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Posted: February 24, 2006

Spiritual Caregiving

The Character of Happiness -- Part 1

(Editor’s Note: Beginning this week and continuing with the next two 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 follows.


A lot of Americans call themselves spiritual but not religious. What is the value of organized religion?

Do you remember when we used to have floppy disks for computers? You have to format a floppy disk before you can use it. Spirituality is the good stuff, the content on the floppy. It's people loving each other, behaving unselfishly, and listening to and caring for each other. But in order to format the disk you may need to be a Buddhist or Baptist or Catholic. You may need a framework. All the world's great religions have love at the core, but they also have social supports that encourage giving. And if you take a look at history, organized religions like Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam have all lasted. I believe spirituality is hardwired and that's why formatting it works.

So is your floppy disk formatted?

Yes and no. I was brought up to go to church about twice a year and with little enthusiasm. When I was 28, I got confirmed in the Episcopal Church. I thought it was important to make that commitment, but the ideas of the church, such as that of the Trinity or Christ, were simply wonderful metaphors to me. I did not literally believe them. And I'm not really observant in a particular faith tradition now.

Then you might actually call yourself spiritual but not religious, which is certainly how I see myself. What got you interested in spirituality?

I was a Harvard psychiatrist working with alcoholics, and I found that people could actually heal through Alcoholics Anonymous, so I became a nonalcoholic "friend" and eventually a trustee of AA. For 10 years I went once a month to meetings, and each time I enjoyed a wonderful human experience with people who had committed to AA as a way to stay alive. It was the best church service I'd ever been to, because it captured what is so valuable about religion without that extra stuff that makes some of us so reluctant to be formatted. Even though AA is not a religion, they still have formatting, like the Big Book, the Twelve Steps, and sponsoring other members. They know if they don't follow those rules they may relapse into alcoholism and die. So here was a room full of former alcoholics, laughing and happy and sober, and as a fancy Harvard professor, I didn't have the same ability to make people sober.

You've coined the term "mature spirituality." How do you define that, and how does it contrast with traditional religion?

They are not mutually exclusive. One can have a strong faith tradition and be genuinely stabilized and inspired by going to services, but as you mature spiritually, you become humble about it. Mature spirituality honors all faith traditions as valid and draws a circle that pencils all of humanity in. As a clergyman friend of mine says, "If you do not believe that we are all children of God, your spirituality needs examination." Religion often involves goals: I am confirmed in the church, I am a Zen master, and I am a rabbi. Spirituality regards life as a journey, and thus one thing becomes another, and one never arrives at an endpoint. Religion provides comfort, but spirituality often leaves us vulnerable. Religion may help us stay out of Hell, but spirituality often evolves from having been through hell, and seeking healing. Religion can comfort us by somehow assuming God is responsible for us. Spirituality reminds us that we are an integral part of the universe, and therefore we must behave responsibly. Where religion prays, "Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil," spirituality prays, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."


Jill Neimark is a frequent contributor to Spirituality & Health magazine. 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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