Americans live in an increasingly narcissistic society. We’re surrounded by cultural myths that suggest happiness is found through self-aggrandizement, image management, and the dogged pursuit of self-esteem above all. The central lie of these trappings is that the good life is found by making oneself the center of their social world. And to be sure, these pathways to happiness are commodified, sold through subscriptions or as products guaranteed to provide us with the self-worth that we desperately crave.
The problem with orienting our lives around ensuring that we maintain a pristine self-image and can garner praise and affirmation from other people is that we put our own well-being into the hands of others. We ask other people or companies to provide us with the validation that only we can provide ourselves. As a result, we’re more anxious, lonely, divided, and at dis-ease than ever before. Our relentless pursuit of external validation has left us distracted, chasing the elusive approval of others in order to feel good about ourselves. By putting our value in the hands of others, we’ve created a fragile sense of self. In turn, we rigidly defend our ideologies from those who question our beliefs, surround ourselves with people who think and look like us, and distance ourselves from those who differ across a wide range of beliefs or identities. It’s a recipe for social and cultural malaise. And we’re all mired in it.
The Transformative Power of Humility
Fortunately, there is an alternative: humility. For millennia, scholars and poets have lauded this quiet virtue. Socrates is credited with saying, “Pride divides the men, humility joins them.” Saint Augustine, a Christian theologian in the fourth century, argued, “It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.” Mother Teresa wisely asserted, “If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” Albert Einstein remarked, “A true genius admits that he/she knows nothing.” Mary Oliver wrote, “Humility is the prize of the leaf-world. Vain-glory is the bane of us, the humans.” These voices represent a fraction of the many people who have glimpsed the value of humility and have exhorted others to practice it.
Now, modern science has confirmed ancient wisdom—humility is powerfully transformative. Research has found that this character strength is a boon for relationships, helps improve work and leadership, is a necessary feature of technological advancements or social development, and is a critical component of navigating cultural, religious, and ideological differences. So, what exactly is humility?
What is Humility?
Humility is our ability to know ourselves, check ourselves, and go beyond ourselves. The first part of humility is having an accurate view of yourself, including both strengths and weaknesses. Humble people know themselves. They know what they are good at and what areas could benefit from growth and improvement. Whereas arrogant people know their strengths too well (to the detriment of acknowledging any weaknesses), and those who are self-defeating dwell only on their weaknesses (ignoring their obvious strengths), humble people own their limitations while embracing their strengths. We can think of humility as giving people an accurate view of the world, starting with themselves.
The second part of humility requires that we regulate our ego. It necessitates that we check ourselves. We all tend toward selfishness—seeking esteem, praise, and glory. Our desire for self-esteem runs deep, and some have argued it may be one of our most fundamental motives. A humble person can share praise and glory with others, acknowledging that many people likely contributed to their successes. They also are willing to accept blame or criticism when it’s appropriate to do so. Being humble involves owning decisions that didn’t pan out, resisting the desire to shirk responsibility and make excuses, and admitting when you were at fault. Finally, regulating ego means that how you present your ideas or accomplishments matters. Humble people don’t think they deserve special attention or are any more important because of their achievements.
The third part of humility is being oriented toward other people, or going beyond yourself. Humble people think about others and take their needs into consideration. Rather than focusing solely on themselves, those who are humble can empathize with those around them. It’s a transcendent move that shifts people into a wider perspective, broadening what they consider when they make decisions and reorienting their world such that they are no longer in the center. This profound shift may be the hallmark social feature of humility. It’s why we like humble people so much: They are willing to consider us and our needs. And who wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with someone like that?
A helpful metaphor for balancing the three features of a humble character is to think of humility as being the right size. Humble people match their self-concepts and actions more accurately to reality. They know their strengths and weaknesses and don’t need to brag nor shrink in the presence of others. To have this “right size” comes from security in knowing that your value doesn’t come from fleeting external standards or elusive approval or adoration. It comes from enoughness. The confidence of knowing that you are a person of inherent worth and value frees you up from the relentless and futile pursuit of external validation that drives so much arrogant and narcissistic behavior. Humility is not an indication of weakness but rather a marker of strength.
We can express humility in different domains. Relational humility surfaces in our interactions with other people. Relationally humble people can take in feedback, think of others, and are aware of their strengths and weaknesses. They’re kind and caring—the type of friends, coworkers, and partners we all like. Intellectual humility shows up when discussing our core beliefs and convictions, when we are open to new insights and intent on learning from others. Intellectually humble people can admit when they’re wrong and own their limitations. They’re also curious, preferring to seek out evidence over ideology and learn from the world around them rather than defend their own views. Cultural humility has to do with navigating competing cultural perspectives. Culturally humble people realize that each person has a way of seeing the world and they are eager to learn the perspectives of others. These people do not see their own cultural viewpoint as superior. They take the time to listen to others and work hard to make sure everyone has a seat at the table. They are naturally curious and inclusive. Finally, existential humility addresses how people answer ultimate questions in life, such as: What happens to us after we die? What is the meaning of life? What is my purpose? We often experience existential humility in relation to forces of nature, the universe, the cosmos, or when considering the divine. This type of humility is expressed in feelings of gratitude to something larger than oneself. Existentially humble people want to wrestle with big questions and dig into the deep and pressing concerns of what it means to be human. They accept their finitude and are at peace with their place in the world.
