Why Having Heroes is (often) Meaningful

As humans, we strive to achieve a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives. Meaning in life is thought to constitute three key components; purpose, coherence, and significance. Unsurprisingly, people who believe their lives are meaningful experience enhanced well-being and overall life satisfaction. In essence, having meaning in life can increase positive psychological outcomes and decrease inherently negative ones. With this in mind, who wouldn’t want a life full of meaning?

Unfortunately, many variables can threaten our sense of meaning in life. Experiences such as a lack of freedom, social isolation, and boredom can actually lead to feelings of meaninglessness. It’s no exaggeration to assume that the majority of us have been victim of at least one of these negative experiences in the past few months. Consequently, identifying creative ways that we can re-establish and maintain meaning in our lives is more important than ever.

So, how do we make our lives more meaningful and defy these persistent threats to our sense of meaning? The good news is that research has shown that we can derive and maintain meaning from a multitude of psychological resources such as social connections, religion and spirituality, and prosocial behaviour.

One such important way of reigniting meaning in life is by having heroes. Heroes are commonly defined as an ‘idealised version of the self’. Those who display heroic behaviour appear to have a clear purpose and lead a life that is coherent and significant. In other words, they themselves possess a strong presence of meaning in life.

Heroes are consistently described as inspiring and motivating individuals who elevate others and boost positive feelings. They can encourage us to make manageable but meaningful changes in our lives. Take Greta Thunberg as an example. While we may not feel that it’s feasible for us to travel to different continents by boat like her, she may inspire us to make more attainable changes in our own lives such as cycling instead of driving to work. That way we are still making a change to help the environment, but equally feeling like we are doing something purposeful and significant.

Heroes can serve individuals in three vital ways (Kinsella et al., 2015):

  1. By enhancing self-efficacy and self-worth
  2. By modelling morals
  3. By protecting the safety and welfare of others

Through these three psychological functions, heroes can increase positive affect by making us feel good about ourselves. They can encourage us to engage in self-improvement strategies thus bringing us closer to our ‘true’ self. They can motivate us to engage in prosocial behaviour, promote human connection, and help us cope with psychological threats by encouraging virtues like forgiveness and hope. The list goes on. Interestingly, all of these aforementioned experiences have been linked to an increase in meaning in life.

Indeed, heroes can instil meaning in our lives by epitomising our goals and aspirations and providing us with attainable resources and pathways to achieve them. In sum, there is no better time than right now to celebrate and embrace your heroes!

References

Kinsella EL, Ritchie TD and Igou ER (2015) Lay perspectives on the social and psychological functions of heroes. Front. Psychol. 6:130. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00130

Kinsella EL, Igou ER, Ritchie TD (2019). Heroism and the Pursuit of a Meaningful Life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 59(4):474-498. doi:10.1177/0022167817701002

About the Author

Muireann O’Dea (@muireann_odea) is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Limerick (UL). She graduated from the BSc in Psychology at UL in August 2020. Her research focuses on mitigating boredom and enhancing meaning in life and well-being through positive psychology.

Keen to learn more about this topic?

If you enjoyed this blogpost, please consider registering for the Third Biennial Heroism Science conference hosted by the Department of Psychology at the University of Limerick taking place on May 27th and 28th 2021. For more details and to register, click here: https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/131235311349

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