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10 Features of Courageous Choice

Courage is the basic virtue for anyone who continues to grow.

“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Across history and cultures, people have regarded courage as a great virtue. It helps people face their challenges, with an ultimate goal of helping them to change their behavior (Miller, 2000; Sherman, 2005). Courage is an important aspect of positive psychology that allows one to overcome personal limitations and pursue a full life (Diener, 2012). Being a courageous person is what maximizes one’s chance to grow and develop throughout life (Seligman, 2011). Courage is not a matter of feeling no fear. Courage is the strength in facing one’s destructive habits: For example, the courage of an addict overcoming his or her addiction or the person abused as a child overcoming deep psychological traumas to become a loving and productive adult.

Paul Schlemmer/Shutterstock
Source: Paul Schlemmer/Shutterstock

An accumulation of scholarly works defines courage in terms of 10 features. In combination, they satisfy the definition of courage.

1. Achieving a meaningful goal.

Courage is the capacity to pursue personally meaningful goals in the face of fear (Pury and Lopez, 2010). In defining the good life, Aristotle wrote that the highest of all human goods is the realization of our true potential. Pursuing a purpose may involve stress and pain in the short run but over the long run brings meaning—e.g., raising children, seeking personal growth, training for a marathon. Pursuing a purpose also translates into better health and a longer life. People with a sense of purpose feel less anxiety and stress (Hagerty, 2016).

2. Being authentic.

People commonly accept authenticity as suggesting genuineness, originality, perhaps uniqueness and honesty, and hold it in contrast to imitation or fakeness. Making authentic choices without excuses, and working through existential anxiety, is psychological courage in action. Courageous people are willing to face unpleasant truths about themselves without getting defensive or trying to rationalize them away. Rollo May viewed the authentic life as one marked by an absence of fear. Diminished anxiety and fear may be related to the authentic choice of what is truly important to a person.

3. Free choice.

An act is courageous if the actor freely choses it (May, 1981). Choice is the capacity to exercise control over one’s life. Courage is the virtue that allows people to express fully their unique human freedom. Freedom and anxiety are two sides of the same coin (May 1981). The freedom to make choices can generate anxiety, because deciding means being changed. We resist change because change is loss, even one that is in our best interest.

4. Risk is real and substantial.

The individual takes substantial risk to attempt or accomplish the act. For example, patients with panic disorder display courage when they expose themselves to a feared condition. The treatment involves taking action that will increase a subjective sense of risk (and the objective chance of having an unpleasant panic attack) in pursuit of increased mental health.

5. The action worth the risk.

The person assesses the risk as reasonable. It takes courage to take calculated risk, anticipate likely consequences of one’s actions, and select courses of action that one thinks will produce desired outcomes. For example, the decision to make a midlife career change should be grounded in reality (e.g., one’s core strength, experience, passion, and not wishful thinking) (Hagerty, 2016).

6. Affect regulation.

Courageous people have the ability to self-regulate under intense challenges. For example, training for emergencies or for military service is all about developing a sense of psychological control that becomes second nature to a soldier or emergency medical technician. One of the central ideas in emotion regulation is that the way you think largely shapes how you feel.

7. Acting despite the fear.

The person is willing and able to approach a fearful situation despite the presence of subjective fear and psychological disturbances (Putman, 2004). The person who acts without fear would not be considered courageous. Psychopaths fail to experience fear. Facing the fear when the odds are in your favor makes fewer demands on courage than when the odds are against you. For example, it takes courageous decision for a shy person with poor social skills to overcome his or her immediate risk—fear of rejection—to ask someone for a date.

8. Social support.

Courageous individuals draw strength from their social network. They also provide social support to others. The availability of social support reduces anxiety and stress. After all, it feels easier to face adversity (e.g., the loss of a loved one) when you have a close friend on whom you can rely. When you have strong social support, you don’t have to use as many of your own personal resources to cope with the adversity. As with panic, courage is contagious. For example, groups with leaders and peers displaying courage have shown to have a contagion effect on their members (Walsh, 2014).

9. Self-confidence.

Self-confidence (a sense of “can-do” attitude) is an important factor. Self-confidence means believing in oneself and knowing that one has the ability to do one’s job no matter what obstacles one may face. There is a positive link between confidence and courage (Seligman, 2011). Beliefs and trust in one’s capabilities—or confidence—is a primary force in facing fears and sustained goal-directed behavior.

10. Rising to the occasion.

As the saying goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Most people are more capable of courageous actions than they realize. In our survival instinct, when the situation becomes difficult, we tend to work harder to meet the challenge. For example, a middle-age person after a loss of a spouse decides to bicycle across the country and discovers her own strength and ability to thrive. A drug addict after hitting rock bottom earns a graduate degree in addiction treatment to help others with drug problems (Hagerty, 2016). Situational demand for courage promotes courageous behavior despite the fear.

Can people learn courage?

Some view courage as a trait-like virtue occurring naturally (Peterson and Seligman, 2004). However, the successful practice of courageous behavior leads to the development of personal resources such as self-confidence to overcome obstacles. One needs to practice the courageous act until it becomes a more or less natural tendency (character change). Ultimately, courage grows into fearlessness (Pury and Lopez, 2010).


  • Biswas-Diener, R. (2012). The courage quotient. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Kidder, R. M. (2003). Moral courage. New York, NY: William Morrow.
  • Hagerty BB (2016), Life Reimagined. Riverhead books
  • May, R. (1981). Freedom and destiny. New York: Norton.
  • Miller, William Ian. (2000). The Mystery of Courage. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Peterson C, and Seligman M (2004), Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification 1st Edition. American Psychological Association / Oxford University Press.
  • Pury C. Lopez, S (2010), The Psychology of Courage: Modern Research on an Ancient Virtue, New York: American Psychological Association
  • Putman, D. (2004). Psychological courage. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  • Seligman, Martin E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
  • Sherman, Nancy (2005) Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Walsh Chris (2014), Cowardice : a brief history. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press.
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