Home All Becoming Unselved: The Mystery of Humility

Becoming Unselved: The Mystery of Humility

written by Kathryn Britton June 8, 2010

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Shrinking violet

Shrinking violet

What would you think if your top character strength were Humility and Modesty? A friend found it rather deflating. Humility sounds so … unexciting. It sounds so much like humiliation. However, when we explored it together, we discovered that she had a great knack for taking herself out of the middle of the picture and for focusing on the needs and behaviors of the people around her. Suddenly humility snapped into place as a quality that fit and that seemed a valuable part of herself.


What is Humility?

Professor June Tangney

Professor June Tangney

One of the leading researchers of Humility, June Price Tangney at George Mason University, describes Humility as a rich, multi-faceted construct characterized by the following qualities:

  • An accurate assessment of oneself, including both strengths and weaknesses — neither unduly favorable nor unduly unfavorable
  • An openness to new information, including ideas that contradict former opinions
  • An ability to keep one’s own place in the world in perspective. David Myers points out that humble people are less inclined than the normal population to self-serving biases.
  • An ability to forget oneself, to move out of the middle of the frame

Where Does Humility Come From?

According to Julie Exline and Anne Geyer at Case Western Reserve, humility probably arises from a sense of security grounded on feelings of self worth that are come from stable and reliable sources such as feeling unconditionally loved. These sources are a firmer foundation of self worth than many external sources, such as achievement, appearance, or social approval.

It was a bit of a surprise to me that humble people may be more firmly grounded in life than others.

What is Humility Good For?

Benjamin Franklin Statue

Benjamin Franklin Statue

After working on humility for several years, Benjamin Franklin noticed that conversations with others were more pleasant, other people were more likely to listen to his opinions, and he had an easier time recovering when his opinions turned out to be wrong.

Management researcher Jim Collins argues that a key ingredient for moving from good to great is having leadership that combines humility with a fierce will. Leaders express humility by routinely crediting others for their organization’s success while accepting personal blame when results are poor. They appear calm and determined, and they can subjugate their egos to the needs of the organization. In my experience, it can be surprising and inspiring to work for a humble leader.

Who Has Humility?

Kendall Bronk and colleagues found humility strongly associated with purpose when they performed a qualitative study of 18 adolescents, 9 with a very strong sense of purpose and 9 without. They interviewed each subject for up to 3 hours, used the constant comparative method to look for themes, and then coded the interview transcripts. Humility, especially openness to other points of view, was a primary factor to emerge from the group with strong senses of purpose, but not from the other group. The article has many quotations from the interviews, including this one:

I think a core belief is that you can’t do anything by yourself. Or anything that you think you do by yourself is really supported by a mountain of other people… I just think you really can never take personal credit for anything. That there are so many other things that go into that.

According to Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, humble individuals are less driven to impress and dominate others, and they tend to be less driven to collect special benefits for themselves. Citing Roy Baumeister, they point out that there is a benefit from being free from self-preoccupation: the need to maintain inflated self images can be a psychological burden.

How Can We Build Humility?

Benjamin Franklin worked for years on humility especially in his conversational habits. For example, he denied himself the pleasure of contradicting other people, and he avoided words that implied fixed opinions. These habits became easier with long practice. He did admit that it was easier to achieve the appearance of humility than the fact. Pride is so hard to overcome, he stated, that “even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”

Facilitated Networking

Facilitated Networking

Tangney suggests that children learn humility by observing role models among parents, teachers, community leaders, or heroes. Who are the heroes of humility? Benjamin Franklin because of his life-long effort and his accurate self-appraisal? Beth in Little Women, who avoided attention as she quietly served others? Mother Teresa who turned focus away from herself toward the people she served? The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, whose 12-step program incorporates elements of humility such as admitting personal limitations? It can be hard to find exemplars of humility because they don’t seek attention.


Peterson and Seligman suggest practicing behaviors that make us more aware of our indebtedness to other people, such as keeping gratitude journals or seeking forgiveness. Seeking reliable attachments may be another intervention, since the resulting psychological safety may be a critical enabling condition for humility.

After talking to my friend, I was very curious about Humility. Now that I’ve explored it, I hold it in awe.

I have done one braver thing
Than all the Worthies did
Yet a braver thence doth spring
Which is, to keepe that hid.
   John Donne

Editor’s note: This article appears in the chapter on Humility in the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.



Bronk, K. C. (2008). Humility among adolescent purpose exemplars. Journal of Research in Character Education, 6(1), 35–51.

Collins, J. (2001). Level 5 leadership: The triumph of humility and fierce resolve. Harvard Business Review On Point article.

