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Posted: March 10, 2006

Spiritual Caregiving

The Character of Happiness -- Part 2

(Editor’s Note: In this second in a 3-part series of Spiritual Caregiving columns, we will help you explore the traits that build our character and offer a happy and full life, all through the eyes of a noted Harvard psychiatrist.)
What character traits favor a happy, fulfilled life? Ask Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant and he'll tell you that one of the most powerful is generativity -- the ability to give to others in a way that ultimately inspires and illuminates, passing on the torch of life and creativity. Generativity, says Vaillant, is grounded in unconditional love, because it gives without expecting anything back.
Vaillant drew his conclusion from his famous long-term study of 268 Harvard graduates, which examined their lives over many decades. A psychiatrist at Brigham and Women's Hospital and a professor at the Harvard Medical School, Vaillant is author of Adaptation to Life, The Wisdom of the Ego, and the classic Natural History of Alcoholism Revisited. Now, at age 70, he is working on a new book on spirituality, and here reports about the distinction between spirituality and religion, and the concept of mature spirituality.
Our dialogue continues:
So from what you have said (see Part 1), spirituality can and must be part of religion, but the structure of organized religion is often separate from and sometimes at odds with spirituality.
Yes, religious beliefs can sometimes veer away from the heart, and become so rational that they even go to court to defend themselves. There are times that religious leaders try to meddle in the choice of federal judges.
Spirituality is a very broad and even elusive term. Is it possible to deny it?
I can try, with the caveat that denying spirituality is a little like denying Shakespeare's genius: everybody agrees that it exists, but no two people describe it in the exact same words. I think spirituality involves qualities like patience, tolerance, kindness, honesty, and humility -- and always, love. It's the universal response to things we can all deeply appreciate -- love, fresh water, music, sunrise, human connection, and a power greater than ourselves. It's an abiding belief in the potential of the human spirit, and faith in our capacity for regeneration and recovery. It's the search for life's meaning and purpose in relation to family, community, the world, and finally, God, whatever our own understanding of God is. The word spirit is from the Latin "breath." A physician friend of mine, Maren Batalden, said that in breathing, we may have taken in a molecule of oxygen released from a green leaf in the rainforest of Brazil as long ago as the year before the birth of Christ. Thus, spirituality, like breathing, sustains life through time and space. I also feel that spirituality is about positive emotions like joy, hope, forgiveness, and love. These emotions are future-oriented. They help us broaden and build better lives. My hunch is that loving people is contagious.
Okay, how about some tough questions -- the eternal tough questions that all spiritual and religious traditions must address? For instance, what about suffering? How can we include tsunamis, wars, epidemics, and social inequity in our spiritual view of the world? Is it possible that by assigning only positive emotions to spirituality, that what you are trying to do is create a bulwark against the sometimes harsh realities of the world?
I am not a bit comforted by the mantra "God works in mysterious ways." Terrible things happen, but some of the most exciting and spiritual lives I know of are about the capacity of unconscious coping mechanisms, or what I call mature defenses, to turn tragedy into gold. I see nothing spiritual about Beethoven growing progressively deaf and becoming a suicidal, grumpy, desperately lonely old man. But the fact that he could turn that pain into the Ninth Symphony by blending his own painful spiritual music with Schiller's Pollyanna-like "Ode to Joy" seems to me to be a way to embrace suffering as part of a spiritual philosophy.
Jill Neimark is a frequent contributor to S&H. A former features editor at Psychology Today, she has written for The New York Times, Discover Magazine, The Economist, and Natural Health, and is co-authoring a book on love and health with bioethicist Stephen Post.

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2006 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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