St. Valentine, a patron saint of love, happy marriages and young people for many Christians, was by all accounts of his life a humble fellow. The stories and traditions portray an individual of great conviction who cared for others and was willing to sacrifice his life rather than renounce his faith in 3rd century Rome.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and humility may seem like an outdated virtue. Today, fantasy and reality often blur on social media platforms as individuals compete for dates, jobs and even a few moments of fame.
A developing field of research on humility, however, is freeing what is sometimes referred to as “the quiet virtue” from the stereotypes of weak-willed individuals who allow others to walk all over them. The research in general defines humble people as individuals who accurately assess their own strengths and weaknesses, are open to new ideas, and are able to appreciate the talents and needs of others. And those people, the research suggests, are more likely to be successful in life — and love.
“That is a popular misconception that nice guys finish last,” said Joshua Hook of the University of North Texas, who researches humility. “Because humble people are more other-oriented than self-focused, they seem to do better in relationships, and they have more positive romantic relationships.”
Let me count the ways
Here are six ways research suggests humble partners are more likely to be in lasting, fulfilling relationships:
Less selfish, more understanding: Boastful, arrogant individuals or individuals with low self-esteem are more likely to demand constant validation. Humble people are comfortable and secure in their self-knowledge and, as a result, able to be more focused on others.
Higher self-esteem: More secure individuals are less likely to interpret critical remarks as direct attacks on their identity and are better able to consider the concerns of their partner. This may help the couple work out the bumpier parts of a relationship, rather than engage in a downward cycle of retribution and recriminations.
A forgiving nature: Several studies also have suggested humble people may be more forgiving because they have a sense of their own limitations and are more likely to empathize with the weaknesses of others than to adopt a superior attitude. Research also indicates humble people are better able to exhibit self-control.
A humble individual is more likely to be able to see “the world through the eyes of others,” said Wade Rowatt, a psychology professor at Baylor University.
And more likely to be forgiven: An accurate view of their shortcomings helps humble people to recognize when they have hurt others, and to take responsibility for their actions. In turn, their partners are more likely to work with them to repair the relationship and move forward, researchers said.
In one study, college students who had been hurt in a romantic relationship within the last two months were more likely to forgive an offender they perceived as being humble. They also were more likely to avoid or seek revenge on offenders seen as having a big ego.
How important is forgiving one another’s trespasses? “You can’t really have a healthy marriage without practicing forgiveness and growing in humility,” said Steven Sandage, a professor of psychology of religion and theology at Boston University.
A willingness to commit: Young women and men who perceive their partner as humble reported higher levels of satisfaction and a greater willingness to commit to the relationship, according to a study of 459 undergraduates.
“When people get into a relationship where they act in other-oriented ways and both people see the other person as humble, that kind of lays the foundation for commitment and trust,” said Don E. Davis of Georgia State University, a leading humility researcher who was one of the commitment study authors.
Self-sacrificial in a good way: Self-sacrifice can be a tricky area, researchers note. Individuals can open themselves up to being exploited or bullied. Paired with a person with similar values, however, a willingness to sacrifice for your loved one opens the door to relationships of which even St. Valentine would be proud.
“A big part of a healthy relationship,” Hook noted, “is … can you sacrifice for your partner for the good of the relationship as a whole? And can you as a couple work to meet each other’s needs in a way that is mutually satisfying and beneficial?”
Of course, being rich, good-looking or having a cool job still factor into the romance process. All things being equal, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie would have advantages in any dating pool. But perceived humility appears to play a major role from the first impression onward.
Two studies of college students measured their reaction to potential dating partners. The participants reported more favorable attitudes to more humble dating prospects. They also were more willing to share their online profile and phone number and to want to meet the highly humble partner.
Far from humility being a liability, the study evidence suggests that humble individuals “are more desired as romantic partners,” researchers reported.
Still, a larger culture that seems to celebrate narcissism may need a few more lessons in humility before the findings from this new wave of research enter the mainstream. Consider “the most interesting man in the world” commercials for Dos Equis. They feature an older actor with beautiful young women draped over him. His fount of wisdom can be summed up in the phrase: “Stay thirsty, my friends.”
This Valentine’s Day, those seeking true love may want to consider the counsel of some of the most interesting humility researchers in the world: Stay humble, my friends.
David Briggs, a former national writer for the Associated Press who holds a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School, writes the Ahead of the Trend column on new developments in religion research for the Association of Religion Data Archives.