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George E. Vaillant, MD, knows the bad rap spirituality often gets: "People either confuse it with spiritualism—crystals and telepathy and bending spoons from a distance, all of which make many people uneasy—or they think of it in terms of contemplating one's navel and being very self-absorbed." n Vaillant is a psychiatrist, Harvard Medical School professor, and the director of Harvard's Study of Adult Development: not the likeliest candidate, on the face of it, for the job of spiritual cheerleader. But in his latest book, Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith, he attempts to give spirituality new respectability and—in light of antireligion books like Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Sam Harris's The End of Faith—to find in religion something scientists, academics, and even atheists can stand up for. Vaillant's premise is that spirituality is simply the experience of positive emotions: faith, hope, love, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, awe, and especially joy—emotions for which humans are hardwired, and "the very emotions that are in the Psalms."
His ideas are optimistic, unpredictable, and engaging, as we discovered when we asked him to tell us more....
"When people experience joy and awe and love, they say there's something incredible going on inside them, and it must have been put there by some higher being. In the English language, 'God' is what we've chosen to call these feelings. We say God because it's the best we know.
"We have to confabulate words, because positive emotions occur in a part of the brain that doesn't have language attached to it. It's not unlike Freud thinking that what was important about early childhood was food because people who were deprived of their mothers lie on the couch and talk about breasts and ice cream sundaes. Later it became clear that what's important to an infant is eye contact and being held; food was just the metaphor.
"If you pay attention to what spiritual people spend their time doing—whether it's Saint Ignatius or the Buddha—you see that what they're doing is serving other people. The important thing about positive emotions is they're not focused on me, not focused on the individual.
"This is not about spirituality as some kind of self-help. It's more like a barn raising. Self-help is like tickling yourself. No one since the beginning of time has been able to tickle themselves or give themselves a massage. If you want to feel good, get another person to rub your back. Even better, rub someone else's.
"We know that human evolution was based on the need for better social organization to protect our defenseless young from getting eaten by lions. There was a need for unselfish relationships. The positive emotions serve the need of creating and consolidating community.
"When I was in medical school, I was taught that the hypothalamus was the part of the brain that held all the important emotions—the ones related to feeding, fighting, and fornication. Then we discovered the neocortex—the part of the brain that gives us the ability to talk and think and do multiplication tables. And then in the 1950s, the neuroscientist Paul MacLean came along and said, Here's this big area of the brain that mammals have and reptiles don't, and what is the difference between mammals and reptiles? Mammals care for their young. They trust their parents. They know how to play. That's the limbic system. It's the site of positive emotions—the site of spirituality.