Exline, J. J. & Geyer, A. (2004). Perceptions of humility: A preliminary study. Self and Identity, 3, 95–114.

Benjamin Franklin, Passages from his Autobiography

Franklin, B. (1793, 1996). The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Dover Thrift Editions). Dover press.

Myers, D. (1995). Humility: Theology meets psychology. Reformed Review, 48, 195-206.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Humility and modesty. In Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. (pp. 461-475. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This chapter includes contributions by Roy Baumeister, Keith Campbell, Thomas Joiner, Lauren Kachorek, and Joachim Krueger.

Tangney, J. P. (2004). Humility. In C. R. Snyder & S. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 411-419). New York: Oxford University Press.

Sign of spring (Shrinking Violet) courtesy of James Jordan
Benjamin Franklin statue courtesy of Sulynn Choong
Facilitated Networking courtesy of love2dreamfish

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oz June 8, 2010 - 3:13 pm

Kathryn – there is a reality check on this. The VIA data says humility has the lowest correlation with life satisfaction. If so why develop it?

Kathryn Britton June 8, 2010 - 3:42 pm


Because there are qualities to a good life besides life satisfaction, particularly as measured by a single instrument.

When I started thinking about it, I could picture the things that sometimes weigh me down being lifted off, if I could just get myself out of the center of the picture.

Of course, when one is in the middle of a self-report instrument, one is focusing on one’s self, perhaps not the most comfortable focus for someone who is really humble.


Todd Kashdan June 8, 2010 - 4:07 pm

Kathryn, nice work for bringing attention to the oft neglected research by June and others. Of note, there is a gluttony of unpublished research with scientists attempting to measure humility. This is one of those constructs where non-obtrusive measures are going to be necessary (i.e., people need to be relatively unaware of what is being measured).

I happen to agree with you that too many people are putting too many eggs into the happiness basket. Humility can be a viable area for study simply because it is a social behavior that people appreciate and value. It might end up being fundamental to relationships, particularly when there is a power imbalance such as with mentors and mentees. Who knows. There are plenty of interesting questions but to get started, we need creative, valid measures of a tricky construct.


Oz June 8, 2010 - 6:47 pm

Kathryn, I’m not saying you have to be happy. But at the end of the day what’s the point of identifying that your have a strength of humility. Why develop it? If there is no point to it then it becomes an interesting intellectual exercise – nothing more.

Kathryn Britton June 8, 2010 - 7:19 pm

Thanks, Todd. Yes, I did read about some attempts to measure Humility, including one that Bob Emmons gave up on. I can imagine why it would be difficult. What humble person would truly label himself or herself so? It might also be that humble people stick to the middle of Likert scales in general, at least partly because they are aware that they may be wrong.

I was particularly interested in the connection between humility and secure attachment. It is as if those who are noticed enough early enough may not have as strong a drive to be center stage.

When your children get a bit older, perhaps you’ll read some of the Anne of Green Gables books out loud to them. L. M. Montgomery wrote about a lot of people who were either humble by nature or self-sacrificing by duty. I think a lot of things have changed since then.


Kathryn Britton June 8, 2010 - 7:35 pm

I pointed out multiple benefits that might come from being humble, including stronger relationships, less self-centered angst, perhaps a stronger dedication to purpose, and organizational effectiveness. Yes, I know that these are just suggested by the data, not proven. So let me be humble in the way I put them forward.

As far as effectiveness goes, let me use some of Benjamin Franklin’s words. They remind me of various negotiation situations I experienced in my working life. It was much easier to make progress when both sides were willing to be changed by what they heard, surely a quality of humility:

The modest way in which I propos’d my opinions procur’d them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail’d with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

And to this habit (after my character of integrity) I think it principally owing that I had early so much weight with my fellow-citizens when I proposed new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils when I became a member; for I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally carried my points.

Thanks for pressing the point!

Oz June 8, 2010 - 7:40 pm

Kathryn – sorry but will keep pressing. I agree being humble is a good thing. makes negotiations much easier. But again what’s the point of doing the VIA? Is it about woerking on strengths ? If so why? Or working on weaknesses – for example what benefits can I gain by being more humble? So you appera to be advocating working on strengths?

Dan Bowling June 8, 2010 - 9:53 pm

Kathryn, very nice article. Humility is not a trait overly rewarded in modern society, nor is it displayed often amongst the educated and professional classes. But I trust the wisdom of Ben Franklin on most things, and am not too concerned that the usefulness of humility in living a life well hasn’t been sufficiently demonstrated by empirical research. Makes sense to me, as we say down here.

Senia June 8, 2010 - 11:44 pm

Oz, Even if humility has the lowest correlation with life satisfaction, that’s on average. For a particular person, working on modesty and a softer style of management could be exactly what makes him happiest.

