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Read this Book! “Spiritual Evolution” by George Vaillant

By on June 3, 2008 – 5:09 pm  8 Comments

Senia Maymin, MBA, MAPP, PhD, is the coauthor of Profit from the Positive. Maymin is an executive coach to entrepreneurs and CEOs. Maymin runs a coaches network and is the founder and editor in chief of Her PhD is in organizational behavior from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Full bio.

Senia's solo articles are here, her articles with Margaret Greenberg here, and with Kathryn Britton here.

BOOK REVIEW: Spiritual Evolution by George E. Vaillant, M.D. (Broadway Books, May 20, 2008).

Spiritual Evolution cover Here is what will happen to you when you read George Vaillant’s book Spiritual Evolution:

  • During the chapter “Joy,” you may cry as you feel Joy. During the chapter “Love,” you will want to call home to say Hi.
  • You will be pulled in by personal stories from the Study of Adult Development, and how these men have come around to positive emotions and spirituality.
  • You will be inside a colossal head fake – a situation in which you’re learning but it seems like you’re playing.

George Vaillant In Spiritual Evolution, Vaillant makes the case that “positive emotions are not just nice to have; they are essential to the survival of Homo sapiens as a species.”

For thirty-five years, George Vaillant ran the seven-decade-old Study of Adult Development at Harvard. He writes in this book, “by studying lifetimes, I have learned to pay attention to how people behave, not to what they say.” Here, too, in this book, Vaillant describes emotions by how the emotions behave, not by what they say. Vaillant describes an emotion by what a poet may have written about it, where it resides in the brain, which world leader may have used it, and how a Study participant over time came to display it. As a reader, you may feel that in reading about Joy, you’re inside a story with many paths, and then, in stepping away from the book, you start to see: “Aha!”

Inside Spiritual Evolution

The table of contents may remind you of a hymn: Faith, Love, Hope, Forgiveness, Awe, etc. The first part of the book is about the three evolutions Vaillant references in the title: genetic (“walnut-brained… cold-blooded reptiles slowly evolved into warm-blooded, child-nurturing [mammals] trusting their parents to care for them rather than do them for lunch”), cultural (“Homo sapiens began to decorate caves in ways that still induce a unifying gasp of spiritual awe”), and individual (over the human lifespan as “adolescent caterpillars evolve into great-grandfather butterflies”). The second part includes individual chapters about each of seven positive emotions, and the last part is about the difference between religion and spirituality (“Love, like the other positive emotions, is religion without the side effects.”)

A crux of the book is that Vaillant backs up his stories with data about the mind and the brain:

  • In addressing “what good are positive emotions?” Vaillant cites a study by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman in which there was a large rise in heart strengths after the September 11, 2001 terrorism attacks: gratitude, hope, kindness, love, spirituality, and teamwork all increased while head strengths did not much change. Similarly, Barbara Fredrickson at the University of Michigan at the same time learned that awareness of positive emotions appeared to buffer the students against depression after the attacks.
  • There are many details about how the limbic system (one of the three main areas of the brain) contributes to health and healing through positive emotions: Vaillant’s brain-based examples include oxytocin for Love, endorphins for Compassion, the parasympathetic nervous system for lowered cardiac risk for Forgiveness, and others.

A Bonus

Plus, in addition to information, stories, and connections, Vaillant brings us his language. Here are some George-isms:

“You can pull a puppy’s tail, but not a rattlesnake’s.”
“She did not have faith. She did faith. Basic trust, like God, is not a noun: it is an experience.”
“If poets are blind to love, psychologists are struck dumb.”
In describing how Sigmund Freud could not experience joy, “What an irony it is that in German freude means joy.”
“…bonobo chimps and Homo sapiens are the only two species to make eye contact during sexual intercourse.”

Read this Book

In Spiritual Evolution, Vaillant does something amazing: he makes the reader feel the emotion in the chapter about that emotion – Joy, Love, Compassion, Awe, and more. Imagine having a book in which you could reach for the emotion Joy just by opening that chapter again. This is the psychoanalyst at his best – he has bottled the emotions. Furthermore, he’s bottled them by connecting your curiosity about how the mind works with your love for Emily Dickinson. It’s the best kind of learning when it feels like play. Imagine having a book that you open up, and Vaillant on the other side says, “Let’s play.”



Vaillant, G. E. (1998). Adaptation to Life. New York, NY: Harvard University Press.

Vaillant, G. E. (1998). The Wisdom of the Ego. Harvard University Press

Vaillant, G. E. (2003). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. New York: Little Brown.

Vaillant, G. E. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.

Vaillant, G. E. (2012). Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press. (Added later)

George Vaillant’s Bio

Overview Article about George Vaillant’s Research

Interview with George Vaillant about AA

Barbara Fredrickson’s Positive Emotions Laboratory


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