THE BLOG
08/26/2014 08:27 am ET | Updated Oct 26, 2014

How To Be Your Own Superhero

The news is filled with inspiring stories of heroes and altruists among us, like truck driver David Frederickson, who helped save a woman and her baby from a flaming car in Mississippi. But can ordinary people follow in the footsteps of such moral giants? Yes -- and here are some practical ways to get started.

Question your automatic thoughts. When you think about helping someone in a risky situation, your brain's first reaction will often be, "Stop! Don't do it!" That's your automatic fear response kicking in, and while it might be smart to heed it some of the time (self-preservation is important, after all), take a moment to think about your decision logically. Is intervening really as dangerous as you think -- and even if you do run some risk, are you willing to accept it in order to do what's right?

Draw on past pain to serve others. It might seem hard to fathom when you're in the midst of a rough patch, but your struggles can motivate you to help people going through something similar. Psychologist Ervin Staub calls this "altruism born of suffering": People who have endured tragedy, such as a natural disaster, more often express desire to help those in trouble. If you survived an abusive relationship, for instance, you know how devastating it can be -- and that knowledge might inspire you to start a support group for battered women escaping their exes.

Set aside self-focus. As kids, a lot of us want to be heroes because we imagine the admiration we'll get from people around us. But mature heroism isn't about putting yourself on a pedestal; it's about standing up for the greater good, often at personal cost. Take Georgia school clerk Antoinette Tuff, who put her life at risk to have a deep, personal chat with an intruder who wanted to shoot kids. She talked him into dropping his gun, and because of her courageous actions, every student left school that day alive.

Love others -- all of them. Political scientist Kristen Monroe wanted to find out what made the difference between those who sheltered Jewish people during the Holocaust and those who stood by or even participated in the Nazi crimes. She found that heroic rescuers tended to see themselves as connected to all human beings, regardless of their background. When we truly identify with someone, we often want to help them, even at personal cost.

Help a kid crossing the street. Psychologist Phil Zimbardo, founder of the Heroic Imagination Project, advises would-be "heroes in training" to do small-scale good deeds -- the kind they might not get recognition for, but that are worthwhile nonetheless. He believes that when you learn to look at what you can do for people around you, you'll be better primed for future capital-H heroism.

Be a deviant for a day. Heroes must be willing to go against the grain and do things not many others would. (Take advocate Erin Brockovich, who famously worked up the courage to call out Pacific Gas & Electric for putting toxins in the water supply.) So from time to time, Zimbardo has asked students to do something purposely wacky, like painting on a mustache or wearing pajamas in public. The takeaway lesson: The wisdom of the crowd isn't all that matters -- you can flout it and get through the day just fine.

Seek out like-minded people. Just as it's easier to convince yourself to go to yoga class when you know a buddy plans to join you, it's easier to concentrate on serving others when your friends are doing the same. Groups of "real-life super heroes" throughout the country show us all how good friends can support each other in helping those in need.

Sign up for a lifesaving class. You never know when you're going to be called on to perform CPR or the Heimlich maneuver, and you might be the only person in the room who knows how. Research shows that people who've had some kind of rescue training are more likely to intervene when others are in danger. If you have the basic knowledge to resolve a high-stakes situation, you'll be able to act much more effectively.

Get involved in the community. It's not every day you get the chance to save someone from a burning building. Sometimes low-key "everyday heroism" is the most practical path--volunteering for a mentoring program, for example, or a nonprofit that helps people prepare for job interviews. The upside is that helping others makes you feel better, too: Overall, devoted volunteers are healthier and more satisfied with life than non-helpers.

Learn about real-life heroes, and let their stories move you. According to University of Southern California brain-imaging research, hearing stories of people who do inspiring things activates brain areas that help us feel empathy. When such stories truly become a part of you, they can help motivate you on your own heroic journey.

Elizabeth Svoboda is the author of What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness.