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Cultivating Heroism in Your Everyday Life

Standing up for a colleague in a heated exchange, lending resources to someone in need, helping a stranger out of a scary situation – every day, there is an opportunity to be a hero.

But sometimes we hesitate to act. This hesitation – often dubbed the bystander effect – is a well-documented psychological phenomenon that keeps people from stepping in to help a victim, even when their conscience tells them they ought to. It happens when others are around, creating a sense of diffused responsibility. "Oh, he/she will probably step in" is the general thought process that happens.

While these psychological barriers are very real, it is also possible to counter them – and cultivate personality traits that make you act heroically.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo, psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, is one of the foremost experts on the psychology behind heroism. Through the Heroic Imagination Project (or HIP) – a nonprofit that develops and implements research, education, corporate and public initiatives to inspire and encourage everyday heroism – Dr. Zimbardo and team have uncovered qualities that indicate an individual's tendency toward compassionate action. Here are a few:

They're Mindful.

No surprise here. When individuals behave and react on auto-pilot – which HIP dubs the "automatic self" – there may be negative consequences, particularly if that automatic self is influenced by groups and situations. By practicing mindfulness, you're encouraging more positive, empathetic behaviors to emerge. One study posits that mindfulness training may "deliver heroically relevant qualities, such as increased attentional functioning, enhanced primary sensory awareness, greater conflict monitoring, increased cognitive control, reduced fear response, and an increase in loving kindness and self-sacrificing behaviors."

They Have a Strong Sense of Community.

Dr. Zimbardo asserts that heroes are most effective when they're part of a network of like-minded people, to give them the "resources to bring their heroic impulses to life." Heroes are also more likely to take care of their community via volunteer work; one- third of participants in the HIP study had volunteered substantially (up to 59 hours a week, in some cases). When you already have a pro-social, humanitarian mindset, you may be more attuned to situations that could use your compassion.

They've Experienced Adversity.

Those who have experienced their own disaster or personal trauma are more likely to act heroically, according to HIP's research. It's easy to see why – there's a strong correlation between enduring hardship and treating others with compassion. Reflecting on your own challenges could make you more empathetic to others, and identifying with their hardships may prompt you to offer a helping hand.

How do you push yourself to be more heroic in your everyday life? For inspiration, check out Dignity Health's latest found footage spot – featuring an example of everyday heroism in action.

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