In light of the upcoming presidential race and the increase in narcissism among our youth, I think it’s safe to say that, as a society, we could use a little more humility.
Our culture places so much value on external accomplishments, appearance, and self-aggrandizement—all things that are ephemeral at best—that even a small display of this quiet virtue can make one feel like a drowning man coming up for air.
Yet why can it be so challenging for us to express humility? Is it because we often misinterpret its active demonstration to be a sign of weakness, when in actuality it is an indication of tremendous inner strength?
The answers may be found in what scientists are discovering about this quality—one so deeply revered by all spiritual traditions that many consider it to be the mother of all virtues.
Why is humility good?
When I meet someone who radiates humility, my shoulders relax, my heart beats a little more quietly, and something inside me lets go.
Why? Because I know that I’m being fully seen, heard, and accepted for who I am, warts and all—a precious and rare gift that allows our protective walls to come down.
Truly humble people are able to offer this kind of gift to us because they see and accept their own strengths and limitations without defensiveness or judgment—a core dimension, according to researchers, of humility, and one that cultivates a powerful compassion for humanity.
This kind of self-acceptance emerges from grounding one’s worth in our intrinsic value as human beings rather than things such as six-figure salaries or the body of a movie star or climbing the corporate ladder or the number of friends on Facebook. Instead, humble people place high value on more meaningful things that benefit others, such as noble qualities.
They also see life as a school, recognizing that while none of us is perfect, we can, without negatively impacting our self-esteem, work on our limitations by being open to new ideas, advice, and criticism.
Given what scientists have discovered about humility, it’s evident that cultivating this quality is not for the faint-hearted, nor does it appear overnight.
This ability alone cultivates an awe-inspiring inner strength, the most powerful example of which is Gandhi, whose Autobiography is a journey of humbling self-dissection. He once famously said, “I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and to retrace my steps.”
If Gandhi is an example of what a humble leader can accomplish, then society serves to benefit from this kind of governance. Consider what researchers of the “quiet ego”—a construct similar to humility—suggest happens when we gain control of our ego: we become less likely to act aggressively, manipulate others, express dishonesty, and destroy resources. Instead, we take responsibility for and correct our mistakes, listen to others’ ideas, and keep our abilities in humble perspective.
Who wouldn’t want that kind of leadership for our country—and the world?
But the benefits of humility do not extend to just our leaders. Nascent research suggests that this lovely quality is good for us individually and for our relationships. For example, humble people handle stress more effectively and report higher levels of physical and mental well-being. They also show greater generosity, helpfulness, and gratitude – all things that can only serve to draw us closer to others.
Three tips for cultivating humility
Given what scientists have discovered about humility, it’s evident that cultivating this quality is not for the faint-hearted, nor does it appear overnight. Yet it would seem that one of the great rewards of humility is an inner freedom from having to protect those parts that we try to hide from ourselves and others. In other words, we develop a quiet, understanding, and compassionate heart.