As virtues go, humility is pretty unpopular. Being paid the “humble” compliment can be worse than when a woman gives her romantic partner the “you’re a nice guy” letdown. But many positive psychologists feel that humility is due for an image makeover.
Part of the reason humility has been so overlooked as valuable and honorable is practicality. After all, it’s hard to measure how humble a person is. If researchers ask someone to assess her own humility and the self-rating is five out of five stars, how humble can she really be? This paradox of humility is why you probably 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 might appreciate the trait in others—we don’t feel threatened by unassuming people—but in ourselves? Eh. We’d rather be confident and bold. We’ll take that spotlight, thank you very much. Humility doesn’t have the Oprah-worthy, leather-bound gratitude journals, nor does it feature optimism’s sunny, iconic smiley face, nor 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 have been associated with a higher sense of life purpose, better (self-reported) health, increased workplace harmony, longer-lasting marriages and greater generosity—all of which contribute to stronger communities. And that’s sort of the point of humility: It’s for the good of all, not just oneself (another reason it’s been a tough sell). “Humility is a very pro-social quality,” says Joshua Hook, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Texas.
But if you don’t want to cultivate humility for the sake of others, do it for your love life. In one study, Hook and other researchers asked college students to check out the online-dating profile of a potential romantic partner and assess the likelihood that they would accept a date with the person. Along with an essay about interests and history, the profile included measurements of various personality traits such as extroversion, openness to new experiences, neuroticism and humility. One group was shown a profile of someone who was rated “highly humble” (ranked in the 87th percentile). A second group was shown the exact same profile, but with a “not humble” (24th percentile) rating. Overwhelmingly, the students who were given the more humble candidate were significantly more willing to accept a date than those shown the not-so-modest match. “When you don’t always need to be right, relationships are smoother and can be more intimate,” Hook says.
Research on the personal benefits of humility is still in its nascent stage, Hook says, but he is confident that the humility-happiness connection will be proved even stronger. 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 Emerson Davis Jr., Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Georgia State University and director of its Humility and Advancement of Positive Psychology Interventions (HAPPI) Lab. Interpersonally, humility involves an outlook that is other-oriented rather than self-focused. On a personal level, though, humility involves an accurate view of the self. Ask 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.
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 Can’t Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive That Changes Our World and founder of Social Venture Partners, a network of leaders supporting social change around the world, says he starts any meeting with a question instead of a solution. It takes humility to show what you don’t know instead of what you do, 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. Really listen.
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 humility make you a passive doormat), but it does help dial down your own pride. Yours is not the only way of thinking or doing. After someone shares an opinion or experience, take a moment to digest what he or she said before you speak.
5. Accept setbacks.
Let yourself be humbled by your experiences, Shoemaker advises, because “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.” Humility allows you to accept challenges without the fear of failure. And when those failures inevitably come, he says, use what you learned to do it better next time.
6. Discover awe.
Take notice of and express gratitude for the world’s beauty and wonder. Most simply put, being humble is recognizing that you are not the hub 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 appears in the December 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.