ancestors. We are drawn to good hero stories because they comfort us and heal us.
3. Heroes nourish our connections with other people
Storytelling is a community-building activity. For early humans, just the act of gathering around communal fires to hear stories established social connections with others. This sense of family, group, or community was, and remains, central to human emotional well-being.
The content of hero stories also promotes a strong sense of social identity. If the hero is an effective one, he or she performs actions that exemplify and affirm the community’s most cherished values. The validation of a shared worldview, told vividly in storytelling, cements social bonds. Heroes are role models who perform behaviors that reinforce our most treasured values and connections with others.
4. Heroes show us how to transform our lives
Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell believed that heroes undergo a personal transformation during their hero journeys. In every hero story, the hero starts out missing an important quality, usually self-confidence, humility, or a sense of his or her true purpose in life. To succeed, the hero must recover, or discover, this quality. Every hero story tells of a journey toward vast personal transformation.
Campbell (1988) believed that all of us undergo a hero-like journey throughout our ordinary human lifespans. During our lives “we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.” Only when we heroically risk change and growth in our own lives will we reach our full potential. As spiritual teacher Richard Rohr notes, hero stories inspire us all because they call us all.
5. Heroes turn us into heroes ourselves
Good heroes use the power of transformation not only to change themselves for the better, but also to transform the world. In the classic hero journey, the newly transformed hero eventually transforms society in significant and positive ways.
Psychologist Eric Erikson’s stages of human development suggest a similar hero trajectory for all of us. Adults grow in significant ways and then in mid-life reach a stage of generativity, which Erikson defines as the time when people give back to the society that has given them so much.
The emotion of elevation, which warms and uplifts us, also includes a desire to become a better person. According to Jonathan Haidt, elevation “motivates people to behave more virtuously themselves.” The elevation we feel upon witnessing a heroic act transforms us into believing we are capable of heroic acts ourselves.
People need heroes because heroes save or improve lives and because heroes are inspiring. But we also need heroes for surprising reasons that go beyond the direct benefits of heroic action. Heroes elevate us emotionally; they heal our psychological ills; they build connections between people; they encourage us to transform ourselves for the better; and they call us to become heroes and help others.
In an earlier post, I discussed several ways that heroes make us smarter. In this post we’ve seen how heroes improve us emotionally and behaviorally as well. Spiritual gurus argue that hero stories also lift us spiritually. There seems to be no end to the ways in which heroes improve us individually, interpersonally, and societally.
Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In G. Goethals, S. Allison, R. Kramer, & D. Messick (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Campbell, J. (1988). The power of myth, with Bill Moyers. New York: Doubleday.
Erikson, E. H. (1975). Life history and the historical moment. New York: Norton.
Haidt, J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. In C. L. M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived (pp. 275-289). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
Smith, G., & Allison, S. T. (2014). Reel heroes: Volume 1: Two Hero Experts Critique the Movies. Agile Writer Press.