We don’t always celebrate our heroes in Britain, but 2012 seems to have been one of those rare years when we did – and never more than in the summer, when the Olympics turned my home city of London into a summer-long festival of heroes.

Like so many others, I cheered enthusiastically for the likes of Bradley Higgins and Jessica Ennis, whose playful but determined efforts provided a delightful relief after years of financial crisis and conflict overseas. But are they my heroes? Well, I hate to say it but I’m not sure they are. I see many heroic qualities in them, but speaking entirely personally, I never quite mustered the same awe-struck veneration for Higgins and Ennis as I once did for Jeff Hopkins, who played at the back for Fulham Football Club in the 1980s.

As a teenager, I considered myself blessed (I’m not overstating it) to have carried Hopkins on my shoulders, upon invading the pitch after the last match of the season, when Fulham were promoted out of the Third Division. It seems slightly ridiculous to me now, but that’s how it was, and I see no point in judging my younger self.

If I no longer venerate Hopkins, that’s not because he did anything wrong. I just grew up. Heroes embody something we aspire to – and I no longer aspire to a career as a professional footballer. For many young people, rightly, Higgins and Ennis are massive heroes. Just not for me. Nor does James Bond – another of my childhood heroes, and another hero of 2012 – quite do it for me any more. Puff! Another one gone.

To say this is to risk seeming like a grouch. But I’m not against heroes. On the contrary: I’m very much in favour. I have many heroes of my own. We all have heroes. Some might not want to admit it, worried that to have heroes looks like weakness. Some may worry that their heroes may not seem “heroic” enough to others. Some may not even realise they have heroes.

But if you look carefully, you’ll find them – because heroes fill our lives with meaning. They populate our imagination with qualities that we secretly (or not so secretly) see in ourselves. To lack heroes is to lack purpose – to lead your life without any sense of human value or potential. Even the toughest cynic has heroes: people who demonstrate monumental, towering cynicism.

If this seems like a grand claim, perhaps we have a slightly different understanding of the word hero. So, to be clear: I don’t put my heroes on a pedestal. I don’t pictures of them all on my walls. But I do hold them in high esteem, and think of them often – not deliberately, like prayer, but as and when they pop into my mind.

I recently drew up a list of my heroes – from the present-day and right back to childhood. I won’t tell you all the names, because everybody’s list would be different, and you don’t really want to know mine. Several names might well appear on your list too – Gandhi, Luke Skywalker, Picasso. But I doubt very much that your list will include Hopkins, or Gyles Brandreth, the TV and radio pundit who was briefly a Tory MP.

It’s often said that you should avoid meeting your heroes, because they can only disappoint you. And there have been times when I’ve been disappointed to meet mine. But I’ve also met people I expected not to like very much, and been wowed. Take Richard Gere, an actor I admired as a child in An Officer And A Gentleman, but later went off. Meeting him and following him around a few years ago as a magazine interviewer, I found him enormously impressive. I wrote a story that ran under the headline: How Richard Gere Changed My Life.

Eastern tradition recommends that we keep at least three mountains between us and our guru. That way, we will not become disillusioned by the sight of them picking their nose – or worse. But this doesn’t only happen when we meet people face to face. Similar disappointment can come second-hand, when we see or hear something about people we hitherto admired.

Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France winner who was revealed this year to have cheated his way to victory, provides just one example of this. One of the reasons he got away with it for so long is precisely because we, as fans, cling tightly to the idea that heroes are heroes, and resist for as long as possible hearing anything bad about them.

The central role of hero was recognised by the philosopher, Hegel, who personalised Napoleon as the incarnation of the Zeitgeist. The historian Thomas Carlyle went further, arguing that history is essentially little more than the biography of a few great men, heroic individuals such as Oliver Cromwell or Frederick the Great. But the “great man” theory of history was given a massive shove by, among others, the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who argued that history is more accurately considered to be an infinitely large number of infinitesimally small actions that we all do, and don’t do, every day.

So who needs heroes?

Well, we all do. As human beings we are unable to view the world from any perspective but a personal one, and the hero in any story is first and foremost a symbolic representation of the person who is experiencing the story while reading, listening or watching. Think of the last time you read a novel, or watched a film. It would be impossible fully to enjoy the reading, or the viewing, if you didn’t allow yourself to believe in the hero – if only for the duration.

The American researcher Brene Brown has argued persuasively (on TED, and elsewhere) that when we make ourselves vulnerable we experience that as weakness – but that when others make themselves vulnerable we admire their courage. That’s what heroes do: they make themselves vulnerable. We grant them heroic status when they do something that we perceive to be an unjustified risk (for some greater good, rather than for strictly selfish reasons). Sometimes that means tackling baddies – but it might also involve standing up for something they believe in.

Years before Brown, the writer Joseph Campbell argued something similar in his ground-breaking book The Hero With A Thousand Faces: many of the fundamental stories that give our lives meaning – in religious texts, myths, legends and fairy tales – are built upon a heroic archetype that recurs all round the world and throughout history. In a nutshell, Campbell’s hero is somebody who goes out into the world, often unwillingly, to overcome a frightful enemy or obstacle, and having overcome it returns home to applause. Campbell’s influence on Hollywood scriptwriters is widely acknowledged.

One of the main criticism raised against Campbell’s work is that he leaves out women. And I should confess that the first time I drew up my own “all-time list”, in preparation for writing this article, there were no women in it. None!

Somewhat defensively, I concluded that, since we choose heroes to reflect something we would like to see in ourselves, I naturally tend look for that in men. But it didn’t sound very convincing.

Unsatisfied, I sent out a tweet asking whether others included among their heroes many (any?) people of the opposite sex. Many women were prepared to acknowledge male heroes. Fewer men named women. But those who did reminded me of countless, shameful, oversights. How could I have forgotten (among others) Camila Batmanghelidjh, Aung San Suu Kyi, Rosa Parks, George Eliot, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Elizabeth II, Vivienne Westwood, Miriam Margolyes, Boudicca, and Pippi Longstocking?