#4 PositivePsychology.com Podcast – What It Means To Be Humble

podcast 4 humilityIn this episode, Hugo and Seph talk about what it means to be humble, how diving very deep in a topic can foster humility, and why the whole social justice movement is a perfect example of a lack of humility.

Podcast Transcription

Seph: Welcome to the fourth episode of the PositivePsychology.com podcast. Today I’m having a conversation with my friend and colleague, Hugo Alberts. Hugo, welcome back to the show.

Hugo Alberts: Hi, Seph. It’s great to be back again, man. It’s a pleasure. Let’s do this.

Seph: We were already having a conversation about the concept of humility, so I suggest we just keep talking like we were doing just now for [inaudible 00:00:30]. We were trying to get some grasp on this concept and what makes people with humility different from those without, so yeah, maybe it would be a good idea to just share with what we’ve found so far.

Hugo Alberts: Yes. So first of all, it’s interesting, I guess, because when we focus on character strengths, things that promote wellbeing, those natural qualities that people have, there’s a lot of research on some of them like gratitude and optimism, but it’s actually funny that there is so little research on humility. There’ve been some ideas why this is. It is hard to define as we also found out, but as also paradoxical. I think one of the paradoxes is that when you say you’re really humble, you’re actually not very humble. What makes it even more complex is that the more humble people become, it’s not always associated with positive outcomes. You can be so humble that you don’t own your own progress, your own accomplishments, that you don’t pay compliments and that kind of stuff. So, and-

Seph: There is such a thing as being too humble.

Hugo Alberts: Well, I’m not sure. So this is something I would like to talk about. I think it all depends on how you define it, and also something I would love to talk to you about is this difference between the idea of learned humbleness, or humility if you want, so it’s like a social trick that we apply to appear humble because we know that people like that kind of attitude, and the experience of humility like this sense of [crosstalk 00:02:09]-

Seph: Right.

Hugo Alberts: … this sense of respect for something way bigger than yourself, your dependence on everything else. That is, I think, completely different from the learned kind of a humbleness, humility.

Seph: Maybe before we dive deeper, maybe we should introduce why we are talking about this concept all of the sudden, and I know for me at least it’s you who brought it up. You started to become very interested, especially over the last couple of weeks that in this concept, and I have a good sense of the direction you want to go in with this, but maybe it would be good to introduce why we are are talking about this. What does it mean to you?

Hugo Alberts: I’ve been studying psychology for over 20 years and the more I know, the more I realize how little I know. So, this is something that has become very obvious to me in the past month, that I know so little. Even if I continue reading my sense of not knowing increases. And this is a strong paradox because you could say, “Well, you know so much now you should feel on top of everything.” But it’s quite the opposite. I see how little I know.

Hugo Alberts: This reminds me also of a conversation I once had with a a very highly esteemed professor of neurobiology. And I asked him, “How much do we actually know about the brain?” And he said, “If you have this whole planet, our planet, the earth, you can compare it to like the size of a square foot. It’s nothing. It’s basically nothing. We know nothing. We pretend often that we know a lot, but we don’t. There’s so many question marks.” I also found this sense of humbleness that I experienced myself in this professor, and I always was positively surprised by this answer.

Hugo Alberts: This is why I got … It got me thinking about this whole idea of humility. Like what is it and how come we sometimes experience it and how come it’s so paradoxical and not always obvious. Sometimes it’s not always that people who know a lot about a certain topics are humble. Some of them, they develop some kind of an arrogance and they feel like, well, you know, look at me, I’m on top of this field, a know-it-all kind of attitude.

Hugo Alberts: I think this is what fascinated me, so this is why I told you this weekend, I said, “Maybe we should talk about humility and find out what’s there about this,” because I truly feel that a sense of humility is so important to connect to people and to put yourself in the right perspective, because just have a look at the opposite. What happens if we start to lack humility, we develop narcissism, self-enhancement, arrogance, egotism, a sense of entitlement. You can go on and on, you know, this is very obvious, I think.

