Throughout the world, it seems that humility is the forgotten character strength. Humility is near the bottom of 24 character strengths in a recent study of more than 1 million people in 75 countries (McGrath, 2015). Fairness, Hope, and Judgment were the top character strengths of Americans. Humility is second to-last.
Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament prescribe Humility as the antidote to pride. CS Lewis describes pride as “the essential vice, the utmost evil … it was through Pride that the devil became the devil … Pride is the complete anti-God state of mind … the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began” (Lewis, 1952).
Why is the expression of Humility lacking in America? Jesus is a paragon of Humility. Since a majority of Americans self-identify as Christian, it seems reasonable to expect that Humility would be a widely-expressed character strength.
Should Americans embrace humility as a character strength?
Mary and I have just returned from a tour of Europe. A hallmark of the tour was the deep appreciation older Europeans have for Americans. Our Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe after World War II was a gift from the American people, undeserved and unexpected, a huge political and financial act of grace. At every port of call, Europeans of my age and older actively appreciate America. In Europe, America’s “Greatest Generation” is known as the “GI Generation”.
Individual Americans also are appreciated. Germans honor John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan for their courage during the Cold War. In Budapest, Elvis Presley is an honorary citizen and has a public park named after him for his support of Hungary during the Soviet Occupation. Jimmy Carter is lauded for his courage in returning the Hungarian Holy Crown during the Cold War to signify Hungary’s 1,000-year-old Christian roots, angering Soviet atheists.
Americans have a right to be proud, but the GIs I knew and loved were usually quite humble. And had you known how Hungarians feel about Elvis and President Carter? I had not. Humility is a quiet extension of greatness that easily evaporates when we claim it for ourselves.
What’s the neuroscience of Humility?
Neuroscience strongly supports the health benefits of Humility. As we surrender to God’s created reality, the HPA axis calms. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is our fight-or-flight warning system. The HPA axis is a brain-based mechanism that protects us from danger.
The HPA axis triggers corrective emotions that guide our behavior. When we make a choice that violates the basic rules of God’s created reality, the HPA axis tries to warn us off. But often we don’t respect its power and purpose.
Pride causes us to not heed HPA warnings. Driven by pride, we push against corrective emotions such as embarrassment, guilt, and shame.
Rather than allowing these corrective emotions to change our behavior, we try to stand tall and proud. In our pride we pretend that we are independent. Our interdependence and need for cooperation are ignored as we insist that OUR way is THE way.
I proudly claim personal greatness even though I am designed for Humility; I have a lot for which I should be humble.
As my pride ignores God’s created reality, my brain takes a beating that leads to psychological and physical dis-ease. Adrenaline and cortisol increase to dangerous levels. Hypertension and heart disease and stress-related cancers take hold.
Prideful people don’t live as long and aren’t as productive, in spite of what they insist on telling us about their greatness. The loud phony greatness of prideful people is a thin shiny shell that is easily fractured. The quiet beauty of humble people is a soft sweater that wears well.
Humility is my personal struggle and the struggle of many of my clients. I am forever in recovery from pride and cannot recover alone. When I surrender my prideful self-direction and humbly ask for God’s help, my brain and nervous system return to its designed state of serenity with joy as its primary emotion. I come back to God.
In a future writings, I will offer a perspective on why Americans hold Humility as a low-ranked character strength. So stay tuned!
Lewis, C. S. (1952). Mere Christianity London: C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd.
McGrath, R. E. (2015). Character strengths in 75 nations: An update. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(1), 41-52.
About the author: Dr. Leonard Matheson Ph.D. is a psychologist who is a pioneer in the field of occupational rehabilitation. He is the originator of work hardening and has participated in setting national standards of practice for work hardening, work conditioning, work capacity evaluation, and functional capacity evaluation. He has designed many of the tests and treatment models that are in use in Occupational Rehabilitation today.