Robert: That’s an awesome question. Kids always ask the best questions. I’d say we could call it a will power like a candle power is a unit of light. A will power would be a unit of courage, because in large part, courage is the will to action despite fear. The strengths constellation of self-regulation and willpower is really the crux of courage.
Lisa: To prepare for our interview, I asked my children for their questions about courage. My 10-year-old wanted to know, “How do you measure courage? What would be a unit of courage?”
Lisa: The VIA strengths assessment includes courage. How does your definition differ?
Robert: One of the six universal virtues in the VIA assessment is Bravery, and it has been subdivided into smaller pieces, like authenticity. But when I was looking at the work that others have done on courage, I realized that there were certain hallmark features of courage: there has to be perceived personal risk, the presence of fear, and an uncertain outcome. Those are the three critical components. That’s a very psychological definition which is different from what the VIA might say. Courage is an action that takes place despite the fear, the risk, and the uncertainty.
Robert: We do think first about the most physical acts of courage. They seem to be the easiest to understand. Yet, one executive said that the most courageous thing he does is to hire people. When you hire people, you invest money in them, you change your team dynamics, you change your culture. It takes quite a bit of courage to hire someone. Firing someone is more straightforward, and the outcome is much more known. You might worry in the very short-term about an emotional backlash, but that’s pretty tame because six months down the road, there isn’t much consequence. When you hire someone, there could be enormous consequences six months down the road. Another example that I came up with was the idea of beginning new things: going to school, getting a new job, marrying someone, moving to a new city. These are very everyday occurrences, but they are acts of optimism and bravery.
Lisa: Your initial examples of courage are what people might expect, typical stories about physical courage. What was the most unusual example you came across in writing your book?
Lisa: Are there ranges also within the day-to-day?
Robert: This starts to get to one of my favorite topics about courage, which is the notion of courage blindness. We tend to write off our own history of bravery by saying, “Oh I just did what anyone would have done,” or “If I were really brave, I would have…” But these comparisons belittle valid acts of bravery.
Lisa: What benefit would people get from honoring their own courageous stories?
Robert: Essentially, the same benefits that they would derive from understanding their strengths in general: self-regard, self-esteem, more energy, and perseverance towards difficult tasks. This helps people see themselves in their own best light.
Lisa: What would you say is really important about courage overall?
Robert: When I inscribe the book for people, I’ve been writing, “Courage is the shortest route to the good life.” I think courage is synonymous with the good life. Fears are all very normal and rational, but fear holds us back from actions that would make life rich and rewarding. People who live a fully engaged life are exhibiting some measure of courage. Courage indicates a willingness to try.
However fear is also a gift, and self-doubt is a gift with enormous signaling value. Sometimes we are doubtful because it’s healthy to question ourselves. That sort of reflection is important in coaching and a great process to engage in. But you don’t want that fear to hold you back, unless it should. There is definitely a balancing act. Courage is also wisdom: knowing when to act and when not to act.
Robert: This echoes my general thinking about character traits. I think of them as potentials. They are dormant, but not equally dormant in each person. Someone who is creative is more prone to creativity. The person who is courageous is more prone to courage.
Lisa: Some people say that courage only emerges when you need it. Is it an actual character trait that exemplifies people over time?
It doesn’t mean that you will be courageous in every situation all of the time. Even a minor situational change, like a few more seconds to think and act, could make a big difference. Think of the person who won the courage prize. If any one of several things had been different, she might have acted in a different way.
Lisa: Would you offer the courage prize again?
Robert: Well as you saw it wasn’t a great success! I had very few nominations. The winner exhibited courage blindness, and some people were highly critical of me for it!
Lisa: Would you encourage people to increase their courage quotients?
Robert: I do. If you recognize that your willingness to act has to outweigh your fear, and that life is a series of actions, then yes, people should increase their courage quotients. Unless you think you’re already optimally courageous, but most of us are not optimally courageous across all domains all of the time. Some people are over-confident, or too courageous.
Lisa: What is the most misunderstood aspect of courage?
Robert: It’s a common misconception that courage is only physical. Also, people believe that courage is a trait and can’t be learned. People also wrongly believe that courage is something that other people have, and they don’t. I defy you to show me someone who hasn’t shown courage at some point.
Robert: No, they weren’t. And this is a sticky question that I haven’t been able to resolve. There is an American notion that facing a chronic illness is courageous. Yet a European told me that’s crazy: there is no act of heroism in facing illness. What else could you do? That’s not a politically correct thing to say around here, but there may be something to it. If we say that people facing chronic illness are brave, we need to substantiate it. Most of the nominees for the courage prize were people facing chronic pain or illness. Yet is it fair to saddle the mantle of courage on these patients? It might make for interesting research. If you present a fictitious cancer patient to people, but manipulate the data to change her age, for example, would that change how courageous they thought she was? Having cancer does not automatically qualify you as being brave.
Lisa: Were most nominees in your courage prize for physical courage?
I also make the argument in the book that kids aren’t brave, and people freak out about that. But Chris Peterson did studies asking parents what character strengths they think their children have, and only a few selected Courage. Kids are generally fearful. When I wrote this, I thought that it was pretty uncontroversial. Courage is about self-regulation, and so children won’t be as self-regulated as adults – duh! But it hit such a button in people.
Lisa: But if we say children are more fearful, are they being courageous by children standards, where it might not be courageous by adult standards?
Robert: Well sure, but kids are generally held back by fears: new foods, going into the basement, jumping into the pool. Of course kids can be brave, but it’s not their defining characteristic.
Lisa: Who is the most courageous person you know?
Robert:That’s a great question. Among intellectual pioneers, I know a number of very courageous people, including my father. But that’s an easy answer.I’ll give you a better answer from positive psychology: Jon Haidt. I think he’s extraordinary. He has really taken intellectual risks in ways that I have not seen many other people take. He has a paper out that essentially asks if academia is skewed towards liberalism and he says, yes, it’s liberal. He’s speaking out against his own in-group. In some ways, he’s an intellectual academic whistle-blower, about hypocrisy and ideas that we have about our own rightness. I think it’s amazing that he is willing to take that risk and he’s come under huge attack for it. It has probably changed him as a person. He has tremendous resolve in this idea, and his ideas don’t always land well with people, especially as he’s often speaking with liberal audiences.
Lisa: When Seligman started the field of positive psychology, he said he didn’t want to see a journal of positive psychology, but we now have that and more. Would you ever want to see a journal dedicated to courage?
Robert: I’ve never been asked that before. What a great question. Do I think that courage is a broad enough umbrella that it would merit continued research and assessment? Yes, I do. But it’s interesting how little there is on courage. If you do a PsycInfo search, there isn’t much out there. Everyone has a book on happiness, and there is lots of research on happiness. There are a gazillion books on every possible slant on happiness. It’s a concern that touches us all, of course. And I think that courage is every bit as important as happiness. Without courage, you can’t have a good or full life. Courage is a topic that deserves not just my book, but twenty best-selling books.
Editor’s note: Lisa’s interview with Robert Biswas Diener appears in the chapter on Bravery in Character Strengths Matter.
Biswas-Diener, R. (2012). The Courage Quotient. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Pantheon Press.
Haidt, J. & Graham, J. (2007). When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98-116.
Professor Alex Linley, picture from report of his swim across Britain’s coldest lake to raise £12,000 for Birmingham Children’s Hospital, which saved his daughter’s life.
Getting married and starting a new family courtesy of Sally Crossthwaite
Into the fire! courtesy of James Hernandez
Your tile matters – tiles by cancer patients, adult and children courtesy of William Hutton
Jon Haidt picture from Ethical Systems