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The Antidote to Narcissism

The ‘What is Islam?’ Podcast brings you a whole new world of understanding Islam and religion through social commentary and analysis.

In this podcast episode we speak with Associate Professor Daryl Van Tongeren, social psychologist, author and academic expert, and discuss the value of humility and how it can serve as an antidote to the ever-growing problem of narcissism. We discuss the benefits of cultivating a humble attitude, including increased self-awareness and empathy for others.

Discover how Islam can explain why embracing humility can enrich your life and lead to personal growth and success. Listen now and learn how this often-overlooked virtue can become your secret weapon in the battle against narcissism.

Click below to listen to the full episode, watch the video podcast on our YouTube channel above, or read through an abridged transcript below.

Imam Hadi: Hello everyone and the peace and blessings of Allah be upon you all. I’m pleased today to be speaking with Dr. Daryl Von Tongeren. Dr. Tongeren is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Hope College. He completed his PhD in experimental social psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2011 and was named a 2016 Association for Psychological Science Rising Star. He was recently named a fellow of the Midwestern Psychological Association interested in deep and enduring questions about the human condition. As a social psychologist, he employs experimental research to investigate meaning in life, religion, identity and virtues and has 150 scientific publications in this regard.

In this episode, we will be speaking to Dr. Tongeren about his research on the importance and value of the age-old virtue of humility, which he has shared in his book Humble. We will also be particularly analysing the current societal trends towards narcissistic behaviour and how that is affecting our lives. Of course throughout our conversation, we’ll be exploring Islam’s take on these issues as well. So Dr. Tongeren, thank you so much for joining me.

Dr Tongeron: Thank you so much for having me.

Imam Hadi: Before we started this podcast I wanted to share with you how I came across your book, and it’s been interesting – I was doing a bit of research and thinking a lot about this particular topic, wishing there was a book about it somewhere where someone had done all the research and I could just read their findings. Interestingly, on my travels to Brisbane from a conference in Sydney I happened to look upon this book, which in bold said, Humble – of course referring to the book that’s published now. And I was just so pleasantly surprised, and I straight away ran up to it, picked it up, and thought  ‘what is this? This is gold, I need to read it.’

Recently the Queensland Faith Communities Council held a panel conversation  in which they organised various programs throughout the year and one particular program that the executive board wanted to organise this year was an educational panel – the topic was also humility. So, yeah, it was just great to be able to find your book and read through it in preparation for that panel conversation. And honestly, I really enjoyed reading the book. I think it’s absolutely necessary for today.

We’ll go straight into the conversation – you mentioned in your book that currently we’re going through something you call a narcissism epidemic and particularly mentioned the research done by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, and interestingly, Jean Twenge was actually on a podcast recently with Jordan B. Peterson on this exact same topic. So, I was hoping you could share with us more about this narcissism epidemic as you describe it. How do you think that’s actually taking shape, because I know you give quite an in-depth analysis on this in your book, so I was hoping you could share it with our listeners.

Dr Tongeren: Yeah, so based on the research by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell and others there’s some strong evidence that suggests that in certain parts of the world, definitely in the West and in more individualistic cultures, what we’re seeing is this increase in narcissism,  by that we mean a couple of parallel trends. So one is this increase in entitlement, people feel as though they’re entitled to things coupled with a feeling of perceived superiority, this perception that we’re better than other people. So when we feel entitled and when we feel as though we’re superior to others, one of the things that happens is we start creating a sense of self-worth that’s based on external contingencies, so things outside of ourselves.

So, we go looking for our worth and our value in the amount of money we make or our perceived attractiveness, or the number of followers we have on any social media platform. The problem with that is if we perceive that we’re better than others and we feel entitled to things and we put our self-worth in the hands of others it creates a very fragile self-esteem. And so we look to others for validation and we give up our autonomy because we’re looking for other people to tell us that we’re enough – that we are people of worth and value.

In the eighties and nineties, a lot of researchers thought that if we could just increase self-esteem, a lot of societal problems would be corrected. But instead, what we’re seeing is that this overly high focus on self-esteem has left us more miserable, lonely, anxious and depressed, in a worse shape than we’ve ever been.

And so humility, I think, stands as a stark antidote to this narcissism epidemic to where instead of giving away our sense of self-worth and putting it in the hands of others, we start from a place of security where we know that we’re already enough, we’re already worthy and already loved.

Imam Hadi: Absolutely. It’s interesting because back in university, I remember reading a book by Dale Carnegie on how to win friends and influence people, I found that really interesting because I was drawing parallels with some of the stuff you mentioned in your book and he gives an example of being in a group photo – usually, you wouldn’t be looking at anyone else’s face other than yours. Similarly, he was mentioning how the best way to influence another individual, or if not influence, try to actually win over their favour or become friends with them, is just to listen and genuinely just contribute to the conversation about them rather than yourself.

Dr Tongeren: When we’re really putting ourselves out there, part of what we’re doing as you mentioned, is we’re focusing on ourselves, but we’re also putting ourselves out there for evaluation by others. So, we’re evaluating ourselves, others are evaluating ourselves, and we just create this tenuous system of self-worth and approval that can end up leading us to forfeit our autonomy. And we end up pursuing things and approval and worth that other people suggest are important which really opens us up to being persuaded or manipulated by stronger cultural trends rather than living in accordance with our values.