Seph: Hmm. I also know from the research that that arrogance is one of the traits that is most threatening to people when it comes to to social bonding, and maybe this is one of the … On the opposite end of the spectrum of arrogance, I think you have humility and and humbleness, which we’ll be treating as a synonymous in this podcast. You have looked a little bit into the research and what have you found so far?

Hugo Alberts: Well, actually there isn’t a lot. I think what we can conclude, people low in humility they struggle to build strong social bonds. As we know from research, social bonds have a tremendous impact on wellbeing. If we have positive social relationships, this strengthens our wellbeing. Some studies even suggest that like being lonely is as dangerous as all these kinds of behaviors like smoking and other addictions to health.

Hugo Alberts: I think the research that has been done has been focused also a lot on the social benefits of it. But I think that the concept is way more important also from a personal context, like for yourself only. I think it’s not only from a social perspective interesting, but also for yourself. Like the question I tried to ask myself always is, “Who do I want to be in this moment? What kind of person do I want to be?”

Hugo Alberts: Actually the, I think, feeling better than the other people or experiencing a sense of entitlement, it’s a quick boost, right? It feels good because it builds your ego, but I think in the long run, I think, the most beautiful feeling in life is the feeling to be connected to others and to be part of something bigger. And to me, humility is all about that very sense of being connected to something bigger.

Hugo Alberts: When do we feel humble? You know, I’m not sure about you. When do you feel most humble? Have you got some experiences with that, some examples?

Seph: The time that I feel most humble is when I’m surfing in the ocean. That’s surfing relatively big waves. That’s when I feel most humble because that’s when I realize that nature has its own way and is playing out in its own way, and I’m just there witnessing it. And this is like a metaphor for life and for everything in life, right? There is like this Dharma of life, if you will, just a path unfolding. And I’m, it’s like I’m witnessing it, and I’m a part of it as well, but I’m not heavily influencing it or at least not in any big significant ways. Right? It’s like a reality check almost.

Hugo Alberts: Exactly. It’s like a reality check. It’s just, I think, personal examples that come to mind in my own life are experiencing things that are almost magical like the birth. When my son was born, it’s a moment that is so … It’s beyond your own imagination. There is another human being coming out of your wife or your girlfriend. This whole idea of a human being growing inside another person. If you start to think of it, I always wonder how you can not experience awe when just contemplating this very idea.

Hugo Alberts: On those moments, at those moments in which we actually are confronted with things that are so much bigger than their own comprehension, I think, I always feel this sense of humbleness, this sense of humility of not knowing of … and also I think when things happen that are beyond our own control. We always act, and this is of course a defense mechanism, as if we have so much control of our things in life, but basically there are many, many things that we cannot control. We cannot control the person we fall in love with, whether we get hit by a car or not. There is infinite amount of things we cannot control. And I think this confrontation, on the one hand it’s scary, but at the same time it also shows us how much we are part of something that is beyond our own little self. Right?

Hugo Alberts: Just picture this whole idea, right? You probably, you had breakfast this morning, but you wouldn’t be able to have breakfast if there wasn’t a truck driver who brought the food to the store. Just this simple idea that this, because of this person, you were able to have this food, and then not to speak about all the other people that were involved producing the food. So you’re bigger, you’re part of something bigger. And it’s not about you, you’re as important as everybody else to make this whole thing that we call life happen. And to me that’s a sense of humbleness.

Seph: Yeah, exactly. That’s an interesting thing about the term self-made, right? It’s like when are you really self-made?

Hugo Alberts: Yes, exactly. I think that we weren’t talking … This is also so fascinating, this whole idea of fame, right? Becoming famous. I think the burden of becoming famous is that at a certain moment, you start to believe that you’re entitled because everybody is acting as if you’re a God, you know? So it’s, it becomes so difficult, I think, to stay humble because from all areas people start to adore you and what not, and give you the sense of being special, and I think being special can easily turn into arrogance or narcissism.

