At first sight, the ancient virtue of humility is not a particularly appealing one.
Deriving from humus (earth), it appears to clash with our current valuation of self-worth and self-realization.
But humility has nothing to do with meekness or weakness. And neither does it mean being self-effacing or submissive. Humility is an attitude of spiritual modesty that comes from understanding our place in the larger order of things. It entails not taking our desires, successes, and failings too seriously.
In the past decade, in particular, psychologists have rediscovered the importance of humility. They have established fascinating links between humility and our ability to learn, to be effective leaders, and our readiness to engage in pro-social behavior.
Adopting a more humble mindset increases our overall psychological wellbeing and ensures our social functioning. Last but not least, humility is a perfect antidote to the self-fixated spirit of our age.
This article contains:
- The History of Humility
- What Is Humility In Psychology?
- Humility As A Character Strength
- Why Is Humility Important?
- 4 Real-Life Examples
- How To Practice Humility
- 5 Exercises For Fostering Humility
- 4 Tips For Raising a Humble Kid
- Techniques For Humble Leadership and Workplace
- The Importance Of Humility In Relationships
- 2 Books On The Topic
- A Take-Home Message
The History of Humility
Humility is a core value in many ancient ethical and theological frameworks. The Confucian form of humility, for example, is profoundly other-oriented in spirit, consistently valuing the social good more highly than the satisfaction of our individual aspirations. In this ancient Chinese form, humility can significantly enhance social cohesion and our sense of belonging.
The Greek philosopher Socrates held that wisdom is above all, knowing what we don’t know. He taught an intellectual form of humility that freely acknowledges the gaps in our knowledge, and that humbly seeks to address our blind spots.
Aristotle understood humility as a moral virtue, sandwiched between the vices of arrogance and moral weakness. Like Socrates, he believed that humility must include accurate self-knowledge and a generous acknowledgment of the qualities of others that avoids distortion and extremes.
An accurate understanding of our strengths and weaknesses is still a core feature of current definitions of humility.
Christian humility is linked to self-abnegation, shame, and sin, and may therefore not be to everyone’s taste. However, the ancient theologians can still help us to avoid arrogance and pretentiousness. They remind us that we are members of a species that is far from perfect, and urge us to be mindful of the limited role we each have to play in the fate of humanity as a whole.
Through the centuries, the importance of humility as moral character virtue has faded. However, psychological studies of humility have surged in the last two decades (see Worthington et al., 2017a). This renewed interest in humility is, in no small part, a counter-reaction to what the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic (2009) Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell have described as our “age of entitlement.”
Today, self-realization and enhancing our self-worth are our highest aspirations. Precisely because it provides an antidote to many worrying tendencies of our age, such as arrogance, greed, and self-centeredness (all of which also have devastating consequences for our democracies and our planet), humility is experiencing a much-needed revival.
What Is Humility In Psychology?
We can understand humility not just as a virtue but also as a psychological trait. At a basic level, humility relates to the degree to which we value and promote our interests above others.
Capturing our other-orientation, it is closely related to modesty and fairness, but also our interest in wealth and other signs of status, and our inclination to self-promotion. Crucially, it also involves seeing ourselves accurately – not thinking of ourselves more highly (or, for that matter, lowly) than is appropriate.
Everett Worthington, Don Davis, and Joshua Hook understand humility as made up of three parts:
- accurate self-perception,
- modest self-portrayal, and
- an other-oriented relational stance. (2017a, p. 3)
They note that the recent growth in humility-focused studies coincided with the rise of positive psychology, and frustration with the limitations of purely individualistic virtues. Alongside compassion, forgiveness, altruism, gratitude, and empathy, humility belongs to “a cluster of virtues that bind society together.” (2017a, p. 3)
Worthington et al. further divide humility into general humility and more specific kinds of humility. These include intellectual humility (relating to an openness about our views, beliefs, and opinions) and cultural humility (an ability to acknowledge and learn from the achievements of other cultures). (2017a, p. 4; see also Hazlett, 2012; and Davis et al., 2015)
Other sub-types of humility are political and spiritual humility.
While other-orientedness is a core interpersonal feature of humility, June Tangney (2000, 2009) has identified six intrapersonal aspects of humility. They include:
- a willingness to see ourselves truthfully,
- an accurate perception of our place in the world,
- an ability to acknowledge our mistakes and limitations,
- low self-focus, and
- an appreciation of the value of all things.
Peter Hill and Elizabeth K. Laney (2017), finally, understand humility as involving a quiet ego. (see also Kesebir, 2014)
Humility As A Character Strength
We can also understand humility as a character strength. As such, it is an essential component of moral character that is manifested in modesty, being empathetic, acknowledging and respecting others at a deeper level, and accurately understanding as well as owning our limitations (Harvey and Pauwels, 2004).
As a character strength, humility can be viewed as the opposite of pride, arrogance, and an inflated sense of our importance and talents. It is based on a fundamentally caring and compassionate attitude towards others.
Finally, we may also think of humility as a specific mindset. After all, it is a crucial aspect of what Carol Dweck has described as the “growth mindset” (2006).
