The Art of Self-Improvement. What We Can Learn from the Ancients. Is Our “Me-First” Culture Waning?
There are signs that the tide is finally beginning to turn against self-centered individualism. In our age of pandemics,
populism, and climate change, ever more of us are tiring of capitalism in its neoliberal form. Competitive individualism is exhausting. Self-realization as our ultimate purpose in life is beginning to feel hollow. Efficiency enhancement without a higher purpose seems increasingly meaningless. Our consumerist lifestyle is not only failing to feed our need for deeper meanings but is destroying our planet. Rates of depression, anxiety, and burnout have never been higher. But while COVID-19 continues to pose an existential threat to our lives and livelihoods, it has also reminded us that we are not islands. We belong to many communities — small and large: from families to nations to the human race.
It is telling that it took a virus to remind us that we are, at heart, not atomistic but relational beings. We can only survive with larger groups and systems that influence us and which we influence in our turn. All our actions have ripple effects. If we refuse to wear a mask, if we break quarantine, host large parties, or fail in other ways to respect the rules of social distancing, we put others in danger. The consequences of our behaviour during a pandemic are particularly stark examples of how our actions impact others.
And yet our behaviour always does. What we eat and where we shop, how we live, what we do at work, which modes of transport we use, whether we holiday in far-away places and pay our taxes, and for whom we vote — these all have social and ethical consequences. In the West, we have long tended to see ourselves as isolated and discrete agents, operating autonomously, our primary purpose being to secure personal advantages. In many Eastern cultures, and in the past, the self has been imagined very differently — as relational, as part of larger structures and communities, and as fundamentally interdependent.
As the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca put it: “Our relations with one another are like a stone arch, which would collapse if the stones did not mutually support each other, and which is upheld in this very way.” What might it mean to think of ourselves in that way today? Are we even capable of doing so, or have we become so used to prioritizing ourselves that many of us cannot think outside and beyond the self? We have so much to learn both from other cultures and our ancestors about more pro-social ways of being.
During the current crises, it is particularly important to remind ourselves of this knowledge, for key aspects of the challenges that we now face, from the pandemic to the weakening of our democratic institutions to climate change, are consequences of our elevation of the atomistic self. It is time to look again at ancient models of thinking about the self. Many thinkers, past and present, have written about what we have to gain, both as individuals and as a society, by directing our attention away from ourselves and towards others.
Confucius, the Buddha, Viktor Frankl, Alfred Adler, and Matthieu Ricard are among them. article continues after advertisement Aspiring towards a transcendence of the self steers clear of the dangers of both selfish individualism and mindless collectivism. It entails dedicating our energies to something bigger than ourselves without ever simply dismissing the importance of that self. It means directing our energies outwards instead of inwards, towards an ideal, a common cause, or other people.
Paradoxically, by pursuing self-transcendence, we can also achieve many of the aims we traditionally attach to the idea of self-realization. Living more outward- and other-oriented lives will make us happier, more fulfilled, and healthier. It will give us purpose, direction, and focus. It will reconnect us. Numerous psychologists are currently studying the many benefits of embracing ancient other-orientated virtues. Alongside gratitude, altruism, and compassion, humility is key amongst them.
Studies of humility and its many benefits have dramatically surged in the last two decades — and this is significant. Humility relates to the degree to which we value and promote our own interests above those of others. In the past decade in particular, psychologists have established fascinating links between humility and our ability to learn, our wellbeing, our openness to other cultures, and our capacity to be effective leaders. Perhaps most importantly, humility ensures core aspects of our social functioning.
It seems the perfect antidote to the self-fixated spirit of our age. And while we still grapple with what are hopefully the final throes of a “me-first” culture, we can find solace in the fact that a broader pro-social turn will be beneficial for all of us.
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Episteme, 9, 205–23. Hill, Peter, and Laney, Elizabeth K. (2016). Beyond self-interest: Humility and the quieted self. In The Oxford handbook of hypo-egoic phenomena, eds. Kirk Warren Brown and Mark R. Leary. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hook, J. N., Davis, D. E., Owen, J., Worthington, E. L., & Utsey, S. O. (2013). Cultural humility: Measuring openness to culturally diverse clients. Journal of counseling psychology, 60(3), 353–366. Kesebir, Pelin. (2014). A quiet ego quiets death anxiety: Humility as an existential anxiety buffer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(4), 610–23. Kishimi, Ichiro and Koga, Fumitake (2017).
