As is often the case with social science, the data on humility and happiness reinforce what philosophers have long taught. Around the turn of the fifth century, Saint Augustine gave a student three pieces of life advice: “The first part is humility; the second, humility; the third, humility: and this I would continue to repeat as often as you might ask direction.” About a thousand years earlier, the Buddha taught in the Dutthatthaka Sutta that attachment to one’s views and opinions is a particular source of human suffering. These ancient ideas could not be more relevant to modern life.
The humility to admit when we are wrong and to change our beliefs can lead us to greater success and happiness. But with our defenses arrayed against these virtues, we need a battle plan to alter our way of thinking and acting. Here are four strategies you might want to add to your arsenal:
1. Turn the hermit king against himself.
The hermit king walls himself in against admitting a mistake or changing his mind because he fears that doing so will make him look stupid or incompetent. Thus, left to your limbic tendencies, you will fight to the death for even doomed ideas. But this tendency is itself based on an error.
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In a 2015 study in the scientific journal PLOS One, researchers compared scientists’ reactions to being informed that their findings “don’t replicate”—that is, they are probably not correct—a common problem in academia. It would be no surprise if scientists, like most people, got defensive when contradicted in this way, or even doubled down on their original results. But the researchers found that this sort of behavior was more harmful to the scientists’ reputation than simply admitting they were wrong. The message for the hermit king is this: If you are wrong, the best way to save face is to admit it.
2. Welcome contradiction.
One of the best ways to combat a destructive tendency is to adopt an “opposite signal” strategy. For example, when you are sad, often the last thing you want to do is see others, but this is precisely what you should do. When your ideas are threatened and you feel defensive, actively reject your instinct to defend yourself, and become more open instead. When someone says, “You are wrong,” respond with, “Tell me more.” Make friends who think differently than you and challenge your assumptions—and whose assumptions you challenge. Think of this as building your “team of rivals,” the phrase the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin used to describe Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, which, unlike Kennedy’s, challenged him relentlessly. If this sounds like torture, it is all the more urgent that you try it.
3. Don’t document all your beliefs.
Sociopolitical forces today can make humility feel especially dangerous, and even foolish. Social media has stunted our ability to reinvent our thinking, because our ideas are increasingly cumulative: Every opinion we’ve ever posted online is memorialized. With such a well-documented history of beliefs, changing your mind on something important or controversial can feel like weakness and open you up to public criticism.