Imam Hadi: What’s interesting is that in the eighties – the fourth caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness Mirza Tahir Ahmad (RA) did a series of sermons pretty much on this topic, which he tied into the concept of worship because the word for worship in Arabic is “Ibadat” which quite literally means you admire someone so much that you decide to take on their impression upon yourself. Islam, being an Abrahamic faith and following in the line of Judaism and Christianity, teaches that you should be living in the image of God and teaches that it’s possible for you to deviate and, instead of worshipping one God, you worship a myriad of gods. And in that way give away your own freedom in allowing society to map your life for you. I think it’s interesting because it ties in quite well with the concept that you’re explaining today.

I think the situation has been exacerbated because of the rise and use of social media and how we try to post our images online to seek validation from others. But the concept is quite similar really, isn’t it? Islam teaches that if you will not worship one God – and it can be argued if this God is conscious or unconscious. And maybe something people might understand more easily is, it’s either you worship the ultimate good – the aspiration to try and be the best version of yourself or you seek validation from society, which is quite limiting and mentally challenging.

So, I found a lot of similarities between the research that you’ve done and what’s really wonderful is that it really brings it to a contemporary audience, because when we come from the perspective of religion it’s difficult to process these ideas, sometimes even the language is quite archaic. And you don’t really fully comprehend what’s being said. What you are doing is absolutely terrific, I think there are a few other things that you also mentioned in this analysis to do with the narcissism epidemic that we’re going through. You mentioned something about how we selectively choose our friends and we end up in echo chambers as well. How is that happening?

Dr Tongeren: All of us humans have these different cognitive limitations and cognitive biases, and one of the biases that we have is a confirmation bias, which is the process where we seek out information that confirms beliefs that we already have. If you are of a particular political persuasion, you’ll seek out new sources and check new sources that align with your political persuasion regardless of the side of the spectrum you might be on.

And we tend to choose friends that are similar to us both ideologically and in any number of ways, so if we’re selecting new sources and we’re selecting information that already confirms what we believe and surrender ourselves with like-minded friends who are similar to us ideologically, we just start living in a world in which we get overly convinced that we’re right. It’s hard for us to imagine, not only that we could be wrong, but that any decent, thoughtful or intelligent person could believe otherwise. And when we encounter information that disconfirms or runs counter to what we believe, we just discount that information or discount that individual as being uninformed or unintelligent or otherwise subhuman.

And we became so accustomed to being right, and we’ve been so accustomed to only seeking out and being fed information that confirms our worldview, it becomes challenging for us to approach and discuss areas where there are deep divisions or disagreements, and we’ve fallen out of the practice of having hard conversations. The problem with that is, given some of the deep divides that we were experiencing in our world and in various cultures, we need practice in having real and challenging conversations and collaborating and cooperating with people with whom we may not always see the world similarly. And so I think humility is one of the ways that can help bridge some of those divides and help bring us together with a spirit of cooperation rather than division.

Imam Hadi: Yeah. It’s interesting what you mentioned about how it’s difficult for us to now listen to opinions that are either opposed to our own or different to our own and how we selectively choose a crowd that doesn’t decide to disagree with us. It’s also interesting because different analyses that have been made over time of totalitarian regimes actually point to the particular fact that those at the top of such regimes tend to isolate themselves similarly. It’s a stark example, but I think it’s definitely something that we should be very worried about. And you’re absolutely right, unfortunately, nowadays there is a strong shift towards avoiding conversations and people increasingly becoming more agreeable than disagreeable in a constructive way which I think is causing a lot of issues in society in general. In your book, there’s one incident that you mentioned that I resonated with, and I think it’s a perfect example of what can be achieved if you are willing to listen and hear the viewpoint of the other individual. You mentioned an incident with one of your students of African American background, which was interesting – I’ll let you narrate the incident.

Dr Tongeren: Thanks for bringing that up. I’m a white male and an African American student came to me and said “I’ve really hesitated coming to talk to you because you’re a person of authority and truthfully, there’s a history of fear associated with white men in positions of power and authority. But I really wanted to talk to you because some of the things that we’ve been talking about in our social psychology class have really resonated with me, and I’m a bit concerned because the college was debating whether or not to arm its campus safety officers.” Given some of the research we know about armed campus safety officers or armed law enforcement agencies or agents, she was a little bit concerned that she and some of her classmates and friends would feel unsafe.

And so she shared her concerns with me but also shared that it took courage on her behalf in order to have this conversation. At the moment, I had previously thought of myself as someone who was quite approachable and personable, and I hadn’t envisioned myself as someone who was intimidating so it was really a touching moment, as we both became emotional and it shared that her vulnerability meant so much to me and I was vulnerable with her about how meaningful it was to me that she would have the courage to come talk to me about that.