In Dweck’s framework, humility not just entails admitting our shortcomings but actively seeking to overcome them. It is about a general readiness to learn best practices from others, and also to learn from our failures. (see also Syed 2015)
Humility is, therefore, intricately related to learning and teachability – a way of being that embraces constant self-correction and self-improvement.
Why Is Humility Important?
As David Robson (2020) has shown, recent psychological research has proven that the more humble among us possess a large number of advantages.
A humble mindset has significant positive effects on our cognitive, interpersonal, and decision-making skills. Humility is directly related to our ability and willingness to learn. Humble people are better learners and problem solvers.
Humble students who are genuinely open to feedback often overtake their naturally more talented peers who think so highly of their own abilities that they reject all advice. Some studies have found that humility is more important as a predictive performance indicator than IQ. (Owens et al., 2013; Krumrei-Manusco et al., 2019)
Humility in our leaders, moreover, fosters trust, engagement, creative strategic thinking, and generally boosts performance (Rego et al., 2017; Ou et al., 2020; Cojuharenco and Karelaia 2020). Humility is also related to a general increase in positive emotions. Moreover, humility fosters self-forgiveness (Onody, Woodyatt, Wenzel, Cibich, Sheldon, & Cornish, 2020).
Besides, there are indications that humility strengthens various social functions and bonds. As a consequence of experiencing less stress and fewer negative experiences with others, humility might not just be related to better mental health, but also better physical health. (Worthington 2017a, p. 7)
Last but not least, a lack of cultural humility is associated with xenophobia, the fear and hatred of foreigners. Humility, by contrast, is associated with xenophilia, an attraction to foreign cultures.
Those of us who lack cultural humility is more prone to make assumptions about others, to feel superior to them, and dramatically to overvalue our knowledge and talents in comparison to others. (see Hook et al., 2013; and Barbarino & Stürmer, 2016)
4 Real-Life Examples
The most famous trio of truly humble people without any doubt is Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa. All of them heroically dedicated their energies and time to serving their ideals, tirelessly working for improving the living conditions for other people.
Yet they remained modest and unpretentious about their astounding achievements and never tied them to their own personalities. They humbly served not their egos, but instead a greater external cause.
Donald Trump, by stark contrast, is a real-life example of someone who is lacking in humility. Defined by narcissistic entitlement and a vastly inflated sense of his talents, his defining features are self-absorption, high emotional reactivity, a desire to dominate, a proclivity toward sexual harassment, prejudice, bullying, vengefulness, and a strong belief in survival of the fittest politics.
As Worthington et al. have shown (2017a, p. 7), all of these traits are negatively correlated with humility. Rather than admitting his errors, Trump seeks to demolish the reputation of those who draw attention to them.
The full social cost of electing such an unhumble leader is only beginning to become apparent in the US. Years of vital climate change progress have been undone, and race relations are at a new low. It is not a coincidence that America’s COVID-19 death toll (which at the time of writing has surpassed 170,000) is the highest in the world.
How To Practice Humility
We need to begin by developing an accurate understanding of our strengths and weaknesses.
Then we must own our imperfections. When we do, we no longer have to waste our energy on hiding them from others, but can instead seek to learn to live with them productively or even to overcome them.
Paradoxically, a stubbornly low opinion of ourselves is also in contradiction to a humble view of ourselves. Extremely low self-esteem, just as a narcissistic overvaluation of our talents, lacks accuracy. It is just an inverted form of self-obsession, another way of fixating on ourselves rather than on directing our attention outwards and towards others.
Although we are the subject in our world, we must remember that we are an object in everybody else’s. We are not the center of the universe. This includes adjusting our perspective. Our woes and desires become ever more insignificant, the more we step back from them and consider the bigger picture. Our time on this planet is limited. Our works and achievements are transient.
We are all parts of structures that are larger than ourselves – couples, families, communities, nations, the organizations for which we work, the human species. We should never forget the many teams of which we are a part – small and large. Sometimes, it is apt to privilege the needs of our teams over our individual desires.
We must stay curious and open to learning. We can learn from anyone and everything at all times. We can learn from friends and family, our children, and people who master specific skills.
We have much to learn from other cultures and our ancestors. We can learn precious lessons from animals and even plants.
Humor is a powerful tool. We can all benefit from laughing more about ourselves and our imperfections.
5 Exercises For Fostering Humility
Exercises that hone gratitude and appreciation can boost a humble state of mind. A great starting point is PositivePsychology.com’s “Gratitude for Important People” exercise. It invites us to value our important relationships with others. It encourages us to think about the people who have influenced us most positively in our lives, to truly appreciate their contribution, and to articulate our gratitude.
“Increasing Awareness of Complaining” is another beneficial tool. The underlying assumption of this exercise is that complaining is the opposite of gratitude. The intervention is designed to enhance self-monitoring, and, ultimately, to enable us to stop complaining so much and develop a more appreciative mindset. It entails wearing a bracelet and moving the bracelet to the other arm whenever we notice we are complaining.
