Science of humility revealing ways the ‘quiet virtue’ may change the world
By Peter Hill*
Imagine a world where people are less focused on themselves and more attentive to the needs of others, where individuals are open to new ideas and understand their own weaknesses.
It would be a global society where we are more likely to empathize with women and children fleeing violent conflict and grinding poverty than to build walls and fences to keep them out.
Where national debates are characterized less by inflammatory sound bites that demonize the opposition and more by respectful dialogue.
And where neighbors of different faiths, races and ethnic and economic backgrounds are better able to live together in peace rather than be divided by fear and prejudice.
Imagine a more humble world.
Sound far-fetched? It often seems that way.
The hopeful images of the Arab Spring have given way to a horrific civil war in Syria and a military coup toppling democracy in Egypt. A politics of fear grows in the West, while Christians and Muslims in Nigeria huddle together in destroyed villages awaiting the next terrorist attack.
In personal websites and on Facebook and LinkedIn pages, many of us often seem to be in an endless competition for self-focused goals such as wealth, status, physical attractiveness or even creating a single viral moment on social media.
But the story does not end in an avalanche of selfies.
There are signs of a backlash to lives devoted to self-enhancement.
For one, Pope Francis has become a revered global figure modeling humility in such acts as washing and kissing the feet of Muslim, Orthodox and Hindu refugees during Holy Thursday services this year.
And in a series of scientific advances, researchers are developing a body of evidence challenging old stereotypes of humility as the province of weak-willed, stoop-shouldered individuals of low self-worth.
The reality, research shows, is that it takes a strong will and courage to celebrate the gifts of others, while being honest about one’s own shortcomings.
But it pays off.
Studies are finding humble people are more successful in areas from business to romance, in addition to experiencing better physical and mental health.
People like humble people. And humble people promote values from empathy to clear-eyed political leadership that contribute to more tolerant, prosperous societies, the research indicates.
But there is still a steep learning curve for what the eminent psychologist Everett Worthington calls “the quiet virtue.”
How we get humility wrong
Look up the word humility in a dictionary and it is not unusual to find it equated with words such as meekness, unassertiveness, servility and submissiveness.
It is no surprise then that these common misconceptions associating humility with humiliation still hold such sway in the popular mind.
But they are a source of great frustration to researchers.
The consensus developing around the scientific definition of humility includes such components as:
• A willingness to see oneself and one’s place in the world accurately.
• An ability to acknowledge personal mistakes and limitations.
• An openness to learn from others.
• Low self-focus.
• An appreciation of the value of all things, including others’ strengths and contributions.
In study after study, researchers also are discovering evidence lifting up the benefits of humility, while tearing down long-held stereotypes that can have dangerous consequences for the well-being of individuals and nations.
Consider what we may be missing by looking out for No. 1:
• Greater virtue: Humility correlates positively with a number of virtues or virtue-related behaviors such as forgiveness, honesty, generosity, gratitude, and cooperativeness.
• More joy, less anxiety: Humble individuals experience fewer negative psychological symptoms and report better health. One study of older adults found those who were more humble rated their health more favorably over time.
• Better relationships: Humble people are perceived as being kinder and more likeable than are less humble people. In studies, humble individuals were found to be better able to receive love from others, and people with humble partners were more likely to be committed to the relationship and more likely to offer forgiveness for perceived offenses.
• Higher self-worth: Humble people, unlike individuals constantly seeking attention or validation from others, possess a secure sense of self-worth. It is what frees humble people from the need to impress or dominate others, and allows them to value new ideas and respect the achievements of others as well as their own.
• More effective leaders: Forget the idea of humble people as weak leaders. Just the opposite, research shows. For example, while arrogance and unbridled egos have been at the center of corporate scandals, business leaders who are able to listen, be transparent about their limitations and appreciate the strengths and contributions of others are better able to navigate changing marketplaces and retain and engage talented employees.
• Less prejudice, greater tolerance: Humble individuals are more likely to appreciate and be receptive to unfamiliar beliefs, values, and worldviews, and to be empathetic and compassionate to those in need.
So why are we so obsessed with self-interest?
And why are we willing to vilify those who disagree with us, including entire ethnic, racial or religious groups, rather than engage in humble dialogues that transcend fear and prejudice to promote our own and the greater good?
What inhibits humility
Some believe the answer may go back tens of thousands of years.
Evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists tend to emphasize a natural tendency to self-advancement dating back to the harsh demands for self-preservation faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
But that downplays the moral choices we are able to make as individuals, and the social and environmental factors that influence those choices.
Many of us today are living in cultures that place high values on wealth and personal status, which can serve as the incubators of qualities such as narcissism, fear, cynicism, grandiosity and others that inhibit humility.
Look at the economy, for example.
Even in developed countries, we live in a time where there is at least a perception – real or not – of scarce resources, including the idea that there are more people wanting good jobs than there are good jobs available.
These perceptions allow fear and emotion to drive antipathy toward immigrants and other racial and ethnic groups, which are seen as economic threats, when we should be seeking to understand the complexities of economic policies in a time of rapid globalization.
The stakes are even higher in politics, where nationalist political parties and political leaders appeal to populist prejudices that divide countries along racial, ethnic and religious lines.
All of this matters, research shows.
It matters to individual health when physicians do not have the humility to listen to their patients’ concerns and understand their backgrounds. It matters to a company’s financial health in a rapidly changing “knowledge economy” when a corporate CEO is not open to new ideas within and outside her or his company.
On a global scale, one of the greatest dangers is when fear and intolerance lead majority groups to turn against entire minority groups in the public square.