And then I went and I followed up and shared the concerns with the administration and they had received other concerns, not just hers – it resonated with other concerns. I told her I would follow up and in the end, they decided against the policy much to the relief and delight of her and other students. When I followed up with her, she was surprised and delighted that I did, which was then a moment where a student – another person’s courage backed from me a deeper sense of empathy to try and understand her perspective, really what she was feeling in that moment. It was a moment where I think we both grew in empathy and both could gain a little bit of humility because we were able to see each other’s perspective and value each other’s needs at that time. And it’s not easy.

Imam Hadi: I think in hindsight, it is not at all easy. The way you’ve eloquently put it, sometimes when we listen to a really wonderful narration of inspirational stories taking place in society we really undermine how difficult that actual experience would’ve been – because I think of it this way: Usually for someone of colour to come up to a white male and address this particular issue that “I’m afraid for my life”, noting the issues within the United States regarding gun control etc., I would have expected the situation to be quite confronting! It’s possible that a lot of people would’ve actually taken offense to the whole situation altogether, thinking “What do you mean? You know that I’m a white male right?” – or that, of course, the security guard should have a gun. Ultimately it’s the question of student security – what I’m saying is that you could pose a number of reasons negating her concerns right? Like how “It’s just a figment of your imagination, you are unnecessarily worried.” I think it does take a great deal of courage to be able to just listen and accept that – but there is this overarching issue there, not particular to colour or being a white male, though the example is quite powerful in itself. The reason in particular for mentioning it is because you mentioned yourself, in the book, that our default position is to be defensive, right? I don’t think it is easy for human beings to be able to listen to criticism or to listen to something that is against their worldview, or even their whole being in itself. So I was hoping you could explain a bit about that – why is it that we are defensive by default, which no doubt makes it difficult for us to even consider the question of humility?

Dr Tongeren: Thanks for asking!

You’re right our default is defensiveness – one reason why is; when it comes to our deepest held beliefs to our worldviews, these deeply held worldviews answer what researchers call existential questions, these being questions such as “Who am I? What’s the meaning of life? And what happens to me when I die?” For example, religion or political ideology or national narratives often help provide us with a sense of meaning and structure which allows us to interpret what goes on in the world and navigate our way around. They tell us the kind of person we should be, and in the case of some religious worldviews, make claims about what happens to us after we die. All of those are important because they address these existential concerns that if otherwise weren’t addressed, would cause us a great deal of anxiety – and perhaps so much that we wouldn’t really be able to function all that well.

And so the reason why we would behave defensively is because we tend to treat our beliefs as a unified whole. We hold all of our beliefs together, and so what we do is imagine if “I’m wrong about this one thing, I wonder if I’m wrong about some of the other things, and those other things are the things I really have to be right about.” This leads to lumping all those things together and we just feel like we have to be right, then vigorously defend because there’s just so much at stake. The way we do this is first doubling down on what we believe, but other times it’s by trying to change other people’s minds who are different to us because if two people disagree one of them has to be wrong and one of them has to be right. “And in my mind, I think I’m right and you’re wrong because just the mere existence of alternative ways of making sense of the world is enough to undermine my confidence and make me feel anxious.” Sometimes in more extreme cases, that leads to ideologically motivated violence because people cannot handle the existence of alternative viewpoints or lifestyles, ways of being, or thinking – and they try to harm or eliminate and even eradicate people who pose a threat to their way of life

Imam Hadi: As you were making that description, what was going through my head – with me being a Minister of Religion and having much of my work related to community and religious studies – was that one of the things I find absolutely abhorrent to religion but is rampant, is religious extremism.

What makes it difficult for me to understand is that religion generally speaks of the need for humility and you see it in the lives of these religious founders – you name them; look at Jesus, you look at Moses, you look at Abraham, Muhammad peace be upon them all – and even others who might not find mention in the Abrahamic faiths like Buddha, Laozu. All these individuals, when you read their lives, you see an exemplary model of humility and what can be achieved through humility.

And then I see these religious zealots who behave in such a ridiculous manner and can’t see anything other than what they hold to be true as, dogma and doctrine. This makes life so much more difficult for many people across the world because of it, particularly in the subcontinent – places like Bangladesh, where I’m originally from. I was brought up in the UK from when I was two years old, but being from Bangladesh originally, I visited a few times and saw the effects of this behaviour where such religious leaders don’t come close to the concept of humility. And what it leads to, unfortunately, is people altogether questioning the idea of God and thinking God doesn’t exist or don’t want to consider the question of God because – they look at their behaviour which tells them they are behaving inappropriately.

Dr Tongeren: Yeah. I agree with you completely. That was part of such the transformative nature of those that you mentioned, right – that radically countercultural humility which deeply upends the power structures and the way people thought you would obtain power. Instead, it’s flipped on its head and said, you know, humility, making sure that others are equal to the self or above the self. Challenging that was just so powerful and I agree, humility has been a deep and central part of religion for millennia, for a long time. It is an ancient virtue that is deeply embedded in authentic expressions of faith and so a central part of many religious individuals’ lives. It makes it so surprising that many feel like the best expression of their religion is to do so with anger, aggression, or violence.

