Have you ever wanted to be more brave, courageous, and bold?
Think of what you could do if you had the courage to step out on a limb and push beyond your fears?
When it comes to my personal level of courage, I have came a long way over the last few years. I am willing to take more risks, push beyond my self-imposed limitations, and expand my view of what is possible in life.
Still, I’m always interested in how I can be more confident, determined, and steadfast as I pursue further aspirations.
I was fortunate to come across a new book that provides the insight and information about how to do just this.
The book is called The Courage Quotient by psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener. Dr. Biswas-Diener is known as the “Indiana Jones of Positive Psychology,” and I have been a huge fan of his work in the field of positive psychology coaching.
His new book explores what psychological research is revealing about how to increase courage and be braver person, and below is an interview where we delve deeper into his new book and the science of courage.
For starters, what is courage as it’s defined in this book?
When many people think of courage their minds jump directly to physical acts of bravery. Courage includes physical bravery but is much more than that.
I personally use the definition that for an act to be considered courageous it must meet certain criteria: 1) fear must be present, 2) there must be the perception of a personal risk, 3) the outcome of action must be uncertain and 4) a person decides to take action despite numbers one through three. Some people also argue for an additional criterion that holds that courage is defined by an action being moral or desirable.
What was your motivation to write this book and explore courage as its focal point?
My initial interest in courage is personal rather than professional. I have, historically, been a bit of a risk taker myself and have long admired other risk takers ranging from explorers to scientific pioneers. I have seen terrific life rewards come to those who are willing to take risks and who get away with it. And I have seen the converse as well: people who don’t live a full life because they are paralyzed by the specter of failure.
So I began looking at the research literature in general, and the positive psychology literature specifically, and I was surprised to see how little there was. There are certainly experts out there, such as Cynthia Pury, but courage is just not an area of scientific attention in the way happiness or optimism are.
It is a topic that is still relegated largely to philosophical attention and much of what we know about it comes from this intellectual tradition. Researching for The Courage Quotient was, therefore, a bit like going on a treasure hunt as I sifted through research from sociology, military studies, psychology and other disciplines.
What new research findings with courage does the book explore that you feel are most exciting for applied positive psychology?
For as much attention as positive psychologists – myself included – give to topics such as happiness, I am shocked by the dearth of attention to bravery. It is so important, and so basic to living a good, successful life, that you would think there would be new articles published on the subject every month.
This is, I suppose, my roundabout way of saying that many, many of the research findings discussed in the courage quotient are pretty new to public view. Although they have appeared in academic journals, I rarely hear these findings discussed by lay people: executives report more courage than do police officers or other emergency personnel, for example. Similarly, women are more likely than men to practice many forms of bravery including live organ donations and volunteering abroad.
What is the courage quotient and how we can test our own?
There are, in essence, two distinct aspects to courage. The first is managing fear. This is the part that most folks consider when they are thinking about bravery. The second aspect is boosting your willingness to act.
At first glance, it appears that these two concepts are directly linked but they are not. A person can boost her willingness to act without lowering or managing her level of fear at all, for example. Or a person can suppress fear without raising her absolute level of willingness to act. So these two concepts to not act like a see-saw where when one goes up the other goes down.
Being courageous, I argue in the book, is largely about learning skills related to both of these processes. Managing fear, for instance, can be about physiological control through breathing or meditation. Boosting the willingness to act, by contrast, can be about removing blocks to forward momentum such as accepting the inevitability (and even usefulness) of occasional failure.
A person’s courage quotient is essentially their willingness to act divided by their fear. You always need the former to be larger than the latter for brave action to occur. I offer an assessment in the book but I also think daily life gives us ample opportunity to test ourselves!
What is “thinking magically” and how does it allow us to increase courage?
This was one of the surprises for me as an expert in positive psychology. While I was writing the book I came across a new article by one of my colleagues in Europe who researched magical beliefs. She found, among other things, that people performed better on memory tasks and at a golf putting task if they had a lucky charm.
I was absolutely thrilled by this notion and began wondering about the natural human capacity for magical thinking.
The more I looked into the issue the more I realized that people from virtually every walk of life have some type of lucky charm. For some folks it is a lucky tie or pair of socks or confidence boosting underwear. For others it is a photograph of a deceased loved one or a special piece of jewelry. Regardless of the specifics I realized that people harness this ability to think in magical ways to make themselves braver and take on threatening situations such as a fear of flying or public speaking.
I’ll admit, this particular chapter was one of the ones that intrigued me the most.
Lastly, what one thing can readers start doing today to be more courageous?
Embrace failure. I separate failure into “high stakes” and “low stakes” failures. You don’t want high stakes failure such as car accidents, bankruptcy, incorrect diagnoses, or other calamitous events. Low stakes failures, on the other hand, should be welcomed as important learning opportunities.
At work I often tell my employees to go out and engage in a little failure. Chances are, in nearly every aspect of your life you honed your proficiency by making small mistakes and learning from them. Don’t let the fear of small or short term failures hold you back from the life you want or a life that will benefit others.
Hopefully this interview expands your personal understanding of what courage is and how you can begin to live a life of greater fulfillment and significance.
You can connect with Dr. Biswas-Diener further and learn about his work through his organization Positive Acorn.