BTW, Kathryn, your hunch about negotiations has been well-played out in research. In a cooperative negotiation, each side gets more benefit when there is a power differential – i.e., for example, when one counterparty is more humble and the other is more power-dominant. Why? Because there is much more information sharing, just as you suggest.


Oz June 8, 2010 - 11:54 pm

senia – yep its an average. I guess this is the issue with psychology. Doesn’t cover the exceptions. So what are the characteristics of humble people who are satisfied with life – for example are they more mindful.

And what about humble people who are unhappy – what’s going on?

PP treats everything way too simplistically

Kathryn Britton June 9, 2010 - 2:29 am

Oz, I see the value of the VIA as a source of insight which can then lead in various directions.

Your countrywomen, Jan Elsner and Barbara Heileman, use VIA insights to shift attention away from fixing deficits towards living a more personally fulfilling life. My friend used the insight about Humility to become comfortable with herself. In my case, my Humility strength comes pretty late in the list. So I’m thinking perhaps there are things I can do to become more Humble. Why would I want to? I find I admire people with this strength. I want to be more like them. I can picture a more satisfying life ahead of me if I were more humble. I’ve actually worked already on a Benjamin Franklin approach — for example thinking, how could I answer Oz in a humble way – one where I was seeking the truth between us, rather than trying to prove I’m right?

Relative to your questions about Humility and happiness/unhappiness, I guess I figure that’s where the need for measurement that Todd describes comes in. When reliable measurements become available, then we can ask the questions that you raise, which are very interesting ones. If we were able to identify a large population of people who are truly Humble, are they happier or unhappier than the rest of the population? Do they experience happiness differently? Do they take tests differently? Are they more securely attached, more purposeful, more anything than people in general?

Thanks for persisting.

Kathryn Britton June 9, 2010 - 9:31 am


I’m not sure I understand the situation you describe. If one side is more humble, is there equal flow of information both directions? That is, is having one humble partner in the negotiation enough that both sides learn more? Could you point to the research?


Kathryn Britton June 9, 2010 - 9:37 am

Thank you for the flowers, and for the openmindedness! But here’s hoping there are researchers interested enough in studying Humility empirically that we can all learn more.

Jeremy McCarthy June 9, 2010 - 10:21 am

Kathryn, great article. I hope all the praise on it doesn’t go to your head (:-)). I’m glad you mentioned Jim Collins and his level-5 leadership . . . I think humility has an important place in leadership, politics, management, training, negotiations, business, the list goes on and on. This may also tie in to Losada’s research on high performing teams (who spend more time inquiring about others than advocating for themselves.)

Oz, you say “PP treats everything too simplistically” butI don’t understand what you mean. PP is not an entity. Are you saying that PP researchers and/or practitioners are treating things too simplistically. Or is it just that the science that we have to date is not comprehensive enough for realistic or effective application? I would agree with the latter. It is “low-res” at best and I think the researchers who are working on the science would agree with that.

We don’t have all the answers. Having the strength of humility doesn’t lead to life satisfaction, but maybe understanding your strengths does. Maybe using them in new ways does. Maybe adapting education and career to your strengths does. We are only at the beginning of understand how strengths play a role in the good life.

Don’t we have to use what we can glean from the science that we have . . . and there will always be questions left to answer. The VIA is a simple tool, and hopefully it will evolve in complexity and usefulness. But there is also value in simplicity.

Ryan Niemiec June 9, 2010 - 1:31 pm


You do a great job at bringing people up to speed on this character strength; indeed, one of the least researched yet dates back centuries. I’m glad you started by debunking misconceptions as it is all-too-common for people to think humility means low self-esteem.

I also agree that focusing only on the happiness strengths does not tell us much. Indeed, there is more to happiness than character strengths. It is likely that many of the character strengths bring their own unique benefits. I look forward to emerging research on the outcomes of genuine humility.

I’m no measurement expert but for obvious reasons humility seems to be the most challenging character strength to measure and tactics similar to what Todd notes are needed. Wade Rowatt and his colleagues (2006) at Baylor U. have used such “hidden measures,” looking at the difference between perceptions of self and of others. Other researchers argue that a humility-honesty trait should be added to the Big 5. Stellar researcher, Everett Worthington (2008) calls humility “the quiet virtue” and shares a wonderful, anonymous quote that gets at the essence of humility: “There is no limit to what can be done if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”

Again, well-done, Kathryn!

Rowatt, W. C., Powers, C., Targhetta, V., Comer, J., Kennedy, S., & Labouff, J. (2006). Development and initial validation of an implicit measure of humility relative to arrogance. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 198-211.