Imam Hadi: Yeah, I think now that we’ve spoken about one of the issues that we’re facing in contemporary society today due to some of the ways people are behaving on social media and then also how we as humans are generally just defensive, I guess it’s difficult for us to even consider the question of humility – I think it’s worthwhile to actually ask you – how do you define humility? That in itself is quite confusing to a lot of people – humility on display, I would think, is something which you can understand and especially when you read about the lives of the past Prophets and how they behaved – you can straight away tell that this person was humble in nature; but how do you even describe what that is? What is humility? Because I know you’ve given a wonderful explanation in your book about it!

Dr Tongeren: Oh, thank you! I think about it in two different ways. One way to think about it is that humility is about knowing yourself, checking yourself and going beyond yourself. So in terms of knowing yourself: it’s having an accurate assessment of who you are, including your strengths and your weaknesses; the things you’re good at, the things you’re not so good at and areas where you can grow. The second is checking yourself: So that’s reigning in some of your selfish or egoistic motives and behaviours. And sharing the praise and accepting your fair share of the blame. The third is going beyond yourself: Which is prioritising the needs of other people making sure you’re seeking out to understand their perspectives and putting their needs at least as equal to your own.

And maybe a second way of thinking about humility, as a metaphor, is just thinking about humility as being the right size. So not too big in a situation, but also not too small. Everyone’s quite familiar with being too big in a situation, right? That’s the narcissistic arrogance, where you come in and maybe you’re a novice and you assume that you know it all. But also humility is about not being too small, right? It’s not humiliation, servitude or civility but taking up the space that you’ve earned and what your expertise allows. So it’s not being too small, not being too big, it’s being the right size.

Imam Hadi: So keeping all that in mind, if you were to apply it to the initial discussion we had in terms of seeking validation from others, particularly through social media, how would someone try to be more humble in general in face of this narcissistic epidemic that we’re facing?

Dr Tongeren: So I think how to be more humble on social media probably comes down to both motivations and behaviours, and the first thing is – what’s your motivation for why you would be posting something? For some people, maybe you are just sharing something fun about someone else or celebrating someone’s birthday. But if your motivation for sharing something is to boost your self-esteem or because you want people to reaffirm how terrific you are or to enhance your ego, you’re probably not approaching it with the best motivation. And then in terms of behaviours, look at the degree to which you’re accurately and actually reflecting reality, right? Are you spending a lot of time editing and only promoting a certain version of yourself that might not be an accurate representation of who you are in real life? Are you only showing your best moments? Because then we start creating this illusion and we start promoting that illusion instead of allowing other people to see us authentically interacting with the world.

Imam Hadi: Absolutely. It’s interesting that you say motivation because it’s a word that’s usually used in religion – which I would say another word which can be interchangeably used with is ‘intention’. So in the Islamic tradition, you have the Holy Scripture of Islam, the Holy Quran which we believe was revealed to the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, just like revelation received by the previous prophets of God. But in addition to the Holy Quran there is also the practice of the Holy Prophet which is safeguarded in a tradition known as ‘Hadith,’ and the most authentic book of Hadith is called ‘Bukhari.’ The first narration presented within that book, presented by Bukhari is “Our deeds are judged by motives or intentions.”

Motives are our intentions, right? Or fundamentally, what it means is that your deeds or your actions are in accordance with the intention that you put in place at first. And the narration goes on to say that an individual goes to achieve that which he intends to in particular. One thing in Islamic thought, something that’s expressed, is that in every action we take it’s important that we’re very clear on what the intention is and why we are doing it. Because ultimately that intention is what is going to affect your spirituality, and that intention is what’s going to affect your connection and your relationship with God.

I find it interesting – the whole idea of motivation. I remember one young individual coming to me in my community and asking me a similar type of question regarding how can we be more aware and conscious of what we are doing and it was particularly in relation to usually the question that comes up – there is two – one is the difference between humility and being assertive and the other is the difference between humility and expressing or presenting your best self. Those are the questions that I usually face a lot. And at the time what I was trying to explain to this individual was that it’s important that we practice perceiving our own intentions and actually taking a few moments to actually think – “Okay, why am I actually doing this?” And if you do it enough times, it actually starts to become second nature, where even in other day-to-day actions, you first and foremost think “Why am I doing this? Is it to inflate my own ego, my self-esteem? Or is it, is it because I genuinely want to help this individual? Or, is it for the sake of the inherent good that’s within this action?”

The other thing I wanted to ask was that in terms of that default position of defensiveness that we have – how do you try to inculcate humility to try and remedy that situation?

Dr Tongeren: Breaking free from our natural pattern of defensiveness can be tough, and if defensiveness is in part because of a threat, the first thing that we can do at the moment – is we need to shift out of just a mindless, automatic response. We need to slow ourselves down and move for things to be more conscious; so being self-aware that our initial reaction is to become defensive is a good first step. When we notice ourselves acting that way, we can try to move from our unconscious, automatic response into something more conscious, slowed down and measured.

The second thing is that, if defensiveness is because of a threat, we can ask ourselves “What other areas of my life do I have meaning and value? What are some other areas that are providing me with a sense of meaning where I wouldn’t necessarily need to feel threatened because of this one thing? Can I remind myself of some friends or family that I have some other areas where I feel like I have a sense of worth or value?”

