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A Christmas story: How humility can help de-stress new parents, build tolerance

Humility is at the heart of the Christian story of Christmas — the divine becoming human in a simple stable.

And in many sermons this weekend, believers will be encouraged to themselves be role models of humility. They will be asked to see the face of Christ in the poor and present-day immigrants and refugees fleeing persecution.

This Christmas, those preaching on the value of humility also will have increasing support from science.

New research on humility is revealing how “the quiet virtue” may help build peace in both the lives of individuals and in diverse cultures.

Among the more immediate beneficiaries: Couples having their first child.

Parental stress

Few new parents will experience the kinds of challenges biblical accounts say Mary and Joseph endured before and after the birth of Jesus.

But a new study has found that many of the qualities of humility may help modern couples reduce the stress associated with the transition to parenthood.

Those qualities include:

• Having an accurate understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses.
• Possessing the ability to focus on the needs of others.
• Portraying oneself to others in a modest manner.

A research team led by Jennifer Ripley of Regent University collected data from couples expecting their first child. Couples were surveyed before the birth, and at three months, nine months and 21 months after the child was born. Forty-four of the 69 couples recruited for the study participated at all four time points, while 58 couples were measured at least three times.

All new parents experienced greater stress, but those who perceived their partner as more humble reported less stress.

That reduced stress was evident at each stage from before the birth to nearly two years later, researchers reported in the journal of Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice.

Some possible reasons cited by researchers:

• Developing humility early in a relationship may provide a storehouse of “relational capital” that can be relied on to smooth over difficulties during stressful times.
• Humble couples who can recognize their own strengths and weaknesses may be better able to adjust expectations during trying times.
• Instead of just focusing on oneself, having other-oriented emotions such as gratitude and compassion for your parenting partner also may reduce stress.

Still, it is one thing to develop humility in close personal relationships.

What can be even more difficult is extending similar understanding and compassion to individuals from groups different than your own.

Keeping the peace

Most major religions exalt humility as a virtue.

But religious communities, like many groups and associations, also make distinctive claims that help provide a sense of meaning and purpose in the lives of their followers.

The challenge becomes how one can hold strong convictions within their faith tradition, while respecting the beliefs of others and being open to learning from their experiences.

One answer, a new study suggests, may lie in the practice of intellectual humility. Intellectual humility includes having an accurate sense of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, along with the ability to engage with different ideas in a respectful manner.

The study led by researcher Hansong Zhang of the University of North Texas asked 113 adults recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk to imagine they were involved in a religious small group. Participants were assigned to either a group where people held similar views, or an ideologically diverse group with many differences on religious and spiritual issues.

As expected, those in the diverse group reported both a lower sense of belonging and felt they would derive less of a sense of meaning than those who were assigned to groups with members holding similar beliefs.

But people high in intellectual humility in the diverse group were more likely to report a stronger sense of belonging than those low in intellectual humility.

The effect was so strong in terms of finding a sense of meaning that there was no significant difference between members of the homogenous group and those high in intellectual humility in the diverse group.

Among the practical implications: To the extent intellectual humility becomes a defining feature of a religious community, “it may mute potential negative effects of ideological differences,” researchers said in the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality journal.

That can allow members to “feel more comfortable engaging in diverse religious groups, as well as in ideologically diverse neighborhoods, communities, workplaces, and schools.”

In addition to humility, researchers added, religious leaders might also promote related virtues such as love, respect and openness to others.

The Christmas story may make this an especially effective time for Christian communities to promote humility.

But it does not have to be just a seasonal effort, according to at least one prominent Christian voice.

“It is Christmas,” the late Mother Teresa said, “every time you let God love others through you.”

Image from National Archives and Records Administration, PD US Government

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