Another classic exercise is “The Three Good Things” exercise, also known as “The Three Blessings.” This exercise asks us to write down three things that went well and reflecting on these things at the end of each day.
“Little Gratitude Habits” includes a list of small but significant habits that aim to generate a more grateful mindset.
Finally, we have much to learn from the Romantics. They held nature in the highest esteem. They knew it as an awe-inspiring force, a manifestation of the sublime that reminds us of our relative insignificance in the greater scheme of things.
Nature has curative powers. It can put us back in our place. We can experience a powerfully self-importance-correcting sense of awe by looking out to sea, by peeping down the edges of dramatic cliffs, by touching the ancient trunks of towering trees, by viewing waterfalls, fast-flowing rivers, and still, deep ponds.
We can feel humbled when we are reminded of the force of the elements – battered by strong winds, drained by the heavens, or when we see zigzagging lightning light up the night sky.
4 Tips For Raising a Humble Kid
Children learn by copying.
The most effective way of teaching our children humility is by modeling it ourselves. We can show them what humility looks like in action daily.
While seeking to foster healthy self-esteem, we should not overinflate our children’s sense of importance. And nor should we twist their view of their own talents. This is a very tricky balance to strike.
We can approximate this ideal by trying to praise effort over results, and by fostering a growth mindset (Dweck 2006). This includes honing our children’s ability to learn from failure and teaching them to see failure as a natural part of any meaningful learning process.
We can show our children other ways of seeing the world and thinking about things. Our best tools are books, films, and works of art. By exposing them to radically different world-views, and talking about the discrepancies they notice open-mindedly, we can alert them to the fact that their way of viewing the world is not the only one. And nor is ours.
We, too, can learn much from our children in turn and should tell them so when we do.
Finally, gratitude exercises work with children, too. We can, for starters, simply ask them to name one thing for which they have been particularly grateful today.
Techniques For Humble Leadership and Workplace
Jim Collins, in Good to Great (2001), has demonstrated that the most outstanding leaders are also the most humble. The best leaders combine professional will with personal humility. They are often “self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy” (2001, p. 12) – always privileging the institutions they serve over their egos.
These leaders believe in human development. They do not crave credit, nor do they constantly need to show how great they are, or undermine others to feel powerful. They are instead relentlessly trying to improve and to learn from their failures. By modeling humility, they create a humble working culture in their organizations.
Bradley Owens writes that humble leaders are essentially self-transcendent. Humble leaders “have successfully tempered or tamed the ego and embraced a leadership perspective that seeks to elevate everyone.” (quoted in Aten 2019) They are teachable, eager to learn, willing to see themselves accurately, and able to praise those around them. They foster in their workforce hope, efficacy, resilience, and optimism (Owens et al., 2018).
Humble leaders, moreover “are more likely to see failure as just a part of the developmental process. Since humble leaders don’t try to keep up appearances or power postures, it is less distressing and thus easier to recover when things don’t go well.” (quoted in Aten 2019)
The Importance Of Humility In Relationships
The same principle applies to relationships.
In relationships, too, the key is to prioritize what the team needs, rather than just the desires of one partner.
Worthington et al. (2017a) define relational humility as our “ability and capacity to prioritize the needs of the relationship. It requires being sympathetic to the other person in the relationship and seeking to consider his or her fundamental needs,” as well as “shaping our behavior to elevate the other person’s agenda.” (Worthington et al., 2017a, p. 9)
Humility in relationships can be transformational when we move beyond our selfish preferences and consider not just our partner’s wellbeing, but the wellbeing of the partnership. Relationship humility builds trust, commitment, and persistence. (Worthington et al., 2017a, p. 12)
2 Books On The Topic
The best starting point for humility research is the Handbook of Humility (New York: Routledge, 2017), edited by Everett Worthington, Don Davis, and Joshua Hook.
It features a very readable introduction and epilogue that provide a fine overview of the growing field of humility research and its main findings so far, as well as numerous chapters on specific features of and perspectives on humility.
Available on Amazon.
The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Humility, edited by Mark Alfano, Michael P. Lynch, and Alessandra Tanesini (London: Routledge, 2020), presents a comprehensive overview of the philosophy of humility.
It covers theories and the ethics and politics of humility, as well as humility in religious thought and the psychology of humility.
Available on Amazon.
A Take-Home Message
It is evident that the ancient virtue of humility is experiencing a long-overdue revival. Not only has humility research proliferated in the past years, but there is a mounting body of evidence that demonstrates just how vital humility is for all of us: it is closely correlated with learning, outstanding leadership, various pro-social behaviors, and with our ability to forge deeper bonds with others.
Humility has the potential to be a panacea for many of our most pressing political problems today, as well as for the global environmental challenges we face. Last but by no means least, humility is also merely a highly likable trait. We are much more attracted to those amongst us who are not self-centered, arrogant, pretentious, or greedy – these tendencies have become all too common in recent decades. But the tide is turning.
For more insight into humility, tune in to our podcast on Exploring Humility and what it means to be humble, presented by our very own Seph and Hugo.
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