And then third, really is to build that sense of empathy. So empathy is going to be a key to humility, when you’re feeling defensive imagine taking the other person’s perspective by asking yourself, why are they believing what they’re believing? Is it possible that they’re absolutely trying their best? What could be motivating them to hold this position? And what can I learn from them? Can I be curious and can I learn from this other person’s perspective rather than just trying to convince them that I’m right and demonstrate the superiority of my own views?

Imam Hadi: Absolutely. It reminds me of a narration of the Holy Prophet of Islam – you know how I was mentioning that when it comes to the question of humility we sometimes wonder if you can be assertive and humble at the same time, or if you can present your best self? Or perhaps in even more simple language – can you have good things and still be perceived as humble?

This was a question that was actually put to the Holy Prophet because he once said that you cannot enter heaven if you have even an iota of arrogance within you, saying that if you have an iota of arrogance within your heart, then it’s not possible for you to achieve either a heavenly life or heaven. And straight away one of his companions turned around and said that people like to have good shoes and good clothes – what about that? Is that not contrary to what you’re saying – isn’t it a show of arrogance? It’s really interesting what he said in response – he said:

“God is beautiful and He loves beauty.”

As I was mentioning in the beginning, this whole concept of worship surrounds the attributes of God Almighty.

Islam teaches that if there’s anyone that you should be humble before it should be God in acquiring His attributes, and that’s how you try to live the best life – by imitating the perfect attributes of God. So if God is beautiful, then you know that’s not contrary to how you should be behaving. Then he further explained that arrogance is only two things: Firstly, the rejection of truth or inability to accept when the truth is presented to you, and secondly, to consider yourself to be better than others.

It’s incredible because it’s perfectly along the lines of what you described, that first and foremost, you have the ability to accept the truth when it’s presented to you, taking it for its merits that if the evidence is there, then just accepting that. And secondly, having that empathy for others and not considering yourself to be any better than anyone else. It’s interesting how from these prophets of God you get similar examples, like Jesus and other past prophets who’ve explained it in a concise manner; I think it’s lost upon us because we think differently today. It is incredible to see the research that you are doing to really delve deeper into these fundamental truths that were expressed in the past.

This actually leads me to another question that I had for you. I don’t think I’ve come across many psychologists who are fundamentally interested in exploring matters related to virtues and meaning in life and fulfilment. I mean, meaning in life and fulfilment are expressed in different ways, but I think the perspective that you approach is more in relation to fundamental virtues. What drew you to this type of research?

Dr Tongeren: Yeah. My introduction to social psychology was in part through the lens of a social psychological theory called Terror Management Theory that had to do with how we come to terms with the realisation that one day we’ll die, and the argument was that once we realised we are going to die, we became incredibly defensive and we created these worldviews and this existential anxiety causes all sorts of unsavoury and unbecoming human behaviour. As I was doing some of that work, what I really appreciated was the existential perspective. But what I felt missing was the other side of that coin – not just how do we get defensive in light of our existential realities, but how do we create a life of meaning that embraces and is fully aware of these existential fears and doesn’t treat them as fears, but embraces them as facts.

So if we know that one day we’re going to die, how can we create a life of meaning now? And, a lot of scholars and people who are much smarter than me both now and in the past have all pointed out that a good life is really one in which someone does good, right? A good life comes by being virtuous, so a good life is a virtuous life.

And some of my work has focused on how some of these virtues such as forgiveness or humility or gratitude can come together and really contribute to a life which people perceive as being incredibly meaningful.

Part of how that happens is these virtues make our relationships better, they’re better when we’re humble, open, and willing to listen and take the perspective of our partner. They’re better when we forgive and ask for forgiveness, when we’re grateful we can appreciate the good things that have been given to us by others or by something larger than ourselves. And so I got drawn to it because I believe that these are some of the deep questions that most humans are asking, what’s the meaning of life and how should I live in order to have that flourishing and meaningful life?

Imam Hadi: Would you say that it also comes from a religious perspective as well? Are you particularly religious?

Dr Tongeren: Yes, I was raised religious and I still consider myself religious now, so I do think that my religious upbringing probably predisposed me to some of these questions that perhaps some of my colleagues or other scholars might not have thought about. As a religious person, these are things that are on my mind, right? How do I live the best life and what makes for a meaningful life and what kind of life do I want to be remembered by? Truthfully, what kind of life can promote love and justice and mercy more broadly in the world? Are there things that I can do that can make the world a more loving and fair and gracious place? And if there are things that I can do, I would do, that’s the kind of life that I want to live and the kind of contribution I want to leave.

Imam Hadi: That’s wonderful because one thing I have been observing is what seems like a modern-day paradox – on one hand, we’re talking about this narcissism epidemic but at the same time there is this large-scale exodus of people genuinely trying to move away from these things and adopting more traditional values and virtues espoused by the various religious founders across the world. But there is such little research behind these various virtues – looking into the particular virtues like humility, as you know, you being religious – you can try your level best to explain that you should be more humble, but I don’t think the modern mind is so accepting of such narratives until you back it with research. And it’s just terrific what you’re doing.

