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Is Humility the Soil for Happiness to Grow?

alistaircotton via iStock 

Pelin Kesebir

Humility has long been praised in religion and philosophy, but only recently have social scientists turned their attention to this personality trait and its link to mental and physical well-being.

Although defining and measuring humility is a humbling endeavor in its own right, researchers including Center for Healthy Minds Assistant Scientist Pelin Kesebir are beginning to report its promise in improving well-being.

In collaboration with other scholars in the upcoming book Humility by Oxford University Press, Kesebir reviews research and theory on the relationship between humility and happiness — where she likens humility to a fertile soil in which happiness grows. In fact, the word “humility” stems from the Latin word “humus,” which means “earth” or “soil.”

But what is humility exactly?

Kesebir broadly defines the term as “the ability to see oneself in true perspective and be at peace with it.” Three components support this definition: a healthy relationship to oneself, a healthy relationship to others and a healthy relationship to reality.

A Healthy Way of Relating to Oneself

Kesebir says humble people harbor neither an exaggeratedly high, nor an exaggeratedly low, sense of self-importance.

“Humble people are able to tolerate an honest look at themselves, and non-defensively accept their weaknesses alongside their strengths,” she says. “This untroubled, serene, secure relationship to oneself diminishes the need to constantly monitor and defend one’s self-worth, bringing about freedom from a never-ending and exhausting tendency to compare oneself to others.”

Excessive self-preoccupation has been repeatedly shown to be detrimental to psychological well-being, and various benefits of humility possibly arise from the quiet self-confidence and low levels of self-focus that accompany it, Kesebir says. A lower focus on the self also means that one’s happiness is less conditional and more enduring, as it is less tied to the triumphs and tribulations of the ego.

A Healthy Way of Relating to Others

Humble people do not exaggerate the meaning of their differences from others. Even when they may legitimately judge themselves as better or worse than others in some respects, they do not view themselves as superior or inferior to others on the whole, Kesebir adds.

It should not be surprising then that research links both self-reported and peer-reported humility to higher quality social relationships.

“For one, humble people are less likely to alienate others and create interpersonal friction through toxic qualities such as selfishness, entitlement or contempt,” she says. “Beyond that, being free from exaggerated concerns about what other people signify for their own self-worth, humble people are also able to approach others with more openness, ease and benevolence.”

A large body of research supports these claims, Kesebir says, and links humility to prosocial qualities such as helpfulness, generosity, gratitude, forgiveness and compassion.  

A Healthy Way of Relating to Reality

“If the ego’s hopes and fears, desires and aversions reign supreme, this corrupts a person’s ability to see things as they are,” Kesebir says. “In contrast, humble people are less under the sway of their ego, which affords them a less distorted look at reality and hence fewer unwelcome clashes with it.”

Humility also involves an ability to see and accept the self’s place in the larger context of existence. Humble people are more aware and accepting of the fact that against a cosmic scale of time and space, every human being is tiny and insignificant. Kesebir’s own work shows that humble people (or people experimentally made to feel humility) react to reminders of their mortality in more constructive and less destructive ways than less humble people. Given that death is an unavoidable fact of existence, humble people’s more accepting stance toward life’s fragility represents a more mature relationship with reality.

“Humble people are able to tolerate an honest look at themselves, and non-defensively accept their weaknesses alongside their strengths.”

Pelin Kesebir

Given the benefits of humility, how do we actually become more humble?

Kesebir suggests three things that each of us can do to cultivate humility—none of which require anything more than a few minutes or small practices in our daily life.

1. Focus on commonalities with other people

A good way to cultivate humility is to remember all the ways in which we are not that different from others. Do you have some great qualities? So do others. Do you have some big flaws? So do others. Do you want to be happy? So do others. Do you suffer? So do others. A focus on our common humanity is also an act of self-kindness, in that it reminds us that we are not alone and isolated in this world.

2. Practice gratitude regularly

Gratitude promotes perspective and feelings of connectedness, both of which are key to humility. Practicing gratitude can include simple steps like writing down three things you are grateful for each day.

3. Cultivate a sense of awe

Again, this does not require getting on a plane or viewing a breath-taking landscape. Instead, any of us can cultivate awe in little ways throughout the day— taking a minute to admire the sunrise or the sunset; considering the incredible engine that is our heart; admiring the many steps an apple took to arrive in a fruit bowl. Like gratitude, awe creates a sense of perspective about the present as well as one’s place in the universe.

- Brita Larson

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