Is a little humility the key to greater happiness? That’s the premise of this article which appeared at The Atlantic’s website last week. (And don’t worry, this piece is liberated from behind its paywall, so everyone can read it!) In the article, author Arthur Brooks draws a parallel between the famous “blue pill” / “red pill” choice offered in the classic film The Matrix.
In the film, resistance leader Morpheus offers our protagonist, Neo, a choice between blue and red pills. If he takes the blue one, he will continue to live relatively blissfully inside the fake reality created by humanity’s computer overlords. If he takes the red, however, he’ll get to live in reality, with all its ugly truths. Taking the blue pill is about living in numb oblivion. The red pill, however, is about facing harsh truths, including about ourselves. For author Brooks, this is a great metaphor for injecting a little humility into our lives. “It isn’t always easy medicine, and it comes in more than one dose. But if we are willing to take that pill again and again, amazing rewards await us.”
Brooks describes humility this way:
[M]odesty about one’s own importance or expertise—can refer to an act (for example, giving up a good seat for another), a condition (living in an unflashy way), or a trait (avoiding the assumption that you are always right). It can be practiced intellectually—a concept called “epistemic humility,” seen in discussions of, for example, religion or politics—and socially, in our relationships with others, which can involve refraining from behaviors such as boasting, for instance.
For Brooks, humility is rooted in a difficult but ultimately rewarding exercise in self-reflection. “Rather, we should recognize the empirical fact that, left to their own devices, people tend to overestimate their strengths and underestimate their weaknesses. Humility is the full acceptance of the truth about ourselves.”
Like becoming physically fit, which can be a painful process at the start but which pays real dividends if you stick with it, Brooks notes that humility has real benefits too.
Scholars have found that the red pill of truth offers improvements in almost every corner of life. For example, research has shown that when people face negative events, humility can buffer the pain and stress that they cause, perhaps because humble people are less likely to think that they shouldn’t encounter problems.
Humble people are also more attractive to romantic partners. Dating research finds that most people find humble potential partners more appealing than those who are arrogant; the humble ones also tended to have more successful long-distance relationships. When people are prompted to think about humility in experiments, they show greater self-control. (No doubt this is why people who score higher on measures of humility are less likely to abuse drugs compared with those who are less humble.) Humility also can make you more generous with others, and more effective as a leader.
So how do we become more humble? Some suggestions, as Brooks notes, are obvious, like arguing less and listening more, or talking less about yourself. But here he offers three specific ideas.
- Research your weaknesses. This helps you not just to address them, but serves to remind you that you’re likely not as amazing and special as you may think you are
- Ask a friend to make sure you take the pill. We are relatively good at identifying humility in others. So the idea here is to ask a friend to hold you accountable to be authentically humble, and call you out on it when you aren’t.
- A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Here, instead of seeing yourself as smaller as a way to be humble, notice the ways that things are greater than a narrow me-me-me focus.
In addition to the benefits noted above, Brooks suggests one last return on investment. “Humility—not as self-hating, but as self-knowledge and acceptance—allows you to take off your mask. Pretension and image maintenance are extremely taxing work and demand a lot of energy. Truthfully saying “I don’t know,” not competing for first place in every social arena, and just being your imperfect self can be a huge load lifted from your shoulders.”
So what do you think about the above? About the exercise of embracing humility and the benefits of doing so? And what do you think of Brooks’ suggestions for how to achieve a more humble way of walking through the world?
We will talk about this, and likely more in our conversation tomorrow evening, Tuesday Oct. 10. Join us for the discussion starting at 7pm at Casa Real in downtown Oxford.