We live in a world of 7.8 billion people, and yet differences in thinking, feeling, and behavior can be boiled down to just five personality traits (Worldometers.info, 2020).
Psychology broadly accepts that individual personality differences are explained by our degrees of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (McCrae & John, 1992).
But what if the Big Five Personality Traits, as they are known in psychology, are, in fact, six? It has been suggested that differences in ethical behavior can be better defined with reference to a trait labeled honesty–humility (Hilbig & Zettler, 2015).
This article focuses on humility as a strength, its relationship to other aspects of our psychology, and, simply put, how to be more humble.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Strengths Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help your clients realize their unique potential and create a life that feels energizing and authentic.
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Is Humility a Strength?
“In contrast to many dictionary definitions, humility does not imply low self-esteem or unassertiveness.”
– Exline & Hill, 2012
While difficult to define, humility is closely associated with our orientation toward others, an accurate representation of our abilities, and the chance to acknowledge our imperfections (Tangney, 2000, 2009).
Indeed, the honesty–humility trait has been proposed to explain our morality – sincerity, faithfulness, and honesty – and our tendency to be genuine and fair in our dealings with others (Hilbig & Zettler, 2015).
A lack of humility is key to explaining commonplace but often unacceptable immoral behavior including dishonesty, fraud, corruption, and cheating.
Strengths such as humility define not only who we are, but also what others see. They are psychological characteristics exhibited not just once, in a single situation, but across a range of contexts (Seligman, 2011). These character strengths represent “a family of positive personality traits that are morally valued and associated with the good life” (Pang & Ruch, 2019).
When Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson reviewed which traits add value to life, they compiled a classification of 24 character strengths (Niemiec & McGrath, 2019):
|Wisdom and Knowledge||Creativity, Curiosity, Judgment, Love of learning, Perspective|
|Courage||Bravery, Perseverance, Honesty, Zest|
|Humanity||Love, Kindness, Social intelligence|
|Justice||Teamwork, Fairness, Leadership|
|Temperance||Forgiveness, Humility, Prudence, Self-regulation|
|Transcendence||Appreciation of beauty and excellence, Gratitude, Hope, Humor, Spirituality|
Humility – our ability to control our desire for attention from others – sits under the virtue of temperance: “keeping yourself from acting in ways that are bad or socially undesirable” (Niemiec & McGrath, 2019).
Humility protects us from arrogance.
And yet, the definition of humility remains elusive and is sometimes, rather unsatisfactorily, explained by what it is not.
In The Power of Character Strengths: Appreciate and Ignite Your Positive Personality, Robert McGrath and Ryan Niemiec (2019) describe humility as NOT:
- Seeking the spotlight
- Drawing attention to yourself
- Seeing yourself as more special than others
Instead, a humble person is aware of their limitations, mistakes, imperfections, and knowledge gaps and yet thinks well of themselves. They know who they are without looking for praise or attention (Niemiec & McGrath, 2019).
After all, being high in humility means you put others’ needs first and let them be in the spotlight.
So, why does humility matter?
Research has confirmed that humility is important because it is linked with several favorable characteristics (Niemiec & McGrath, 2019):
- A positive self-view and good self-esteem
- Increased gratitude, forgiveness, and general health
- Being more helpful and agreeable
- Appearing less threatening to others
- Having greater emotional wellness, self-regulation, and resilience
- Being more tolerant
A Look at Humility, Kindness, and Confidence
Exline and Geyer (2004) asked 127 psychology students whether they thought of humility as a strength or a weakness.
The students consistently reported that humility is a strength favorable in all aspects of life. “They typically described humble individuals as kind, modest, and high in ability or other positive attributes” (Exline & Geyer, 2004).
Other studies have confirmed the strong association between humility and confidence and its importance in good leadership. It has even been suggested that humility should be added to the existing six core leadership traits: drive, leadership motivation, self-confidence, honesty and integrity, cognitive ability, and knowledge of the business (Oyer, 2015).
Humility is also linked to kindness and generosity, and associated with charitable donations and being thoughtful and sincere to others, even strangers (Exline & Hill, 2012).
Humility is a valuable strength, most likely shaped by and impacting many aspects of our character.
How to Be More Humble: 5 Tips
A humble person typically finds it easy to make friends. It’s likely that connections are easy because humility prevents a slide into self-serving arrogance, keeping others’ interests and needs high on the priority list (Niemiec & McGrath, 2019).
Because of the benefits humility is likely to confer, it is important to consider how it might be strengthened.
To do this, and as a result of its broad impact, it is worth considering humility’s effect on several areas of our lives.
Losing sight of humility can be too easy. We become overly familiar with our friends and loved ones and fail to consider their needs above our own.
Consider the following to redress the balance:
- Write down a time when you were at your most humble in a relationship.
- Spend time (perhaps using mindfulness journaling) considering how you could act with more humility in a relationship or introduce more modesty to future situations.
- Ask for feedback from someone close. Accept their comments as an opportunity to learn and grow.
The connections we form with our community (schools, shops, restaurants, clubs, activities, and sports) are often overlooked despite being essential to our wellbeing.