Far from making nations safer, religious persecution and conflict are likely to greatly increase as religious freedoms are taken away and social hostilities push religious minorities outside the mainstream of society, heightening tensions and increasing grievances that potentially feed violence, researchers note.
The more hopeful news is that just as a lack of humility can lead to a downward spiral of suspicion, distrust and violence, so, too, can the practice of humility reinforce other virtues and contribute to a more generous, giving, caring society.
Building a better future
The former president of Uruguay, José Mujica, center, was often referred to as “the world’s most humble president.”
Some make an argument humans are genetically disposed to act in their own interests. But there also is a strong case to be made that we also possess a natural desire to care for our neighbors.
In traditions developed over thousands of years throughout the world, most major religions emphasize humility as a virtue.
Buddhism, for example, encourages adherents to see the world beyond self-interest and thereby reduces an unhealthy focus on oneself. In so doing, Buddhism stresses humility as a virtue as one progresses along the Noble Eightfold spiritual path of enlightenment.
The Quran says the servants of Allah “are those who walk the Earth in humility.” Jewish Scripture declares, “Before destruction the heart of a man is haughty, and before honour goeth humility.” A well-known phrase in Christian Scripture states, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
And despite extreme examples of religiously motivated violence, research shows people who report being more religious and spiritual also report being more humble.
Science is also providing other clues to what may help develop humility.
These opportunities include direct interventions asking individuals to reflect on the importance of humility and seeking guidance from trusted friends and to overcome the difficulties in evaluating one’s own humility.
The real gains, however, may come from the development of other virtues related to humility, such as promoting educational and professional goals that emphasize the pursuit of truth unfettered by personal ego or bias.
Such efforts also may include:
• Increasing empathy training in settings from houses of worship to schools to help people develop respect for others.
• Having training in business schools include the importance of valuing each member of a team and being open to new ideas, and teaching intercultural competence and sensitivity to the patient’s background in medical schools.
• Promoting generosity and acts of service. The more you do for others, an increase in humility levels may result.
Fortunately, there is also a sense of a basic longing for humility, whether it comes from a reaction to the many paragons of narcissism in today’s culture or just a sense of exhaustion, stress and anxiety the demands of envy, fear and consumerism can place upon us.
In the 2012 Measuring Morality Study, about half of Americans said it was important for them to be humble and modest.
Where humility is at an inherent disadvantage, however, is that it does not call attention to itself.
Research advances in humility are not likely to be shared in the breathless language reserved for celebrities in bikinis, good and bad hair days among members of the Royal Family or any video with a cat, a baby, a dog and two balls of string.
As we watched the world’s greatest athletes perform in Rio this summer, it may be well to remember the origin of the modern Olympics as a spectacle reflecting nationalist ambitions was born 80 years ago in Berlin.
From originating the torch relay to displays of lavish pageantry in magnificent new stadiums, Adolf Hitler was able to divert the world’s attention from the violent persecution of Jews, Roma and political opponents, and gain legitimacy on the global stage.
As Olympic officials and many others diverted their eyes and undermined a boycott movement, Hitler was freed to continue Germany’s path to war, expanding his racial and ethnic policies and setting the stage for the unimaginable evil that stained human history.
Sport as spectacle continues to be taken for granted today, from Olympic pageantry to the iconic image in American life mixing military imagery with pulsing music, scantily clad women and delirious crowds as a popular singer demands “Are you ready for some football?”
The more important question facing the world – one that will help determine whether we find ways to work together to develop the best in humankind – is this:
“Are we ready for some humility?”
*Peter Hill, a psychology professor at Biola University and past president of Division 36 (Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality) of the American Psychological Association, is a leading researcher on humility.
Association of Religion Data Archives: Search nearly 1,000 surveys and find citations for several hundred journal articles for comprehensive information on topics such as humility and related subjects such as gratitude, forgiveness, generosity and social trust.
ARDA National Profiles: View religious, demographic, socio-economic and public opinion data for all nations with populations of more than 2 million.
Websites offering information about humility research include HumilityScience and The Science of Intellectual Humility.
Briggs, David. Saving grace: The leadership virtue that can help congregations work through conflict. Science is suggesting an effective pastoral response to working through conflict. Humility. Intellectual humility in particular.
Davis, Don. E., and Hook, Joshua N. Measuring Humility and its Positive Effects. The authors discuss some of the major benefits of humility.
Hill, Peter C., and Sandage, Steven J. The promising but challenging case of humility as a positive psychology virtue. The authors consider the unique case of moral and intellectual humility as a virtue.
Prime, Jeanine, and Salib, Elizabeth. The Best Leaders Are Humble Leaders. This article reports on international research showing that humility is one of four critical leadership factors for creating an environment where employees from different demographic backgrounds feel included.
Woodruff, Elissa, Van Tongeren, Daryl R., McElroy, Stacey, Davis, Don E., Hook, Joshua N. Humility and Religion: Benefits, Difficulties, and a Model of Religious Tolerance. This article explores how humility is related to religion, spirituality and well-being.
Ed: Hermann, Robert. God, Science and Humility. Ten scientists bring a variety of religious experiences to the consideration of humility theology, a humble approach to truth-seeking about God.
Eds: Worthington, Everett L., Davis, Don E. and Hook, Joshua N. Handbook of Humility: Theory, Research and Applications. This book brings together authors from psychology as well as other fields to address what we know and don’t know about humility.
Worthington, Everett L., Humility: The Quiet Virtue. Humility may not be a skill we can learn, but people can be inspired to be humble. “Great people—and ordinary people acting nobly—can inspire us,” Worthington writes.
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