As virtues go, being humble is a difficult concept to measure. If researchers ask someone to assess their own humility and the self-rating is five out of five stars, how humble can they really be? This paradox of humility may be why you haven’t heard of it as a “regular”—up there with gratitude, optimism and compassion—in the science of happiness. It’s difficult to quantify and study.
Humility also has another public relations challenge: It’s not exciting. We may appreciate the trait in others, but in ourselves? Eh. Being humble doesn’t have the Oprah-worthy, leather-bound gratitude journals; optimism’s sunny, iconic smiley face; or the heartwarming imagery of compassion.
But humility could effect just as powerful a positive change in your life as the other pillars of well-being. Higher levels of humility—intellectual humility in particular—have been associated with positive traits and outcomes. These include increased reflective thinking and higher general knowledge (though not cognitive ability), improved employee performance, an improved ability to learn from your mistakes, potentially improved peer perceptions and an improved view of—as well as willingness to interact with—those of opposing political leanings. And that’s sort of the point of humility: It’s for the good of all, not just oneself. Perhaps that another reason it’s been a tough sell.
“Humility is a very prosocial quality,” says Joshua Hook, Ph.D., professor and associate director of the counseling psychology program at the University of North Texas.
How to be more humble
These strategies can help you cultivate humility for yourself, for your partners at work and home and for the world at large.
1. Ask for feedback.
Humility can be defined two ways, says Don Davis Jr., Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Georgia State University and principal investigator of its Humility and the Advancement of Positive Psychology Interventions Lab. According to a 2011 study Davis helped conduct, “Relational humility was defined as an observer’s judgment that a target person (a) is interpersonally other-oriented rather than self-focused, marked by a lack of superiority; and (b) has an accurate view of self—not too inflated or too low.”
Try asking several close friends to be really honest about three things they appreciate about you and three areas where you might need some growth. It’s OK to be proud of your strengths, Davis says, as long as you acknowledge—and work on—your weaknesses.
2. Confront your prejudices to be more humble.
As a class exercise in humility, Hook encourages his students to identify an area of diversity or culture that they struggle with or admittedly know little about. One of his students, for example, felt uncomfortable with elderly people and held strong opinions about what it meant to be older. As her class assignment, she visited a nursing home and interviewed the residents there about their past and current lives.
“The intention should be to listen and learn,” he says, “not to argue or prove a point or confirm your suspicions.” If you have negative views about, say, a particular religion, ask to interview a practitioner or attend a service. Then look for similarities rather than differences.
“Humility is all about having an open mind,” Hook says.
3. Start with a question.
Paul Shoemaker, author of Taking Charge of Change: How Rebuilders Solve Hard Problems and a consultant and speaker, says he starts any meeting with a question instead of a solution. It takes humility to show what you don’t know, but “one good question is worth 100 good answers,” he says. “Humility creates more oxygen in the room. It allows for others to participate and come together and make a change. If you think you already know everything or act like you do, other people will check out, and things won’t get done as quickly or as well.”
4. Be more humble by really listening.
You can ask thousands of questions, but if you don’t listen to the responses, it won’t do any good. Listening does not obligate you to agree. Nor does being humble make you a passive doormat. However, it may help you dial down your pride. Yours is not the only way of thinking or doing. After someone shares an opinion or experience, take a moment to digest what they said before you speak.
5. Accept setbacks.
Let yourself be humbled by your experiences, Shoemaker advises. “If you don’t get your butt handed to you every now and then, you’re probably not deep enough in the work or the cause to make a real difference.”
So accept new challenges. And when the failures inevitably come, he says, use what you learned to do it better next time.
6. Discover awe to be more humble.
Take notice of and express gratitude for the world’s beauty and wonder. Simply put, being humble is recognizing that you are not the center of the universe. It’s hard to maintain your self-centeredness when gazing up at the stars or into a newborn’s eyes.
This article appeared in the December 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine and was updated April 2023. Photo by Dragon Images/Shutterstock