Dr Tongeren: Oh thank you. And the field of positive psychology, which kind of focuses on this, is still very young – still very new. We’re two decades into it and only a decade into this research on humility. So we’re still just very slowly accumulating some of the evidence for the benefits of virtue.

Imam Hadi: No, that’s exceptional because in recent times here in Queensland we are also witness to the power of being able to present information with research. We did a pilot study here recently. So there’s this wonderful PhD doctor Dr. Bushra Nasir from the University of Queensland, who helped in running a pilot study on the benefits and or the effects of prayer and meditative practices. But particularly we were trying to explore the prescriptions provided in Islam – that being the idea of remembrance of God; How do you practice that? And how is that beneficial to you? A full workshop and an intervention were done to try to explain the scientific aspect and also marry it with the religious ideas that have been expressed in the past around these things – the results were incredible. It was just wonderful seeing people going into this research project, a lot of them reported very high depression and anxiety.

Then they were taken through the science of how you can quite literally rewire your brain through meditative practices and how to go about doing it, through the duration. By the end of the intervention it was just incredible the results that we saw. I think there needs to be so much more in this field of study, analysing these various virtues and I really appreciate what you’re doing. I think it’s something that the world needs much more of and I think the world is rapidly realising it as well – the importance of such virtues, and how it really enriches our lives. I think one thing we have to discuss though I know we’re coming to the end of our time, I can’t let you go before we do discuss this because you’ve spoken about it at length: how do you develop humility? We’ve spoken about the benefits of it, what it is, and what it’s not, but how do you go about developing it?

Dr Tongeren: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think the first place we need to start is to seek feedback from other people – we may not have an accurate understanding or assessment of our own humility. It really helps to get a perspective of what others think, so I would recommend that you ask someone who you trust will be open with you and whose opinion you value. If you have people in various domains, such as family or maybe some friends – if you can get a fair amount of feedback about your humility, then that’s a good place to start, you know how much work you have to do. So ask them how humble you are and areas where you potentially could grow in humility.

A second thing to do is – when you get that feedback, don’t be defensive. Try to reduce defensiveness and realise that, by definition, they are right. If they say you need to be more humble, then they would know – these are people who are interacting with you and who are trying to give you honest feedback.

The third thing we can do is once we know where we are, and we’ve checked our defensiveness, we can start working to develop empathy which is trying to work hard to take the perspective of other people. To ask yourself what you could learn from others and to try to tune in emotionally to what they might be feeling or experiencing in a given moment.

And then finally, the last thing is to be aware that the natural currents are always going to be pulling towards this cultural expression of narcissism, realising that to become more humble, we have to do the work every day. It’s a constant decision to try and become more humble, because the currents are going to be pulling us towards narcissism, towards self-aggrandisement, towards arrogance each and every day. And, realising that, you need to practice and you need to continually put in the effort there, there’s not a quick fix for humility. It takes time to develop but it can be developed.

Imam Hadi: Do you think justice plays into it as well? I know that might sound a bit random, but I’m just thinking that, when you’re confronted with some sort of truth, or someone comes to you and brings to your attention that you could have done this better, or maybe this is not how it is – the reason I mention justice is, I’m wondering that to lower your defense if it’s necessary for you to be able to accept truth in the first place based on its merits, based on the evidence that’s provided to you, then would you think that justice dictates that if the evidence is presented before me is right, then I accept it for what it is rather than doubling down and trying to prove what I’m saying is right, though I don’t have the evidence to back it?

Dr Tongeren: Yes, that’s exactly right! I love that perspective that you are changing your mind in light of sufficiently strong evidence. Not changing your mind just for anything or being wishy-washy, or not holding an opinion, but changing your mind for sufficiently strong evidence because it is just and right to do. Some philosophers consider humility to be a liberatory virtue, it helps liberate because it align us with the truth of the world around us. We see ourselves accurately and the world around us accurately. So I do believe that it does complement quite well with justice.

Imam Hadi: Yeah. Because I know in my personal life, that’s something which I’ve come across many times where I think it’s just easier to accept when you know that the evidence is there instead of going against the evidence. Then it’s definitely your ego – it’s really difficult for you to say that it’s not your ego when the evidence is quite blatantly clear that what you’re saying is wrong. I think at the end what I would love to hear from you is – by you trying to develop humility in what your research has shown, in terms of people’s mental health, does it bring a radical improvement? And not just in mental health but also in terms of our relationships and dealing with people?

Dr Tongeren: This is probably an area where the research is still new, but all signs so far are pointing towards well-being, and the benefits of humility. So if you are accurately seeing yourself and the world around you, then you’re going to be more able to take feedback that might be difficult for you to hear.

You’ll be able to make clearer and better and healthier decisions because you’re seeing the world as it is and not the world as you want it to be. You’re able to see yourself as you are and not through a distorted lens, and a lot of interpersonal and intrapersonal problems come from having a distorted relationship with reality or with the way things are. So to the degree that you can cultivate humility and see the world accurately, it should lead to better well-being and better mental health.

Imam Hadi: I won’t keep you any longer, but it was an absolute pleasure speaking to you Dr. Tongeren. And honestly, ever since I came across your book, particularly for that panel discussion that I mentioned, I was just thinking – I wonder if we could just talk to you directly and just get you to explain these concepts! It has been an absolute pleasure, thank you so much!

Listen to the full episode where Imam Hadi and Associate Professor Daryl Van Tongeren continue discussing the benefits of cultivating a humble attitude and how Islam can explain why embracing humility can enrich your life and lead to personal growth and much more!

Privacy Policy

This privacy policy (“Policy”) describes how the Website Operator (“Website Operator”, “we”, “us” or “our”) collects, protects and uses personally identifiable information (“Personal Information”) you (“User”, “you” or “your”) may provide on the website in the course of accessing and using our services (collectively, “Website” or “Services”).


It also describes the choices available to you regarding our use of your Personal Information and how you can access and update this information. This Policy does not apply to the practices of companies/partnerships or otherwise that we do not own or control, or to individuals that we do not employ or manage. The website is directed to users in Australia only.

About the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Assocation (“the Management Association”) promotes social, moral and spiritual well-being. The Management Association is committed to the propogation of the true teachings of Islam through peace and harmony. To promote ‘Love For All and Hatred For None’ and to establish open and honest communication, the Management Association manages and oversees the True Islam domain and the Muslims Down Under platform (“True Islam” and “Muslims Down Under”). True Islam is website domain controlled and managed by Muslims Down Under. Muslims Down Under is an online platform aimed at tackling extremist ideologies and removing misconceptions related to Islam and Muslims.

Automatic collection of information

Our top priority is user data security and, as such, we exercise the no logs policy. We process only minimal user data, only as much as is absolutely necessary to maintain the Website or Services. Information collected automatically is used only to identify potential cases of abuse and establish statistical information regarding Website usage. This statistical information is not otherwise aggregated in such a way that would identify any particular user of the system.

Collection of personal information

You can visit the Website without telling us who you are or revealing any information by which someone could identify you as a specific, identifiable individual. If, however, you wish to use some of the Website’s features, you will be asked to provide certain Personal Information (for example, but not limited to, your name and electronic mail address). Any information you knowingly provide to us, for example through any online forms you fill in on the Website, is stored with Muslims Down Under. The information collected may include the following:

  • Personal details such as name and country of residence.
  • Contact information such as email address, residential address, and phone numbers.


You can refuse to provide us with your Personal Information but then you may not be able to take advantage of some of the Website’s features. Users who are uncertain about what information is mandatory are welcome to contact us.

Storing personal information

Muslims Down Under will retain and use your Personal Information for the period necessary to comply with our legal obligations, resolve disputes, and enforce our agreements (“retention period”) unless a longer retention period is required or permitted by law. Muslims Down Under may use any aggregated data derived from or incorporating your Personal Information after you update or delete it, but not in a manner that would identify you personally. Therefore, the right to access, the right to erasure, the right to rectification and the right to data portability cannot be enforced after the expiration of the retention period.

Use and processing of collected information

In order to make our Website and Services available to you, or to meet a legal obligation, we need to collect and use certain Personal Information. If you do not provide the information that we request, we may not be able to provide you with the requested services. Some of the information we collect is directly from you via our Website. Any of the information we collect from you may be used for the following purposes:

  • Send administrative information
  • Request user feedback
  • Improve user experience
  • Enforce terms and conditions and policies
  • Protect from abuse and malicious users
  • Respond to legal requests and prevent harm
  • Run and operate our Website and Services

Any information collected through webforms will be provided to the Management Association. This information is stored for the purposes as mentioned above and is used only to facilitate further correspondence between you and our platform. As a user you may object to this use but doing so may result in your webform request not being processed.

Processing your Personal Information depends on how you interact with our Website, where you are located in the world and if one of the following applies: (i) You have given your consent for one or more specific purposes; (ii) Provision of information is necessary for the performance of an agreement with you and/or for any pre-contractual obligations thereof; (iii) Processing is necessary for compliance with a legal obligation to which you are subject; (iv) Processing is related to a task that is carried out in the public interest or in the exercise of official authority vested in us; (v) Processing is necessary for the purposes of the legitimate interests pursued by us or by a third party.

Muslims Down Under will not sell or rent any Personal Information provided to us. Personal Information collected through consent or otherwise will remain in data storage related to this Website only.

Note that legally there is some information we are allowed to process until you object to such processing (by opting out), without having to rely on consent or any other of the following legal bases below. In any case, we will be happy to clarify the specific legal basis that applies to the processing, and in particular whether the provision of Personal Information is a statutory or contractual requirement, or a requirement necessary to enter into a contract.

Use and processing of collected information

Depending on your location, data transfers may involve transferring and storing your information in a country other than your own. You are entitled to learn about the legal basis of information transfers to a country outside your own, and about the security measures taken by us to safeguard your information. If any such transfer takes place, you can find out more by checking the relevant sections of this website or inquire with us using the information provided in the contact section.

The rights of users

You may exercise certain rights regarding your information processed by us. In particular, you have the right to do the following: (i) withdraw consent where you have previously given your consent to the processing of your information; (ii) object to the processing of your information if the processing is carried out on a legal basis other than consent; (iii) learn if information is being processed by us, obtain disclosure regarding certain aspects of the processing and obtain a copy of the information undergoing processing; (iv) verify the accuracy of your information and ask for it to be updated or corrected; (v) under certain circumstances, to restrict the processing of your information, in which case, we will not process your information for any purpose other than storing it; (vi) in certain circumstances, to obtain the erasure of your Personal Information from us; (vii) receive your information in a structured, commonly used and machine readable format and, if technically feasible, to have it transmitted to another controller without any hindrance. This provision is applicable provided that your information is processed by automated means and that the processing is based on your consent, on a contract which you are part of or on pre-contractual obligations thereof.

The right to object to processing

Any requests to exercise User rights can be directed to the Owner through the contact details provided on this website. These requests can be exercised free of charge and will be addressed by the Owner as early as possible.

How to exercise these rights

Any requests to exercise User rights can be directed to the Owner through the contact details provided on this website. These requests can be exercised free of charge and will be addressed by the Owner as early as possible.

Privacy of children

We and Muslims Down Under do not knowingly collect any Personal Information from children under the age of 13. If you are under the age of 13, please do not submit any Personal Information through our Website or Service. We encourage parents and legal guardians to monitor their children’s Internet usage and to help enforce this Policy by instructing their children never to provide Personal Information through our Website or Service without their permission.

If you have reason to believe that a child under the age of 13 has provided Personal Information to us through our Website or Service, please contact us. You must also be at least 18 years of age to consent to the processing of your Personal Information in Australia.


Muslims Down Under offers electronic newsletters to which you may voluntarily subscribe at any time through this Website. We are committed to keeping your electronic mail address confidential and will not disclose your electronic mail address to any third parties except as allowed in the information use and processing section or for the purposes of utilising a third-party provider to send such emails. We will maintain the information sent via electronic mail in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.

You may choose to stop receiving the Muslims Down Under newsletter or marketing emails by following the unsubscribe instructions included in these emails or by contacting us. 


The Website uses “cookies” to help personalise your online experience. A cookie is a text file that is placed on your hard disk by a web page server. Cookies cannot be used to run programs or deliver viruses to your computer. Cookies are uniquely assigned to you, and can only be read by a web server in the domain that issued the cookie to you.

We may use cookies to collect, store, and track information for statistical purposes to operate our Website and Services. You have the ability to accept or decline cookies. Most web browsers automatically accept cookies, but you can usually modify your browser setting to decline cookies if you prefer. To learn more about cookies and how to manage them, visit

Do Not Track signals

Some browsers incorporate a Do Not Track feature that signals to websites you visit that you do not want to have your online activity tracked. Tracking is not the same as using or collecting information in connection with a website. For these purposes, tracking refers to collecting personally identifiable information from consumers who use or visit a website or online service as they move across different websites over time. How browsers communicate the Do Not Track signal is not yet uniform. As a result, this Website is not yet set up to interpret or respond to Do Not Track signals communicated by your browser. Even so, as described in more detail throughout this Policy, we limit our use and collection of your personal information.

Links to other websites

Our Website contains links to some websites that are owned and controlled by Muslims Down Under, and also to other websites that are not owned or controlled by us. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other websites or third-parties. We encourage you to be aware when you leave our Website and to read the privacy statements of each and every website that may collect Personal Information.

Data breach

In the event we become aware that there has been unauthorised access to, or unauthorised disclosure of, or loss of, any Personal Information collected by the Website. We reserve the right to take reasonably appropriate measures, including, but not limited to, investigation and reporting, as well as notification to and cooperation with law enforcement authorities. In the event of a data breach, we will make reasonable efforts to notify affected individuals if we believe that the unauthorised access to, or unauthorised disclosure of, or loss of, any of the Personal Information is likely to result in serious harm to the user to whom the Personal Information relates to, or if notice is otherwise required by law. When we do, we will post a notice on the Website and send you an electronic mail.

Legal disclosure

We will disclose any information we collect, use or receive if required or permitted by law, such as to comply with a subpoena, or similar legal processes, and when we believe in good faith that disclosure is necessary to protect our rights, protect your safety or the safety of others, investigate fraud, or to respond to a government request.

Changes and amendments

It is at our discretion to update this Privacy Policy from time to time and will notify you of any material changes to the way in which we treat Personal Information. When changes are made, we will revise the updated date at the bottom of this page. We may also provide notice to you in other ways at our discretion, such as through contact information you have provided. Any updated version of this Privacy Policy will be effective immediately upon the posting of the revised Privacy Policy unless otherwise specified. Your continued use of the Website or Services after the effective date of the revised Privacy Policy (or such other act specified at that time) will constitute your consent to those changes. However, we will not, without your consent, use your Personal Data in a manner materially different than what was stated at the time your Personal Data was collected.

Acceptance of this policy

You acknowledge that you have read this Policy and agree to all its terms and conditions. By using the Website or its Services you agree to be bound by this Policy. If you do not agree to abide by the terms of this Policy, you are not authorised to use or access the Website and its Services.

Contacting us

If you would like further information about this Policy or wish to contact us concerning any matter relating to individual rights and your Personal Information, you may send an email to