Worthington, E. (2008). Humility: The quiet virtue. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 27(3), 270-273

Exline, J. J., & Geyer, A. L. (2004). Perceptions of humility: A preliminary investigation. Self and Identity, 3, 95-114.

oz June 9, 2010 - 3:50 pm

Kathryn – You have nailed the issue. I suspect being humble when combined with certain traits might be a strength (or perhaps a weakness. This goes for all the strengths. And the real danger is that most people don’t appreciate this complexity. I really think that people need a background in psychology before they start playing with this stuff.

oz June 9, 2010 - 5:41 pm

Jeremy – there are better tools around than the VIA that already accommodate complexity

Linda June 9, 2010 - 7:37 pm

Dear Kathryn,

I have found a rich discussion of humility in this book —

Everyday Holiness: The Jewish spiritual path of Mussar, by Alan Morinis.

“Mussar teaches that real humility is always associated with healthy self esteem.”

“Every aspect of our lives is experienced by us through the lens of the ego, and when that glass is distorted or obscured, we will no longer perceive any of the details of our lives accurately, as they are.”

Morinis writes that humility stands between conceit and self-effacement.

Thanks for this thoughtful piece.


P.S. I read The Ark based on your recommendation and liked it very much.

Amanda Horne June 10, 2010 - 6:55 am


I love this article. Thank you. It’s one that all leaders should read.

When I ask clients or groups of leaders what they admire about leaders who inspire them, humility (or similar words) are always in their lists. They also talk about a quiet confidence, which might be come from what you write: “firmer foundation of self worth”.

I enjoyed reading the discussions about humility and the VIA. I wondered whether having some humilty (doesn’t have to be our top strength) helps us with our other strengths and therefore could be a pathway. E.g. humility enables us to be more forgiving, grateful, curious, open, kind, generous, socially intelligent and so on…perhaps many of the strengths are enhanced if we added a bit of humility. I have no evidence for this – it just struck me as a thought when reading the discussions.


Kathryn Britton June 10, 2010 - 8:46 am

Jeremy, Thanks! I’ll keep a watch on my hat size.

Thanks for bringing up advocacy and inquiry. Actually Losada found that high-performing teams had about equal amounts of the two. So advocating for your own point of view is an important behavior, but so is listening to the point of view of the other side. We’ve both probably been in negotiations where people come in refusing to budge. When I’ve been the mediator, I’ve talked about being willing to be changed by what you hear. That, of course, after some shared positive emotion (humor, talking about a sports event enjoyed by both sides…)


Kathryn Britton June 10, 2010 - 8:59 am

Thank you for adding pointers to research. I look forward to reading them.

I look forward to the day that people study character strengths in combination. What would it mean, for example, to have Humility in combination with Love? Or Bravery? Or Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence?

I see, in the tradeoffs diagram in Chris Peterson’s A Primer in Positive Psychology (p. 158), that Humility is most likely to co-occur with Fairness, Authenticity, Prudence, and Leadership, as well as least likely to co-occur with Zest, Hope, Creativity, and Curiosity. What can we infer from that?


Kathryn Britton June 10, 2010 - 9:30 am

Yes, strengths in combination does seem like a very important research direction. It’s one of the things I like about the MBTI — that is, that the preferences are studied in combination. But then, there are only 16 combinations, as opposed to the 24 factorial (given that there’s nothing magical about 5) — a huge number. Even looking at top five strengths, there are more than 5 million possible combinations.

You make me curious. What are these better tools? What makes them better? How accessible are they?


Kathryn Britton June 10, 2010 - 9:35 am


I’ve always loved the idea of the expert mean — that true virtue is just the right point between excess and deficit, and that the point depends on context, which is why it is the “expert” mean. Thank you for giving us the words from Morinis, that humility stands between conceit and self-effacement.

Thank you for the source — the book by Morinis sounds like interesting reading.


P.S. I hope you got to read the sequel, Rowan Farm, as well!

Kathryn Britton June 10, 2010 - 9:47 am

Isn’t it interesting that people respect humility in the leaders they follow, but leaders don’t necessarily see the value of humility?

Humility in the leadership context reminds me of the Openness quality that Aneil and Karen Mishra write about in their book, Trust is Everything: Become the Leader Others will Follow. “One form of such disclosure that the leaders we have worked with have demonstrated is their willingness to admit they don’t know everything, which empowers their followers to help them out” (pp. 31-32).

