Build Your Courage by Learning from The Hunger Games
April 5, 2012 by Dr. Ryan Niemiec ·
This movie can teach us ways to increase our courage.
No doubt the premise of The Hunger Games is awful and disturbing – a society in which children must kill other children until there is only 1 survivor. It’s a society in which the authoritarian Capitol tries hard to glorify this process and make the various cultures (the 12 Districts) value the process of killing. They succeed with some (the seemingly more wealthy people who bet on the “games”) and fail with others (the poor and working class districts who suffer and feel controlled by the Capitol).
Can a film that starts from such amoral grounds still offer something of substance to its viewers? Can viewers take the wider perspective and find something redeemable in the film?
I propose that we should not take an all-or-none, love-it or hate-it approach with this movie. There are some useful lessons, particularly from the vantage of character strengths, namely the strength of bravery (courage).
Bravery is a character strength that involves exercising the will to face our fears. The film’s protagonist, Katniss, has fears that are physical (the intimidating presence of the threatening character of Cato), psychological (the fear of intimacy with Peeta), and existential (the fear of death). Catniss uses her bravery strength in order to face each of these fears.
She has a lot of help along the way – from supportive sponsors, an underdog community cheering her on (District 12), and fellow children who save her life at different times (e.g., Rue, Thresh, and Peeta). In addition, she has a personal life coach – Cinna.
Life coaches are certified professionals who help their clients make the most of their existing resources (their character strengths) in order to achieve their goals and maximize their potential. Cinna is technically Katniss’s stylist, but he also acts as her personal life coach. He supports her, encourages her, reframes problems for her, and expresses his confidence in her. Most important, he helps Katniss to see her strengths of character. This is the catalyst of inspiration that motivates Katniss to survive.
In an early scene, Cinna actually uses a research-based approach to boost Katniss’ character strength of bravery – the approach of labeling a behavior as courageous. When Katniss is feeling overwhelmed and upset, Cinna tells her how courageous he finds her to be and offers her a specific example. In the very next scene, we see that this idea has taken form in Katniss’s mind and she claims it, confidently referring to herself as brave and courageous. This is instrumental in not only building up her inner strength for the upcoming battles but is also a step forward in coming to terms with who she is (an adolescent who is brave down to the core of her being, as evidenced by her original self-sacrificial action to take the place of her sister, Primrose, at the “games”).
This gives us, the viewers, an opportunity to ponder: Have we claimed our courage lately? If we look back over the recent weeks we can likely find examples of bravery. Perhaps we spoke up at a meeting for someone that was being ridiculed (moral bravery)? Maybe we decided to confront and help manage a work conflict between co-workers (physical bravery)? Or perhaps we turned inward to face one of our own struggles, such as our personal stubbornness, difficulty with anger, or a tendency to blame others (psychological bravery)?
Science tells us we need to call ourselves out on what is best in us, and not be satisfied with solely making note of our weaknesses and struggles. We can benefit from becoming more aware of our strengths of character and linking these strengths with actions we have taken in the past or are currently taking. Labeling – and claiming bravery – is a powerful first step.
Hannah, S. T., Sweeney, P. J., & Lester, P. B. (2007). Toward a courageous mindset: The subjective act and experience of courage. Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(2), 129-135.
Putnam, D. (1997). Psychological courage. Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology, 4, 1–11.
Pury, C. L. S., & Kowalski, R. M. (2007). Human strengths, courageous actions, and general and personal courage. Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(2), 120-128.