Modesty refers to the tendency to under-represent one’s abilities and/or positive qualities to others. Interestingly, while psychology literature has established that self-enhancement and positive illusions about oneself promote well-being, some research suggests that modesty can also enhance well-being.
While much of this research has been conducted among Western cultures, study authors Chuhua Zheng and Yanhong Wu suggest that modesty might be particularly significant in Asian cultures. In China, interpersonal harmony is widely valued and modesty might, therefore, be especially important to the well-being of Chinese people. Zheng and Wu aimed to study the relationship between modesty and well-being in a Chinese sample, while additionally focusing on self-esteem and emotional intelligence as possible mediating factors.
A study was conducted involving 500 Chinese undergraduate students between the ages of 18-49 who completed online questionnaires. All participants completed the Modest Behaviour Scale and the Emotional Intelligence Scale which measured the “extent to which participants perceive, understand, regulate, and utilize emotions both in the self and others”. They additionally completed the Rosenberg Self-esteem Scale, the Index of Well-Being, and the Beck Depression Inventory.
Results showed that a high level of modesty was associated with increased emotional intelligence, self-esteem, and subjective well-being, but lower depression. Additionally, both heightened emotional intelligence and higher self-esteem were associated with increased subjective well-being and lower depression.
Mediation analysis allowed researchers to examine indirect effects that might explain the relationship between modesty and well-being. As researchers predicted, results showed that emotional intelligence and self-esteem mediated the association between modesty and well-being – and in a specific sequence. “In other words,” the authors explain, “modesty predicted increased emotional intelligence (. = .43, CI [.35, .51]), which predicted self-esteem (. = .55, CI [.46, .63]), and in turn predicted greater subjective well-being.” This finding suggests that modesty can boost emotional intelligence and self-esteem, leading to increased well-being and lower susceptibility to depression.
The researchers offer an explanation for why modesty positively predicted well-being and negatively predicted depression. They say, “As modesty has been considered an important social norm in East Asian cultures such as China, Japan, and Korea, obeying the modesty norm can make East Asians feel good about themselves, leading to a high level of self-esteem.”
Furthermore, emotional intelligence emerged as an independent mediator between modesty and depression. The authors suggest that modest, self-presentation tactics might help individuals better regulate their emotional needs, leaving them more equipped to cope with negative experiences.
The researchers address the limitation that the study did not explore different types of modest behavior that might differently influence well-being. Furthermore, the study was focused on a Chinese sample so the findings cannot be generalized to other cultures. Still, the study suggests that “modesty may function as an important strategy for establishing and maintaining well-being among Chinese” and that therapy sessions focusing on fostering modesty may help boost well-being and lower depression.
The study, “The More Modest You are, the Happier You are: The Mediating Roles of Emotional Intelligence and Self‑esteem”, was authored by Chuhua Zheng and Yanhong Wu.