I love the pathway idea — wondering how strengths work in combination.

oz June 10, 2010 - 2:25 pm

Kathryn – by chance MBTI is one of the tools that I find useful. MBTI step 2 has 5 sub scales – ie 4 x 20 categories. see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MBTI_Step_II

It allows me to create a language to understand myself and others – and it takes into account combinations

And better still you can geneerally guess someones type fairly accuratrely through behavioural observation and some questioning. There is no way you can do that with VIA

By the way I’m an ENTJ – it explains much

Other tools I have used are Team Management Systems.

Perhaps I should write an artcile for PPND on why MBTI is a better tool than VIA

Linda June 11, 2010 - 8:51 am

As a non-practitioner, I use assessments for my own personal growth and so don’t have to choose. They all offer something, e.g.


StrengthsFinder – all thinking ones – this throws me off a bit

VIA – fits with MBTI

And one I haven’t seen mentioned here, MAPP, with a focus on motivation and career. The narrative report is extremely enlightening to me as a more big-picture person.

Also, PP’s Happiness Hypothesis, The Resilience Factor, Flow, and others. I so appreciate all of the research you are doing and I find many articles here that spur my thinking and help me to understand.

Thanks, everyone.


Jeremy McCarthy June 11, 2010 - 9:23 am

Oz, I agree with you that MBTI is very useful (I’m an ENFP by the way). The downside is you do have to “create a language” (as you mentioned.) What I love about the VIA is someone can immediately understand their results with the language they already have. And they can share their results with someone who has never even heard of the VIA and it is still valuable information. I’ve done MBTI many times, but I’d still have to refer to my books to know what the different profiles are and what they mean. On the flip side for those who are fluent in it and able to use it intuitively, it is very powerful.

I love Linda’s comment. “I don’t have to choose. They all offer something.”

Kathryn Britton June 11, 2010 - 10:29 am

Oz and others,

One of the things I love about MBTI is that it addresses the space between people and gives some insights into interactions. Thus I can use what I know about different preferences to adjust my behavior / understanding based on what I know about others. So you’re an ENTJ, I’m an ENFJ. That helps me understand why you express things in ways that I wouldn’t.

VIA has its own uses for insight. I once had a list of self-expressed workplace strengths from a group of 20 people. I was rather amazed at how easily they mapped to VIA strengths.

I like Jeremy’s point that people can understand their VIA results with the language that they already have. That’s a problem for me with StrengthsFinder, in that the names for talent themes take a lot of explaining and don’t necessarily stick in my head. But the insights from StrengthsFinder have been amazing as well. In particular, I think it can help people see that qualities about themselves that they take for granted are part of the human condition actually are strengths that not everyone has in the same degree. I have now forgiven various people in my life for not being strong on the Individualizer strength!

So I guess the question is, why write about why MBTI is better than VIA? Why not write about the kinds of insights it contributes, without the comparative twist? From my experience standing in front of the poster that turned into the following paper, that’s not necessarily well recognized in academic circles.

Choong, S. & Britton, K. (2007). Character strengths and Type: Exploration of covariation. International Coaching Psychology Review special issue on Positive Psychology, 2, 9-23.

Whatever, I would be very interested to read it.

Kathryn Britton June 11, 2010 - 10:35 am

Jeremy and Linda,
In a MAPP paper comparing/contrasting results from VIA, StrengthsFinder, and MBTI, I concluded that having multiple instruments that overlap is like having two eyes that overlap but don’t see exactly the same thing –> depth perception. Does that analogy make sense to you?


oz June 11, 2010 - 2:54 pm

Kathryn, I agree – and that’s the challenge for PP. No depth. Most PP are limited to the tools advocated by Penn.

And it would be no surprise that an ENTJ would say that – we love the verbal joust. And yes it can be tedious for others.

To phrase it in language that might appeal to you “I feel that if we really care about people, then we need to actively explore ideas that are outside the PP paradigm. Its time that we moved on”

Jeremy McCarthy June 12, 2010 - 9:13 am

Kathryn, I like the depth perception analogy. Here is another way to think about it: There are an infinite number of ways by which a person could be measured, only a fraction of which our existing science gives us the tools to do so. In stead of “left eye-right eye vision” think about height and weight. I can measure height and weight which are two entirely different measurements, both of which give me a sense of the “size” of a person. Is it better to use a scale or a ruler to measure a person? Sometimes the measurements don’t seem to align or agree with each other. The answer is it’s better to use both and develop a better understanding of how they relate to each other.

To continue my analogy, let’s imagine the first scales were very primitive and could only measure weight in 50 lb increments. You would learn that someone is either around 50, 100, 150 or 200lbs. it would give you a sense of size but a lot of people would be lumped together into categories, and the instrument might not give much useful information and would do little to really tease out the differences within those categories. It would be a mistake to throw away the scale and instead focus only on height because you have more precise tools by which to measure it. Rather, we should continue to develop and refine the tools that we have (and look for better tools) for greater accuracy and understanding of relationships between them. The relationship between measurements, as things come into focus, is where that “depth perception” comes from.