Humility has cascading effects in many areas of life, from your relationships, to your work and career, and your involvement in a larger society. In short, humility has the power to transform all aspects of your life. But why should you consider cultivating a character strength that involves admitting your limitations, regulating your own ego, and prioritizing the needs of others? Scientific research offers three fairly compelling reasons.
Humility Enhances our Well-Being
First, consider the well-being hypothesis—that humility is good for your health; it offers a personal benefit. A nationally representative sample of older adults in the United States has shown that humble people report better health. My colleagues and I examined how this works in close relationships while dealing with real life stress. Studying married couples, we focused on two major sources of stress: the transition to parenthood and persistent arguments between partners. In the first study, we measured both partners’ humility during the third trimester of pregnancy with their first child together (before the full stress of parenthood). We also assessed their levels of stress and depression. Then, we had them fill out the same questionnaires when their new baby was three months old. When both partners were humble, they reported less stress and less depression at the second test than when one or both partners were arrogant.
A similar pattern revealed itself when looking at how couples handle the stress of persistent, recurring arguments. In the second study, couples were instructed to write down the topics that they and their partner often argue about. We then consistently recorded their blood pressure while they engaged in a disagreement right there in the lab. Again, when both partners are humble, they not only reported being more satisfied with their partner, but their blood pressure responses were healthier and less reactive than when couples were arrogant. Indeed, researchers have concluded that humility is good for your emotional and physical health.
Examining this from another angle, people who are humble are able to more honestly accept reality, even when it’s difficult. When people receive news they don’t like, feedback that is unflattering, viewpoints that contradict their own, or any information that doesn’t fit into their preconceived notion of how the world should work, they can get defensive. We often deny, ignore, avoid, or distort information that is unpleasant or emotionally uncomfortable. Our brains are well-designed to keep us psychologically safe. But when our strategies of defense are no longer psychologically helpful, we can get stuck in patterns of self-protection that have lost their utility and may compound our struggles. And while humility won’t make life less painful, it might help us to accept reality. Being able to see the world as it is, rather than how we want to see it, is powerful.
Humility Improves our Relationships
Second, research supports the social bonds hypothesis—that humility improves our relationships with other people. There’s a wealth of scientific findings that show that people are more likely to want to become friends with humble people, more likely to want to start and maintain a romantic relationship with humble (as compared to arrogant) partners, and are more satisfied with and committed to humble romantic partners. Given that humility is, in part, about prioritizing the needs of others, it’s no wonder why humble people are so attractive to potential friends and romantic interests: their humility is a signal for what it’s like to be in a relationship with them. Who wouldn’t want to be valued, treated kindly, and have their needs considered? Who wouldn’t want a partner who could receive feedback and would work on restraining their ego?
Humble people are not perfect. Far from it. And humility surely exists in a matter of degrees. But those who are humble can acknowledge their imperfection, work toward self-awareness, work to restrain their ego, and often think of others. They consciously walk against that moving sidewalk of self-aggrandizement toward openness, non defensiveness, and empathy. They can still get defensive or act selfishly, but they are generally committed to a life marked by security, openness, and growth.
Humility Smooths Conflict
Finally, the social oil hypothesis, which focuses on the motivational feature of humility, posits that humility helps smooth interactions where the potential for conflict is high or there is a power differential. Think of the various areas where you experience interpersonal frustration. Perhaps it’s at work. Or maybe it’s when discussing politics with your family. It could be when you’re navigating a difficult decision with a romantic partner. A hard-driving boss, a contentious holiday meal, or a charged discussion with your loved one can be ripe for clashing egos, interpersonal hurt, and relational discord. These types of interactions cause wear-and-tear on your relationship. But here, humility acts as a “social oil,” to keep the relationship healthy. Research has found that bosses can be hard-driving without incurring interpersonal costs as long as they are humble, humility helps reduce defensiveness when one’s cherished beliefs—such as religious values or political opinions—are criticized, and humbly seeking to take the perspective of another person reduces conflict and leads to better outcomes. Humility shines in situations when our default tendency to be selfish or defensive is strongest.
When conflict is high or there is a power differential, it is hardest to act humbly, but these situations are precisely when doing so can make the biggest difference. A humble response diffuses and deescalates charged situations, when a selfish or defensive response might cause irreparable harm. When reacting with humility, both people in the relationship are able to hear each other and respond empathically. This is where humility is hard but rewarding. And it’s here that humility can be really transformative.
The Quiet Power of an Ancient Virtue
Humility is a bit of an underdog. It’s not as flashy as self-aggrandizing narcissism or as slick as image management. And it’s a tough sell. It’s hard to commodify humility. But, as philosophers and clergy have been quietly suggesting for centuries, humility is a powerful virtue that can change our lives and help heal our divided societies. We’ve seen the damage that the unflinching pursuit of self-centering aggrandizement can cause. It’s time for something different. Humility is exactly what we need right now. After all, it sure beats the alternative.