Hugo Alberts: I think this is the pain and the burden of being famous. I think many really famous people are deep inside, very lonely. There is this beautiful documentary about Avicii, I suggest you to watch it. You know the DJ that died this, I think it was this year or last year. In any case, you see how this life that people envy, this life of fame and wealth is if you consider it, it’s quite lonely. And this, it fascinates me, and I think part of it probably is also because we become lonely because people make us lonely in the way they perceive us. They see us as somebody who stands out from the crowd, and I think that’s the very, very opposite of humility.

Seph: It’s like he was put on a pedestal by pretty much the whole world, and he’s very lonely sitting on this pedestal wishing he could come down from it, and everyone keeps pushing him back up to it. That’s the sense that I got from watching that documentary. Very sad and beautiful young man that almost died as a result of this you could say.

Seph: We were looking into a couple of definitions earlier to kind of ensure we’re on the same page when we’re talking about this concept because it’s so multilayered. Some of the definitions that I found on Merriam Webster, and Oxford, and Cambridge dictionaries are actually quite confusing. So, it’s no wonder that the science is still trying to figure out how to approach researching this subject. So-

Hugo Alberts: But can you give an example? Like what was confusing to you?

Seph: A lot of it was formulated in what it is not, so what humility is not. For instance, “Freedom from pride or arrogance.” And I often don’t really like definitions that are stated in the negative. I just want to know what it is, not what it is not because it’s still leaves a lot of room for interpretation of what the concept actually is.

Seph: Another example would be, yeah, there was one that said, “The fact of being poor or of low social rank,” at Cambridge dictionary, which actually, it doesn’t make any sense to me. “The good quality of not being proud or not believing that you are important,” which also seems like a terrible definition to me.

Seph: The one that we found that made the most sense to us was of the VIA Institute of Character, and and they said, “However, true humility involves an accurate self assessments, recognition of limitations, keeping accomplishments in perspective and forgetting of the self, humble people do not distort information to defend or verify their our own image, and they do not need to see or present themselves as being better than they actually are.” So, even though this is not a definition of humility, that it’s more a description of the humble person, I think this ticks most of the boxes of what a humble person is like.

Hugo Alberts: Yeah, to me as well. I think it’s, I think, with many concepts in psychology it is really hard to pinpoint what it is exactly because they’re so linked and so connected to other concepts as well. Because when you were reading this you could say, “Well, accurate self assessment, an accurate view of the self is also, to me it sounds a bit like authenticity.” One of the hallmarks of authenticity is a non-distorted view of the self, an unbiased view of the self. So this is I think a problem, but I think the definition that you just mentioned, I think that’s pretty close to what I would, you know, how I would define humility.

Seph: I think it’s the realization that truth is like an asymptote, you know, from mathematics. Like you can approach, you can approach the truth, but you do not ever touch it. I think if that is your attitude towards a well life, or everything, or through your own field of expertise, it’s like, okay, I maybe experienced and I’m trying to do my best, but I do not hold the ultimate truth in me. It’s not like what I say or the approach I choose as a therapist or whatever is like the best possible way. I think if that’s your, if that’s your point of departure, that’s a very … that’s something that’s characterized as a humble person.

Hugo Alberts: It reminds me of what actually what religion tells us, right? There is this God and you’re nothing in comparison to God. You will never understand God’s motives, the greatness of God. You know what I mean? So I think, in a way, I think religion also promotes humility. For me that would be more like learned humility. That’s different from what I’ve said earlier. Like the existential humility, the experience of humility feelings of awe and that just happen in this moment. I think what religion does is it automatically and uses this perspective in which we have this all knowing God and automatically you’re very little in comparison to God.

Seph: The thing that I notice, it doesn’t solve the problem, right? That’s a kind of fake humility almost because then now there is still someone or something that knows it all, right? So just the idea of there being an explanation for everything, but you not knowing it and you being lower compared to this thing that knows it, I don’t think that’s the best way of approaching it. I think because then there is still that need for control. Right? There is still that sense in which you’re saying, “Great, I don’t know but there is someone or something that knows. And maybe if I go to heaven all will be explained and I’ll understand how all of this works.” It’s like that’s not real humility to me.