Think about how you could ensure that you are giving as much – or more – to your community as you are taking.
- Does your humility change depending on the groups within the community you are engaged with? Are you selective?
- Take time to reflect: what are you taking from and giving to the community? How might you use your strength-based skills to support the environment in which you live? For example, giving back might mean providing support to a local school or charity or setting up a group to maintain a local community space.
While humility is mostly outward looking, it is vital to consider your emotional wellbeing and how you see yourself.
- Take time to learn your strengths. Try using either the CliftonStrengths assessment or the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths survey.
- Reflect on these strengths; they define who you are and what others see. Recognize that your strengths are different and yet equal to others.
- Learning to give and receive compliments will grow your humility. Use the Accepting Compliments role-play exercise to practice the art.
Connections with nature
Undoubtedly, there are times when we feel humble, often when we are confronted with the awe of nature. And yet, you don’t have to be a climber on a rock face, a surfer on a wave, or a breath-holding free diver to feel humbled by the natural world.
Awe and a sense of absolute humility can be found in any, or all, of the following:
- Get out in nature (with others or alone) and allow yourself to experience the beauty of your surroundings. Try out mindful walking while you are there.
- Experience (safely) the sea or mountains. Accept where your control ends and nature takes over.
- Look up at the night sky and experience a sense of the vastness above.
- There are some excellent videos that offer a sense of awe. Check out this moment when a group of free divers met a pod of whales (at 3 minutes and 38 seconds) in this enchanting video accompanied by the beautiful words and voice of Alan Watts.
Finding balance is essential
Overuse and underuse of humility can be equally damaging (Niemiec & McGrath, 2019).
Humility is and should not be all or nothing. Balance, as with any personality trait, is essential, and so are timing and appropriateness.
While self-promotion is required at times – perhaps when celebrating well-earned success or pushing for new opportunities – it is essential to manage it with quiet reflection and remain aware of others’ needs.
Equally, we are unlikely to add value or use our strengths if we are overly subservient and excessively criticizing ourselves.
Strength experts Robert McGrath and Ryan Niemiec (2019) offer the following humility motto to find the golden mean:
I see my strengths and talents, but I am humble, not seeking to be the center of attention or to receive recognition.
The Wheel of Life can be an excellent place to start to find balance in your life and can be tailored as needed.
4 Ways to Be Humble at Work
While humility is often considered a virtue among religious leaders, it is regularly ignored within business.
Humility is important to confidence and valuable in its own right, and it can promote enlightened strength-based leadership (Oyer, 2015; Xu, Xu, Anderson, & Caldwell, 2019).
Humility at work can benefit both the individual and the team and improve collaborative environments.
Several simple changes can help strengthen your humility. Ask yourself the following:
Are you listening to your staff?
- Are you recognizing and appreciating what your staff does?
Listen more closely to your coworkers’ ideas and express gratitude for their input. An essential aspect of assertive communication is considering both the speaker’s and the listener’s needs.
- Does the team have an opportunity to share ideas and concerns?
Consider whether you are listening more than you are talking. Try to give others enough opportunity to provide feedback and a forum for their ideas.
Read our article on Cultivating Strengths at Work to take your virtues one step further.
Are you considering the needs of your staff?
- Are you spending time considering the needs of your team or focusing on your own?
The next time you engage, consider them as individuals.
- Is your team motivated?
Self-determination theory provides the ideal approach to ensure that someone is intrinsically motivated in what they do (Ryan & Deci, 2018). Consider the following about your staff:
- Do they feel engaged in what they are doing (relatedness) and who they are working with?
- Do they have a say in how they work (autonomy)?
- Do they have the skills they need to perform their job well (competence)?
If any of these points are absent, consider how their needs can be met to ensure that engagement and motivation are high.
7 Helpful Books
1. Authentic Happiness – Martin E. P. Seligman
Martin Seligman explains positive psychology’s approach to happiness, focusing on strengths, not weaknesses.
Happiness is available through identifying and cultivating these strengths, rather than relying on good fortune or good genes.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
In his classic work of modern psychology, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explores what it means to have optimal experiences and how they can be achieved.
By feeling more connected with where we are and what we do, we can lead more open, energized lives while feeling engaged and in control.
Find the book on Amazon.
3. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life – Mark Manson
Don’t be fooled by the name of the book.
This New York Times bestselling author makes strong and important arguments that by confronting some painful truths, we can learn to live more honestly and responsibly, with curiosity, and seek forgiveness.
Find the book on Amazon.
4. The Power of Character Strengths: Appreciate and Ignite Your Positive Personality – Ryan M. Niemiec and Robert E. McGrath
Once identified, use the Strengths Builder to boost your wellbeing.
Find the book on Amazon.
5. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World – Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams
Two good friends who happen to be religious leaders – the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu – discuss the subject of joy.
After exploring their own stories and teachings on contentment, they discuss some practices that transform joy from a fleeting emotion into a lasting way of life.
Find the book on Amazon.