Kathryn Britton June 12, 2010 - 10:30 am

Great analogy. It makes me think of Body Mass Index. Isn’t it the case that very muscular people can have BMIs that look, on the face of it, as if they were overweight? So any test results need to be interpreted in the context that produced them. Or as we learned in grade school arithmetic, look at your answer to see if it makes sense.


Kathryn Britton June 12, 2010 - 10:52 am

There’s a line, “When you call me that, smile!” in one of my favorite books growing up (The Virginian by Owen Wister, about cowboys in the same part of America where my uncles and grandfathers were cowboys…)

I had to work hard to imagine you smiling as you uttered what sounded like fighting words.

I think the statement about no depth is rather unfair. A month or so ago, I was asked whether there were particular journals that underlie PPND articles. When I looked, I found that in the last year, we’ve cited work from more than 120 journals. We’ve mentioned work by a range of different researchers who aren’t limited to tools advocated by Penn. Yes, many (but not all) of the PPND author community started with a grounding at Penn. Some are still involved in Penn programs like resiliency training. But we aren’t paper dolls cut out according to a Penn pattern.

Also, the field of positive psychology has deep and widespread roots, as well as a growing number of researchers interested in exploring different questions. Where the field goes tends to depend on their interests, which branch and then connect with researchers in other areas. Some people became interested in work settings — their work then connected to work by business school professors like Kim Cameron, Jane Dutton, Bruce Avolio, and Fred Luthans. That’s happening with sociology, education, health, and so on.

It’s an imperfect field with imperfect measurements and imperfect studies. Better measurements come when creative people get interested and try things and then refine them. That takes interest and support.


oz June 12, 2010 - 2:59 pm

Kathryn – the irony is that the articles that I wrote contained 20 unique references – that’s almost 20% of your 120.

You might choose to have a look at my blog that has had 120 pieces of resarch added this year. http://www.i-i.com.au/blog

Again I think tis reinforces the lack of depth in PP

I would like to see something new for once – rather than the “same old same old” which has been around for years in the self help section of bookshops

I have come to the realisation that it’s time to move on from PPND.

So good bye.

Bill H June 17, 2010 - 11:44 am

Humility is a virtue, that is a strength.

Some years ago, I went on a retreat. A 3 day silent retreat (there were some 12 preached meditations to spur us on; “Ignatian format retreat). The challenge laid out was for us to quietly consider our dominant faults/weaknesses, what tended to disrupt our lives the most, particularly what disrupted our relationships.

Three options were given. While a mix of answers among these options was possible, we were encouraged to go deep to see if we could track it back to a single dominant fault.

Three options were given:

Do you tend to put your security/happiness in yourself (your ability to control outcomes, results, master events, even yourself)?

Do you tend to put your security/happiness in others (their impressions of you, your prestige, their acceptance of you, their approval).

Do you tend to put your security/happiness in things (food, sex, electronics, travel, furniture, house, golf, etc.). These are more “sensually” related (using a broad definition).

The result of doing any of the three above to the extreme can be captured in three “vices” (as opposed to virtues)

self > Pride

others > Vanity

things > Comfort Seeking/Sensuality/sloth/too much comfort seeking

Humility, temperance, spirit of service, spirit of poverty, and detachment, (e.g, of things), and other virtues can be practiced to offset/counter/oppose these other weaknesses.

For me, this was a helpful way to break things out, and focus on improvement.

We have too much self-esteem in my opinion.  A huge gap between esteem and commensurate/real competence.     Humility is ultimately about truth.

Kathryn Britton June 18, 2010 - 9:03 am

Thank you for sharing this bit of your own history relative to humility. It seems like humility as a lifting of burden.

One question occurred to me as I read your comment. What would happen if instead of or in addition to meditating about “what tended to disrupt our lives the most, particularly what disrupted our relationships,” you also mediated on times when you felt most in balance with the world and most connected in your relationships, looking for what was going on at the time? I wonder if you would see instances of humility in yourself?


Mark Masbruch June 18, 2010 - 11:27 am

Outstanding article. Thank you Kathryn! I believe the virtue of humility has gotten a bad name these days. You have done a great job in bringing out the beauty of it! By no means am I an academic on this subject, but your article hit home with experiences in my life. I have found that by taking myself out of the center of my universe, I have been able to significantly reduce stress (in myself and those around me), while being in an industry with significant stress and change. I have also found that it is a daily exercise since I have found my nature to lead me toward selfishness as opposed to selflessness.