Hugo Alberts: No, no. And what is more, of course, is that it’s because it’s learned, it also has the idea that it’s the right way to be, right? It’s like humbleness in an absolute way. Like humble people are okay because you have to be humble because there is a God, you’re nothing compared to this God, so please be humble. To me learned humility is all about trying to be humble, trying not to appear arrogant or trying to be likable or impression management, or wanting to be perceived as that sympathetic man or woman. It’s more like a social trick or something that we learned that is okay. For me it’s completely different from what were we talking about earlier, that that deep felt sense of respect for something bigger than yourself and you don’t have to name it, you just feel it. You just feel like you’re part of something bigger and that you’re not entitled to anything.

Hugo Alberts: So there was a beautiful … One of the, I think, one of the most beautiful interviews I once saw was with Tony Robbins and he was interviewing a 108 year survivor of a concentration camp.

Seph: Oh, right. Yeah, I know the video.

Hugo Alberts: It’s had a lot of impact on me because he asked her, “What did you learn from your life with a lot of struggles?” And she said, “Everything is a gift,” and she was telling me, if I translate their words, “You’re entitled to nothing.” And if you take this basic stance of not being entitled, everything comes as a gift. Everything is a bonus. Right? If you feel deeply that you’re not entitled, then everything on top of that is a gift. I think, so for me, I think true humility paves the way for gratitude, it’s so closely linked. It cannot exist without each other. I think you cannot be grateful if you don’t have the sense of humility. You feel me?

Seph: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. That makes me think about the Buddhist noble truths, right? Where like life is suffering. Suffering comes from desire, but then entitlement is even worse than desire because it’s a kind of desire that you deserve to get satisfied. That’s kind of what entitlement is. So in that sense it’s like a desire to the power of two, which of course only increases the suffering because if the desire increases then the suffering increases. So that’s what came to mind.

Hugo Alberts: Yes. What can we do to increase humility? I’m not sure. What would you say? How can we increase … I wouldn’t say like this is what we’re talking about, this learned humility, in which we start to teach people how to behave in such a way that they appear humble, right? But it’s more like how can we promote the existential humility, this feeling, this experience of humility? You got any ideas how you can do that?

Seph: Oh, yeah. The first thing I would say is go into the ocean. Seriously. Seriously like connect with … I don’t even care if it’s the ocean or if you go hiking on on an incredible mountain slope or something like that, but something that is so awe-inspiring about nature that puts your own life into perspective. I think that’s one of the best ways I know of of just like becoming maybe overwhelmed with a sense of humility.

Hugo Alberts: Maybe another thing is to just start deepening your knowledge, to start focus on something and start to read about it, become very good at it and experience the depth of everything. What I love so much about science is that it has taught me that I don’t know anything. Sometimes I hear people talk about politics and then they ask me like, what do you think? And honestly I always reply to, “I don’t have any clue. I don’t know.” Because I think if you watched the news 30 minutes a day, I don’t think you have any idea about geopolitics. I don’t know. And I think you don’t know what’s really going on in the world. I think you have no clue and you can pretend to have a clue, but I think that it’s not true.

Hugo Alberts: I think that when we really start to get our nose onto something and get really deep with it, I think naturally, I think one of the consequences can be that we start to notice how complex things are and how little we we actually know and that everything is so much more complex than we think.

Hugo Alberts: There was a beautiful quote. It was, I believe, by Mencken who wrote that, “For every complex human problem, there is a solution that is neat, simple and raw.” I love that quote so much because it’s true. You know, the less you know about something, the simpler things get, it’s just black and white. But the more you know about something, the more difficult it becomes.

Hugo Alberts: I remember that I once got a call from a magazine and they wanted say something about self-control and obesity, and my answer was quite complex to them and they were like, “This is way too complex. Can’t you just say that people who are suffering from obesity, that they lack self-control?” I was like, “No, it’s not like that. It’s way more complex.” But this is not what people want to hear because that’s not sexy, right?

Seph: No.