6. Human Universe – Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen
One of the most effective ways to create a sense of humility is through a feeling of awe.
Human Universe, the companion to the BBC TV series, immerses the reader in the depths of our most exciting understanding of who we are and our place in the universe.
Find the book on Amazon.
7. Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership – John Dickson
Humility can often seem absent from today’s world. Yet, if we are to develop our potential as leaders, we must recognize the inherent worth of humility and develop it as one of our most vital strengths.
Humilitas explains how to embrace humility as a virtue and contribute more to the world.
Find the book on Amazon.
PositivePsychology.com’s Resources and Humility Podcast
Humility sits within a host of other related personality and character traits.
Supporting self-compassion, kindness, and self-acceptance creates a psychological environment more conducive to being humble.
- Try out the Embracing Your Humanness worksheet to remind yourself that we are all fallible and that feelings of suffering and inadequacy are part of what it means to be human.
- Finding a balance between being kind to others and ourselves is not easy. Use the How Would You Treat a Friend tool to develop warmth and compassion for yourself and others while gently silencing the inner critic.
- Humility comes from self-acceptance. Unless we are comfortable with who we are, how can we become humble? Learning to Rate Behavior Rather Than the Self encourages us to accept and be kind to ourselves despite our weaknesses and failures.
- The Evoking Kindness tool uses visualization to revisit a time when you experienced kindness from someone and the physical and emotional sensations experienced.
- When facing challenges, we often lose sight of self-love. Instead, we replace such feelings with limiting beliefs and self-critical attitudes. The Spotting Self-Love worksheet offers two short stories for reflection to better understand what self-love and self-criticism look like in practice.
- 17 Strength-Finding Exercises – If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop their strengths, this collection contains 17 strength-finding tools for practitioners. Use them to help others better understand and harness their strengths in life-enhancing ways.
PositivePsychology.com’s own Hugo and Seph talk in one of their podcast episodes about fostering humility and how it remains missing from the social justice movement. Here is their podcast episode on Exploring Humility and what it means to be humble.
A Take-Home Message
In our busy, ego-driven world, it might be easy to dismiss humility as outdated, irrelevant, or, at least, a less-than-critical virtue. However, at a time when solutions to the world’s problems are to be found in forging strong, open, and global relationships, humility may form part of the answer.
At a more individual level, humility is vital to our success at work and in our relationships. It is crucial for a happy life built upon robust and enduring relationships.
Yet, when we need or want to succeed, we may dial back on humility and push our own and others’ limits, even if only briefly. There are occasions when we need to be noticed for business or personal reasons and deserve to celebrate our individual or shared successes. These times may seem at odds with our attempts to remain humble.
Our human needs and expectations are specific and individual and vary across situations and ages. We must find and maintain a balance that works for us, those we share our lives with, and the broader communities in which we live.
Work with your clients to find their equilibrium between humility that leaves them quiet enough to hear their authentic inner voice and the boldness needed to create and grow in meaningful ways.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Strengths Exercises for free.
- Cox, B., & Cohen, A. (2014). Human universe. William Collins.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness. Rider.
- Dalai Lama, Tutu, D., & Abrams, D. C. (2016). The book of joy: Lasting happiness in a changing world. Avery.
- Dickson, J. (2018). Humilitas: A lost key to life, love, and leadership (Reprint ed.). Zondervan.
- Exline, J. J., & Geyer, A. L. (2004). Perceptions of humility: A preliminary study. Self and Identity, 3(2), 95–114.
- Exline, J. J., & Hill, P. C. (2012). Humility: A consistent and robust predictor of generosity. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 7(3), 208–218.
- Hilbig, B. E., & Zettler, I. (2015). When the cat’s away, some mice will play: A basic trait account of dishonest behavior. Journal of Research in Personality, 57, 72–88.
- Manson, M. (2016). The subtle art of not giving a f*ck: A counterintuitive approach to living a good life. Harper.
- McCrae, R. R., & John, O. P. (1992). An introduction to the five-factor model and its applications. Journal of Personality, 60(2), 175–215.
- Niemiec, R. M., & McGrath, R. E. (2019). The power of character strengths: Appreciate and ignite your positive personality. VIA Institute on Character.
- Oyer, B. J. (2015). Teacher perceptions of principals’ confidence, humility, and effectiveness. Journal of School Leadership, 25(4), 684–719.
- Pang, D., & Ruch, W. (2019). Fusing character strengths and mindfulness interventions: Benefits for job satisfaction and performance. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 24(1), 150–162.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Press.
- Seligman, M. E. (2011). Authentic happiness. Random House Australia.
- Tangney, J. P. (2000). Humility: Theoretical perspectives, empirical findings, and directions for future research. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 70–82.
- Tangney, J. P. (2009). Humility. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed.) (pp. 483–490). Oxford University Press.
- Worldometers.info. (2020). Current world population. Retrieved November 25, 2020, from https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
- Xu, F., Xu, B., Anderson, V., & Caldwell, C. (2019) Humility as enlightened leadership: A Chinese perspective. Journal of Management Development, 38(3), 158–174.