Religion Quiz: So you think you know
The 'quiet virtue' that science says can make us happy, healthy and wise

by David Briggs

October 11, 2017

The philosopher Plato’s four cardinal virtues were wisdom, courage, moderation and justice.

In a modern age where narcissists seem to prosper in arenas from politics to social and mass media, it appears that more contemporary virtues for many individuals are fame, wealth, glory and excess.

But what may be the most countercultural of contemporary virtues – humility – is slowly gaining ground as a wealth of new research reveals the many benefits to the public good and the personal, social and professional lives of individuals.

Perhaps the most important initial contribution from scholars is to debunk what humility is not – and that is the idea of a meek, timid individual.

Humility, according to a developing consensus among researchers, includes an openness to new ideas, low-self focus and an ability to acknowledge one’s own limitations while being able to appreciate the strengths and contributions of others.

And those are only qualities for the strong, individuals who do not derive their self-worth from the opinions of others, but are able to assess situations accurately and are open to new ideas that can improve their lives and the lives of others.

For the humble among us, the benefits can be life changing.

Consider these findings:

A virtue that keeps on giving: Humility correlates positively with related traits such as forgiveness, honesty, generosity, gratitude, and cooperativeness. One national study of adults indicated that "intellectual humility is associated with a host of positive social outcomes, including greater empathy, gratitude, altruism, benevolence, universalism, and less power seeking."
Improved health: Humble individuals have been found to experience fewer negative psychological symptoms and report better health. Physician humility is also important. One study of 297 patients from 100 doctors found "humble physicians were viewed as better at communicating with patients than non-humble physicians, and patients reported better health when their physicians acted particularly humbly."
Better friends and lovers: In studies, humble individuals were found to be better able to receive love from others, and people with humble partners were more likely to be committed to the relationship and more likely to offer forgiveness for perceived offenses. "Despite how we seem to operate in our culture … we still like humble people," says Biola University psychology professor Peter Hill, a leading researcher on humility.
Building a better world: Humble individuals are more likely to appreciate and be receptive to unfamiliar beliefs, values, and worldviews, and to be empathetic and compassionate to those in need.

Despite its numerous benefits, transforming public perceptions of humility is not going to be easy in a society so fixated on appearances. It seems that so many people with differing political and social stances are more focused on tearing down others than working together for the greater good.

But along with discovering the benefits of humility, research is also revealing ways the virtue may be cultivated, from empathy training and promoting related virtues such as kindness and generosity to providing greater spiritual support.

And deep down, many people see the value of a humble lifestyle.

About half of Americans in the 2012 Measuring Morality Study said it was important for them to be humble and modest.

Challenging the narrative that younger adults are more vain and selfish, respondents ages 30 to 44 were more likely than those ages 60 and older to value humility and honesty.

Yet the virtue may still have a long way to go to enter the cultural mainstream.

For example, an enduring, popular beer commercial wants you to believe that approval from others, often groups of beautiful young women, is an essential characteristic of the so-called "most interesting man in the world." His counsel: "Stay thirsty, my friends."

Science suggests much better advice would be: "Stay humble, my friends."

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