Hugo Alberts: It’s not sexy to hear things that are put into perspective. So this is why we’re being bombed, I think, with so much superficial information that is not forcing a sense of humility. It’s creating the opposite. It’s creating know-it-all-ism, that we just all know it all. On top of that, we’re being manipulated in social media to receive only information that confirms their own view. Now, how is that promoting humility?

Hugo Alberts: So, I think one way to, one way to promote humility then is to maybe read a lot of view points, to deepen your knowledge, to be very critical to the things you learn, to just not believe everything you read, and to acknowledge that you know nothing.

Hugo Alberts: Because honestly, I really feel that way. There are a few things I know a bit about, but like 99% of all the things I know nothing about, really nothing. Everything is like an iceberg. It’s like the surface, you touched the surface. If you read a bit, you’re touching the surface, nothing more.

Hugo Alberts: I remember the client once told me, this was so interesting. She said, “I know when I’m talking to you that I have created a lot of mental stories and that many of them were untrue, but at least they gave me a certain kind of confidence about how the world works. At least they provided me some sense of security.” The more I get into, I was doing mindfulness practice with her, this idea of observing thoughts and noticing the constructed nature of them, I start to doubt, my own beliefs about them.

Hugo Alberts: This is very threatening to people, of course, because then, I think, you start to realize that maybe your point of view is just one point of view, and this is exactly what a humble person does. A humble person acknowledges that his way of looking at reality is just one way of looking at reality, and he acknowledges that there is maybe nothing like the ultimate truth. And even if there is something like the ultimate truth, the question is whether you can even ever approach it with your own thoughts and so on.

Hugo Alberts: So, I think for me that was a beautiful example of how it’s not very attractive to become humble, because then we have to get rid of all those beliefs that we have about how things are and how we are right and other people are wrong, right? Because that’s, I think, also part of the whole humble experience. We have to let go of that idea that we hold the truth and that we know how things should be.

Seph: Right.

Hugo Alberts: So this whole social justice idea, you know, this social justice warrior concept, it fascinates me. It fascinates me so much because part of it, as stupid as it may sound, I think is also because it exists because there is a lack of humility in there.

Seph: What a lot of these people who are very convinced that they hold some moral truths that the other people should oblige to as well is … What they’re doing, if you look at the form, is they’re saying, “I know something. You don’t notice something, and you are not acting in line with this something, and you should be acting in line with this.”

Hugo Alberts: And, “This is good and this is wrong. So, what I’m doing is the ultimate truth. This is how things should be and, and what you’re doing, that’s not okay.”

Seph: Yeah. If you look at the conversations that Ricky Gervais has on Twitter with some people it’s hilarious because people are, of course, always correcting him like, “Oh, you can’t say this, you can say that and that’s it.” That’s the whole point he’s trying to make like, “Its context matters in which I say something.”

Hugo Alberts: Exactly.

Seph: “I can joke about anything I want. The fact that I’m joking about something serious and something bad doesn’t mean that I’m condoning it.” When he jokes about rape, which is terrible of course, it doesn’t mean that he is condoning rape. He is trying to do, one, to joke of course, and two, to put it into a perspective so that maybe people can relate to it in healthy ways so that doesn’t become taboo to talk about. To say that when he makes a joke about rape that he is condoning rape, or that he is a racist, or a rapist, or defending a rapist or something is, of course, absurd. Also, the intention of the person who would be making a joke or saying something is never taken into account to these people. It’s like since when has intention stopped mattering? I think that’s a crucial, crucial thing.

Hugo Alberts: I think so, yeah. A lot has to do with moral superiority, I think. Again, it’s close to narcissism. There is always the sense of me being better than other people, being more skilled than other people, holding the truth more than other people. You can fill in the blanks there, you can go on and on forever. It’s always this kind of superiority, I think, that’s opposite of humility.

Seph: Do you remember the one time we were sending out a questionnaire and we had an item that said gender and that was male and female, right? And we got this email from someone instructing us to change that because there may also be people who are not identifying as either male or female. But the biggest problem I had with this was that this person really thought that we had a bad intention putting the gender in then male and female options there. It was like we were choosing to [crosstalk 00:30:29] with-

Hugo Alberts: The side. It’s always about choosing a side. Since there is a black and white reality, if people do not comply to your norms, to your view of the world, they’re choosing the other side.”Either you’re with me or you’re against me.”