Kathryn Britton June 18, 2010 - 4:20 pm

Thanks for connecting humility to stress reduction in an industry full of stress and change. I’m curious about your daily exercise. How long have you been practicing? Has it gotten any easier over time?


John Thomas June 18, 2010 - 7:15 pm

Well done.

It is *particularly* important in American culture, I think.

In some way that is hard to explain, I think lack of humility is also behind our tendency to “fall for” the idea that there is (or should be) a “pill for that” no matter what the “that” is.
You can finally be perfect if only….you take this pill or go through this treatment or buy this product.

Bill H June 18, 2010 - 7:17 pm


I think you’re right about considering the question from a “what works” perspective.

Maybe as an exercise…

Do I frequently notice that when I am generously self-giving in my interactions with others, my relationships take on a more serene and pleasant character?

Whenever I put others first, even at the expense of my own momentary wants and desires, do I sense a natural joy develop?

When I push off pursuit of my own physical comforts and pleasures in order to give something to others, do I generally experience a quiet joy in return?

My concern would be to ensure that in “flipping it around to the positive” I might actually somehow flip it around to “what I get out of it” instead.

This intent (deliberate or inadvertent) would be counter to real love which is in its best form always self-donating with no strings attached.

I can anticipate someone saying something about “win-win”….but this cake and eat it approach can easily be a veiled selfishness, vs. true self-donation (kenosis).

Mark Masbruch June 18, 2010 - 9:29 pm

A little over 20 years ago, I had a life experience where I realized that God exists (and it wasn’t me :), and that he loves me unconditionaly. Actualy, the humility did not start there since I am a bit of a slow learner. It came a year or so later while reading the book of Daniel, in Jewish scripture, where it tells of king Nebuchadnessar setting up a large statue of himself to which everyone was forced to bow down. The story is about three young Hebrews who do not bow down and are thrown into a fiery furnace, yet God saves them and they walk out. However, I got stuck on the part about Nebuchadnessar and his golden image. It hit me that I was like Nebuchadnessar in that I was holding up a larger than life image of myself for everyone to bow down to. I also realized that trying to live up to this false image of myself was VERY exhausting! So I vowed at that time to be honest with myself and with others about who I am.

I would like to say it has been all downhill from there, but we have a tendency to kind of get stuck on ourselves and fall in love with that golden image. However, that story remains clear in my head to this day and it helps me to re-center myself and come clean with myself and the world. By the way…it is immensely refreshing and kind of sets me free to just be me.

Kathryn Britton June 19, 2010 - 10:06 am

Let’s see if I understand your point. It’s a belief of perfectibility that makes people (in your comment, Americans in particular), open to sales pitches for pills, products, treatments, and so on.

If you add humility, then what? Greater acceptance of what is? Or greater tendency to work for results? Or both?


Kathryn Britton June 19, 2010 - 10:22 am

Bill H., Your concern that flipping things around ends up in a “What’s in it for me? state has been explored on this site before. I am curious about your response to Derrick Carpenter’s article reflecting on altruism, pure or not:

The Gift of Giving

Your word, kenosis, was new to me — a form of emptiness. Would you say it corresponds to the Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) poem — which seems a good thing to post under humility:

If thou could`st empty all thyself of self

If thou could`st empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf,
And say, `This is not dead`,
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity,
That when He comes, He says, `This is enow
Unto itself – `twere better let it be,
It is so small and full, there is no room for me.`

Kathryn Britton June 19, 2010 - 10:29 am

I hadn’t thought of the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for a long time. Thanks for making the connection for me to humility. I can picture that story coming to mind when I need to prod myself out of the middle of the picture — remind myself of your other words, “it is immensely refreshing and kind of sets me free to just be me.”

Nebuchadnessar reminds me of Shelley’s Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Bill H June 19, 2010 - 2:31 pm


Yes Derrick’s elaboration on altruism is very related to the points I mention about selflessness, with his “pure altruism” being closest to my mention of true love.

“Agape” I think predates words like altruism, but I am not completely sure.

The poem you posted is simply beautiful. Yes. “And fill thee with Himself instead.” That’s it! The more we empty, the more we’re given!

Kenosis, at least my understanding of it, is more a deliberate emptying of oneself for the love of others, for their benefit, for their true/ultimate good.

Think Jesus, Mother Teresa, many others across the ages, or even across the street!

I had to go to the Mall today…I rarely go, maybe twice a year….and I saw there a very patient older person tending generously and patiently to another middle aged person who clearly had some serious handicaps. He was moving about in one of those little personal scooters. There was clearly some self-emptying going on!

May I never lose my attention to these glimpses of love.