The courage to be disliked: How to free yourself, change your life and achieve real happiness. London: Allen & Unwin. Krumrei-Mancuso Elizabeth J., Megan C. Haggard, Jordan P. LaBouff & Wade C. Rowatt. (2019). Links between intellectual humility and acquiring knowledge. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(2), 155–70. Leary, M. R., Diebels, K. J., Davisson, E. K., Jongman-Sereno, K. P., Isherwood, J. C., Raimi, K. T. & Hoyle, R. H. (2017). Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(6), 793–813. Onody, A. P., Woodyatt, L., Wenzel, M., Cibich, M., Sheldon, A., & Cornish, M. A. (2020). Humility and its relationship to self-condemnation, defensiveness and self-forgiveness following interpersonal transgressions. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 48(2), 118–130. Ou, A. Y., Waldman, D. A., & Peterson, S. J. (2018). Do humble CEOs matter?
An examination of CEO humility and firm outcomes. Journal of Management, 44(3), 1147–1173. Owens, B. P., Yam, K. C., Bednar, J. S., Mao, J., & Hart, D. W. (2019). The impact of leader moral humility on follower moral self-efficacy and behavior. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(1), 146–163. Owens, Bradley P., Johnson, Michael D., Mitchell, Terence R. (2013). Expressed humility in organizations: Implications for performance, teams, and leadership. Organization Science, 24(5), 1517-1538. Ricard, Matthieu (2015). Altruism: The science and psychology of kindness, translation anonymous. London: Atlantic.
Rego, Arménio, Owens, Bradley, Leal, Susana, Melo, Ana, Cunha, Miguel, Gonçalves, Lurdes & Ribeiro, Paula. (2017). How leader humility helps teams to be humbler, psychologically stronger, and more effective: A moderated mediation model. The Leadership Quarterly, 28, 639-658. Robson, David. (2020). Is this the secret of smart leadership? BBC, 1 June 2020. Online at: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200528-is-this-the-secret-of-smart-leadership (accessed 3 June 2020).
Tangney, J.P. (2002). Humility. In Handbook of Positive Psychology, eds. S.J. Lopez and C.R. Snyder. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 411–19. Twenge, Jean M. and Campbell, W. Keith. (2009). The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. New York and London: Atria. Worthington Jr., Everett; Davis, Don; and Hook, Joshua (eds). (2017). Handbook of humility: Theory, research, and applications. New York: Routledge. Worthington, Everett; Davis, Don; Hook, Joshua (2017a), Introduction.
In Handbook of humility: Theory, research, and applications. New York: Routledge, pp. 1–15.  See, for example, Frankl 2004; Kishimi & Koga 2017; and Ricard 2015.  See, for example, Alfano et al. 2020; Barbarino & Stürmer 2016; Cojuharenco & Karelaia 2020; Davis et al. 2015; Harvey & Pauwels 2014; Hazlett 2012; Hill & Laney 2016; Hook et al. 2013; Kesebir 2014; Krumrei-Mancuso 2019; Leary et al. 2017; Onody et al. 2020; Ou et al. 2018; Owens et al. 2019; Owens et al. 2013; Rego et al. 2017; Tangney 2002; and Worthington et al. 2017. 
See for example, Alfano et al. 2020; Barbarino & Stürmer 2016; Cojuharenco & Karelaia 2020; Davis et al. 2015; Harvey & Pauwels 2014; Hazlett 2012; Hill & Laney 2016; Hook et al. 2013; Kesebir 2014; Krumrei-Mancuso 2019; Leary et al. 2017; Onody et al. 2020; Ou et al. 2018; Owens et al. 2019; Owens et al. 2013; Rego et al. 2017.; Robson 2020; Tangney 2002; and Worthington et al. 2017.  See Worthington et al. 2017a.