Seph: Exactly. Exactly.

Hugo Alberts: I think this is very opposite to the connectedness that is so central to humbleness, right? If you’re feeling humble, we feel part of something bigger, right? It’s not black and white. There is so much that we’re connected to and this exactly separates it. So again, this idea of superiority, moral superiority or your own projections about what this should be and whatever or not, it’s all the same principle. It creates separateness and to me, the more I talk about it with you and the more I’m thinking of it, I think humility is all about connection in a way. I think the key word is connection, connected to something bigger and knowing your position in this whole bigger scene.

Seph: Well, yeah, I think it’s also courageous, in a sense, to be humble, to be truly humble.

Hugo Alberts: Yes. Yes, absolutely.

Seph: Do you have the courage to admit that you don’t know something-

Hugo Alberts: Yes, yes. Beautiful.

Seph: Or that you may never know something?

Hugo Alberts: Beautiful. Yes.

Seph: I definitely think that courage element has to be in there in any definition on humility, I would say-

Hugo Alberts: Absolutely.

Seph: … because it’s dangerous. It’s like you’re choosing the Matrix’s red pill, right?

Hugo Alberts: Yup.

Seph: That’s what it is, and it’s a very courageous act. That something where you’re saying like, “Okay, I can completely let go of my own control mechanisms in order to maybe approach a certain truth.”

Hugo Alberts: Yes. That’s why it’s not attractive.

Seph: No, of course not.

Hugo Alberts: Because there is a price that you have to be willing to pay and that’s the courage to be wrong and to not know, and to be like … because that’s a threat to your ego, of course. Because what if I don’t hold all the answers? What if I’m not the expert that other people want me to be? What if? I think it’s a nice moment to conclude, man. I think we’ve talked a lot about this concept.

Hugo Alberts: I would love to know what other people think. For me, it’s a very new topic. I don’t know much about it, honestly. I just started to explore it, but I just wanted to talk about it because I think it’s hugely interesting and also very interesting that there is not so much research on it yet. So, if you have any ideas, we’d love to hear your thoughts and share whatever you want.

Hugo Alberts: In any case, thanks for listening and thank you, Seph, for taking the time to do it as again.

Seph: Sure. Thank you, man. Talk again soon.

Hugo Alberts: Yes. Take care, man.


What our readers think

  1. Marina

    I liked the idea of intellectual humility, I also believe that the more you learn, the better you understand how little you know. On the other hand, to me, the phrase ‘you are entitled to nothing’ does sound like something that a concentration camp director would say to a prisoner to break them. Sounds really awful to me, because that leads to learned helplessness.
    And I didn’t really understand the part about social justice being contradictory to humility. What is meant by social justice here? Defending my rights if someone breaks the law and, say, refuses to pay me the salary? But then, according to the article, it’s wrong to defend my rights because I’m not entitled to anything. As I said, that sounds like learned helplessness and not humility to me.

  2. Beata

    Would love for you boys to invite everyone to share their experience of being humble ? This could add to your research on the subject.

  3. Scott

    Great topic! I appreciate the advice to go experience something bigger than yourself, in order to cultivate humility.

  4. Shann Anderson

    Thank you for this discussion. I have been wanting to deepen my understanding of “humility” for a long time. I did like the VIA definition and I appreciate your conversation around the challenges associated with growing humility in ourselves. For me, I see a lack of humility in others like a “rude slap” – I can see the impact this has on me and teams. I’m inspired to learn more….


    Loved the podcast. I agree…. I do not think there is much research on humility.
    Thank you.

  6. Susie

    I am putting together workshops and these articles have been certainly interesting in the findings and are appreciated in helping those less fortunate
    Warm regards,

  7. Dr. Vipin Varma MBBS, PGD, MBA

    Looking forward to more frequent podcasts on Positive Psychology.

  8. Dr. Vipin Varma MBBS MBA

    Great topic and a very useful discussion.


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