According to Greater Good, there are two kinds of humility: the self-abasing, excessively submissive, self-damaging kind, and the stress-reducing unself-centered appreciative kind. “After years of neglect, the topic is now starting to receive more serious scrutiny from researchers.
A study published in January suggests that humble people enjoy better physical and mental health because stressful events don’t make them as depressed or anxious as other people. Another study published the same month, in the journal Patient Education and Counseling, found that humble doctors are more likely to have healthy patients, perhaps because they’re better at communicating with them.
But a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology argues that humility is not always healthy.
Across five separate studies, surveying nearly 1,500 people, researchers led by Aaron C. Weidman of the University of British Columbia found that when people talk about “humility,” they may be talking about one of two distinct emotional experiences. Sometimes they’re describing what the researchers call “appreciative humility,” which usually follows some kind of personal achievement and balances feelings of pride with guilt and strong feelings of appreciation and kindness toward others.
But other times, people experience “self-abasing humility,” which usually follows a personal failure and involves feelings of shame, low self-esteem, and worthlessness, as well as submissive behavior—all strongly associated with low psychological well-being and poor health.
The authors argue that most people use the same term—“humility”—to describe these two very different experiences, yet researchers have generally only focused on the positive side and ignored its “darker, more negative, or problematic side.” So while previous research characterizes humility as a worthy and desirable goal, Weidman and his colleagues suggest that precisely how people are humble may determine how good it is for them.
“We hope that the present findings will spark future research into the causes, consequences, and dynamics of both sides of this complex emotional experience,” they write.