Is Humility the Antidote for the Humblebrag?

In recognition of all Dolly Parton has done for the state of Tennessee, plans were underway to erect a statue of her in front of the state capital. But the singer declined the honor. “Given all that is going on in the world, I don’t think putting me on a pedestal is appropriate at this time,” explained Parton.

In a world full of arrogance, self-promotion, humblebrags, and flagrant narcissism, it is refreshing to bear witness to humility. Once a highly prized value, humility seems to have gone out of fashion. When I ask parents what they hope for their children, “happy,” “confident,” “successful,” and “proud” are typical responses. I rarely hear anyone say they would like their child to be humble and yet humility may be the virtue that gets us closest to the best version of ourselves. Humble people are more understanding, curious, generous, and forgiving than those who lack humility. They also have more satisfying and enduring relationships- an essential ingredient of wellbeing.

“I rarely hear anyone say they would like their child to be humble and yet humility may be the virtue that gets us closest to the best version of ourselves.”

Humility can be conceptualized as having two core features.

1. Intrapersonal Humility is an awareness of one’s limitations and capabilities.  Those with intrapersonal humility are clear-eyed about their strengths and weaknesses and recognize that they do not have all the answers.

2. Interpersonal Humility is an orientation towards the needs and wellbeing of others. Those with interpersonal humility are modest in self-presentation, respectful towards others, and not driven by self-interest.

Not surprisingly, humility is easier to observe in others than in oneself.  If someone declares themself to be “very humble,” it’s likely that the opposite is true.

According to a new survey, nearly half of Americans think they’re better than everyone else. Perhaps this explains the epidemic of humblebrags on Instagram. Given that humility is in such short supply, is there anything that can be done to increase it?

Researchers found that one way to cultivate humility is through the experience of awe.  Awe is the feeling of wonder and amazement that occurs when we are in the presence of something magnificent and powerful. Nature, art, music, religious experiences, and witnessing acts of magnanimity or virtuosity are the most commonly cited awe-inducers. Awe-inspired people are kinder, more patient, and less self-absorbed. They are also more humble. The study found that experiencing awe leads to a diminished sense of self and an increased sense of connection, which in turn, gives rise to humble thoughts and behavior.

In other words, gazing at a night sky may be just what the doctor ordered to bring us down to earth. Indeed, feeling small is what inspires largesse.

As the old saying goes, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman