Spiritual Evolution

Harvard Medical School professor George E. Vaillant was the speaker at yesterday’s UC Irvine Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum meeting. Vaillant is Director of Research for the Department of Psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.  His research has involved charting adult development and the recovery process in schizophrenia, heroin addiction, alcoholism, and personality disorders. He is the Director of the Study of Adult Development at the Harvard University Health Service, which has prospectively charted the lives of 824 men and women for over 60 years. Vaillant has been at the helm for 30 of those years.
Vaillant titled his lecture Positive Emotions, saying that spirituality is another name for positive emotions and psychiatry doesn’t talk about positive emotions, religion does. The lecture wasn’t as thorough as I would have liked, but the book sounds intriguing.
Here are my notes:

1. Introduction

  • Negative emotions are about me and now, while positive emotions are future and other focused.
  • [Positive?] emotions are the unwelcome guest at the academic table. This truth is so dramatic that the leading text of psychiatry includes 1-600 lines about:
    but only
5 lines about hope
1 line about joy
0 lines about love
0 lines about compassion
0 lines about forgiveness
Vaillant had to delve into hymns, psalms and prayers to find such words. He says religion, for all its defects, allows us to pull positive emotions up into consciousness.
  • The average Fortune 500 company lasts 40 years; most family fortunes are gone after 3 generations; most nations after 300 years. The world’s great religions are all committed to compassion and unselfish love. All have lasted 1400 years or more.
  •  45 year olds-to-75 year olds with strong community involvement become less religious, more invested in grandchildren, etc. Same group experiencing bad life events that are not self-inflicted (eg. philandering, alcoholism), increase religious involvement.
  • Brain continues to myelinate until age 60. Parts that myelinate in adult life connect passions to fore brain and social judgment. Thus, 70 year olds have less trouble with depression, impulse control and anti-social behavior than people half their age. The heart and brain grow in simultaneous awareness.
  • Compare a golden retriever to a clergyman. Put both in a trunk. Drive around in the desert for an hour. Ask yourself: Which one will be happy to see you when you open the trunk? Maybe it’s not only humans that God constructed in his own image.


2. Mental Health Scales

The Four Fs (me focused) [did he mean 3 Fs and an L?]
PANAS (Positive/Negative Affect Schedule, positive emotions):
  • Induce positive emotions, scores go up; induce negative emotions, scores go down.
Positive Psychology (introduced 1999):
Good Cheer
  • No place for passion or joy on scale.
  • Freud thought awe was an infantile emotion.
  •  1943 Antoine de Saint-Exupery: It is only with the heart one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
  • Don’t believe everything you think.
  • 1943 Autism recognized as a relational rather than cognitive ailment. Attachment is different from cognition.  


Vaillant’s Scale (unique):

3. Case for Spiritual Evolution

Murder rate in 1300 50 times what it is today. In the 19th century, US spent more on defense than health care. Now inverted. In 1900, both the World Health Organization and Boeing 747 were equally unlikely dreams. Nobel Peace Prize and Olympics instituted.


  • Real Darwinian success evident in unselfish love.
  • Religion may kill many, but so do automobiles.
  • Religion is just as dangerous as new-fangled tranquilizers.
4.  Q&A


  • Hippocratic Oath can be summed up as: Don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t want them to do unto you.
  • Love and service are vital to healing.
  • Found nothing in medical library about joy. One of the most powerful ways to produce joy is for a lost person to be found (peek-a-boo, sick person recovers, etc.). Not love affairs; affairs all about me.
  • AA meetings: more consistent hugs than anywhere else. Hugs heal, invite expression of “poor me’s.”
  • Psychiatrists: overpaid, overworked. [and yet, we’re grateful for the good ones]
  • 10 years hard data proves AA works better than psychotherapy for treating alcoholism.

5 Comments on “Spiritual Evolution

  1. Really interesting about the lack of entries in the psychiatry text. And that info on AA is also fascinating. Suggests that relationship and compassion are more powerful than analysis and business.

  2. L.L., The more I look at my notes from this lecture, the more disappointed I am in Vaillant’s presentation.

    First of all, not all negative emotions are me/now focused and not all positive emotions are other/future focused. We can be angry or anxious about others, joyful in our work, etc.

    Second, older people may suffer less depression, but the suicide rate is actually highest in the elderly rather than the young. So what’s that about?

    Third, he really didn’t flesh out anything in a way that was authoritative or meaningful, but the lecture began rather late and he ran out of time, so perhaps it couldn’t be helped. He did make those good points about the importance of joy, hope, love, etc. I’m glad I went. Probably won’t buy the book though. Instead, I’ll take a peak at Barnes and Noble or Borders.

  3. Pingback: Points of Interest #26 « Mind, Soul, and Body

  4. i love this book, had to give it back to the library before i finished, someone else has it now. the bookstore would need to order it, can i read the rest online? if so where?

  5. Hi Sopurkh, Welcome. A quick internet serach didn’t turn it up for free. Blessings~

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