Kenosis might be seen in true life giving acts (the Cross, a full life of generous charity to the poor, self-less acts in combat), but more often we all have opportunities for such self-donation as parents, spouses, friends, workers. Putting our interests, preferences, _quietly_ to the rear, for the love of others.

Kathryn Britton June 20, 2010 - 5:00 pm

Bill H., I wonder how many people walked past that couple of people in the mall without particularly noticing anything. I suspect there a certain priming that goes into being aware of “glimpses of love” around you — whatever it was about you that took you from what you saw to what you thought about it. I wonder if that priming is part of humility as well. Kathryn

Bill H June 20, 2010 - 5:37 pm

I am not sure. It’s a penetrating question you raise.

For the last few years I’ve been re-examining, hopefully enriching/deepening, my understanding of love. I think we’ve really muddied and muddled the concept over the last 75 years or so. We’ve defined it down.

“Love” seems to be used today in so many ways, one of the most troubling for me is one that has a “mutual” or a “reciprocal” dimension to it. That sort of thing is a contract, it’s not love, in my opinion.

And the “emotional” or sensual aspect that’s associated with love, too, has led to a very shallow, quickly changing, almost animal-istic understanding of love, not befitting the true and full dignity of humans, again in my opinion.

And maybe even worse it the over intellectualizing of the concept of love (people who would rather talk about love, than visit the homebound neighbor just next door).

The most powerful (i.e., capable of action) definition of love for me is one that involves heroic generosity and real deeds, done purely for the true good of another.

Naturally, the word ‘generosity’ has been coming to mind again and again over these last few years with respect to love. “A costly love”.

So, I’ve been on the hunt for examples of such in my life as points for improvement. Maybe that’s why my eyes darted onto the exchange I saw in the mall.

Kathryn Britton June 20, 2010 - 7:33 pm


I wonder what you’d think of George Vaillant’s article on this site — Happiness Equals Love, Full Stop. George’s most recent book is called Spiritual Evolution. I wonder how much your views overlap.


Bill H June 20, 2010 - 10:43 pm


That’s a very interesting article. I’ll read it again tomorrow. I’ve always wondered about the order of some of the supposed relationships that are drawn from similar human research. For example, I never really bought any of the self-esteem research that hit the popular press (I’ve never really studied the original works, so bear with me). And some of my complaint may simply be owed to very superficial reading of research by press writers who don’t know how to interpret such research.

For example, I’ve always thought that self-esteem is the by product of performance well done. I work hard, I master content, details, skills, and in return I experience some sort of boosted confidence, serenity about my abilities.

It seems the popular press (and the educationalists) go directly after self-esteem as if it’s an independent variable. Puff that up and you’re done.

This has I believe created huge gaps between perceived esteem and actual competence. Such illusions are not a good thing.

Distinctions between happiness and contentment have been drawn for some time. The Greeks studied this. I think it was Aristotle that first teased these apart.

Happiness at one point (at least up to the writing of the Declaration of Happiness) had a far far deeper meaning than what most people think today. Classically understood, it meant, I believe, a whole life well lived (morally well lived). Happiness then (and referenced in the Declaration) did not mean what most people think it does today (not just no needs, but no wants unmet, a belly full of food, great satiation, etc.).

Joy is a little different and more beautiful. It’s a by product of giving yourself away with great abandonment in love, for love, out of love.

Lastly on the whole topic of studying such concepts. I can’t remember whose quote this is…it might be from CS Lewis. But it goes something like this:

“Looking for the soul in the body is like looking inside the radio to find where the music comes from.”

I mean we can’t help but analyze such things (we’re driven to study them), but I don’t believe we’ll gain appreciable ground on these topics beyond what Aristotle discerned thousands of years ago.

Kathryn Britton June 21, 2010 - 10:34 am

Bill H.,
We tend to call the concept you describe “self-efficacy” rather than “self-esteem.” Self-efficacy is increased foremost by mastery experiences. Social persuasion is a distant third as a way to increase it.

It’s interesting — I don’t think we ever discussed self esteem during my time in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program. But we talked about self-efficacy a lot.

Carol Dweck’s work on “person praise” versus “process praise” may relate to your concerns about too much emphasis on self esteem. She has found that praise as general labels — “You are so smart,” “You are so creative,” “You are so kind,” actually dampens performance, making people risk averse. It is as if they are afraid of the labels falling off. Process praise, where you mirror back to people what they are specifically doing well at the time, can increase their willingness to persevere. “You found a great way to solve that problem,” “Going over to talk to that person who was standing alone at the party was really considerate.” My daughter found this recently in a functional MRI test. The person conducting the test commented that she was really focusing well, which gave her a boost to keep on.

There is a lot to be learned by studying happiness, joy, and contentment. But that’s probably another comment.


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