Humility comes from the Latin word humilis, which literally means low. But as a virtue, humility is often misperceived as being something that is undesirable or unattainable. How is appearing small or insignificant or worthless in relation to others an attractive quality? To the contrary, truly humble people are strong in that they possess the capacity to deflect self-importance in the service of others or a greater good. Jesus, Mother Theresa, Gandhi and Buddha are exemplars and ultimate definitions of humility. But for most of us, figuring out how, when and where humility fits in our lives can seem like an arduous undertaking.
Going back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors and the days of self-preservation, evolutionary psychologists believe that we all possess a hardwired or natural tendency for self-advancement. Makes sense to me, who doesn’t want to live in a nice house? Who doesn’t want to drive a nice car? Who doesn’t want to get promoted? Who doesn’t want to have excess money to take nice vacations or to buy nice things? And what parent doesn’t want their child to do as well or better in life then they did in terms of status?
But while having a drive to excel is a good thing, our life and work goals and priorities can also become compromised by the high value our culture places on personal status and wealth if we’re not careful. Less attractive qualities such as fear, discrimination, grandiosity, jealousy, racism, narcissism, cynicism, bigotry can all serve to inhibit humility.
There’s an old Italian proverb that reads, “Once the game is over, the King and the pawn go back in the same box.” While there are multiple interpretations to this proverb, I think it’s a nice reminder that we’re all equal after “the game” of life is over; death is, after all, the great equalizer regardless of your station in life. I also think it’s a reminder that we are united in this world of ours as humans and on the same team and that we all matter equally.
Research in this area has shown that the value and virtue of humility is priceless when it comes to personal and professional success and wellbeing. Studies have specifically shown that humble people: have stronger and longer lasting personal relationships, are more effective leaders, have greater tolerance for differences in others and lower rates of prejudice and have lower rates of anxiety and other psychological problems and higher rates of reported happiness and wellbeing. The perception that humble people are passive or weak or unsuccessful isn’t supported by the research where studies have shown that humility is a distinguishing trait of CEO’s of major organizations and corporations.
In striving for increased humility, it’s important to remember that humility is a process, and one that takes effort and time. Just like you shouldn’t expect to have the physique you aspire to have after only going to the gym for a few days, don’t expect yourself to change your thought patterns, feelings or relational style in a short time.
Here are a few ideas to consider if you’d like to live a more humble life:
- Recognize your faults and shortcomings
- Go last
- Spend more time Listening than talking
- Try to understand others more than trying to get others to understand you
- Ask questions
- Acknowledge what you don’t know or do well and ask for advice
- Confront your prejudices
- Praise others and give compliments
- Ask for feedback
- Anonymously do a kind deed or two for someone daily
- Be thankful for all that you have
Remember to keep things in perspective as you make the changes you want to make for yourself. Mother Theresa and Gandhi are truly impressive individuals who personified humility in their lives, but you’re not going for the highest level of self-actualization all at once, just self-improvement over time. Little by little, here’s to making humility a priority in your life…and to starting now!