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Posted: April 08, 2006

Spiritual Caregiving

The Character of Happiness -- Part 3

(Editor’s Note: In this third 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:
Nature can bring us some of our most sublime spiritual experiences, and yet, as I mentioned before (see parts 1 and 2), it also brings tsunamis and epidemics. Do you feel all of nature must be embraced in a truly spiritual philosophy? For instance, is the microbe that kills somebody you love a form of natural evil, or is it intrinsically a good thing and part of the universal whole?

I am enormously interested in love, life, development, and complexity. It was clear to me 50 years ago that it is as bad for a staphylococcus to catch a person as the other way around. The reason that I cheer for the person, rather than the microbe, is that people are more loving, complex, and have a better go at development than the staphylococcus.
When we die, do you think we're dead for good, or do you feel we have souls that go on? If not, how can you deal with the confounding brevity of precious life?

Your question makes me want to quote the bumper sticker, "Give blood; play rugby." I have had a lot of death in my life, including my father when I was 10. The fact that life is all about love and attachment means that the death of someone you love is going to hurt like hell. When I die, the big deal is not for my soul to go on but for life and love to go on. That's why gardens are such a wonderful metaphor for life after death. Winter comes to every one of us sooner or later. And every spring, just like clockwork, the garden is reborn. That is what I like about the concept of development -- especially spiritual development. By the time we die the real question is, "What have we done to leave our garden better prepared for spring -- someone else's spring?"
What have been your most spiritual moments?

Without question, the most spiritual moments in my life have been moments of love, with my children, or my wife, or anything that overwhelms me with attachment -- even Chartres Cathedral. Love is built on attachment. It's little ducks imprinting on big ducks, or the locked eyes and smiles of a mother and her baby. When I say love heals, I'm really talking about whatever binds you to others -- your spouse, kids, neighbors, and community. All those connections correlate with mental and physical health. The deep joy of spirituality is not the same as happiness or excitement. Unlike those emotions, joy slows the pulse. It's what we feel when, for instance, we are reunited with someone we truly love.
Can you describe a recent moment of love in your life?

That's a terribly good question, and I'm not sure words can encompass it, but it's the right question to ask. What's coming to mind is the house my wife and I live in four months of the year, on the beach outside Melbourne, Australia. When we wake up in the morning, we're together and we look out our bedroom window to see 180 degrees of Phillips Island and ocean and dolphins and the Australian blue sky. I have a sense then of being very lucky to be part of this universe, and am washed over by gratitude.

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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