A long time ago, when Sigmund Freud first started talking about the inner workings of the human mind, the conversation was pretty grim. Attention focused on what was wrong with people: hysteria, neuroses, complexes, fixations. For decades psychologists and psychoanalysts worked earnestly to help clients rid themselves of these sometimes-crippling disorders. As psychology fought to be taken seriously, researchers carefully studied a wide range of human dysfunction, offering important new insights to the world.
Which was good, but in hindsight a little lopsided. Around twenty-five years ago a few rebels started noticing that very little was being said about the positive aspects of human nature. Research on qualities like altruism, love or joy was almost nonexistent, and positive emotions were rarely mentioned in the professional literature. In time the field of “positive psychology” was born, and new research heralded our capacity for resilience, compassion and healing.
About ten years ago I stumbled across an article written by Dr. George Vaillant, a researcher and professor of psychiatry at Harvard University. Dr. Vaillant pointed out the existence of what he called “spiritual emotions.” He noted that spiritual emotions like gratitude, compassion, joy, awe, trust, love and hope all direct us beyond our own survival toward something greater. He drew on the work of Barbara Frederickson, who points out that such emotions prompt us to cooperate with others to create new and better solutions. Fear, on the other hand, causes us to narrow our focus and grow rigid and reactive in our thinking.
The article caught my attention and I’ve returned to it many times. Vaillant offered me a new vantage point for responding to our troubled times. These days when I look at religious or political institutions I see structures in trouble. Those structures are essential to life together, especially when we live together in large groups. But when they get unbalanced they can be like an overloaded freight train rounding a curve too fast. We’re seeing a lot of high-speed teetering these days.
If dogma and institutions are the bones and muscles of religion, I would see spiritual emotions as the heart and circulatory system. To paraphrase St. Paul, we can’t live without bones or muscles, but we also can’t expect femurs or biceps to feed themselves. Spiritual emotions provide the energy and healing power we need to keep us going.
George Vaillant is now in his eighties and graciously carries the wisdom of age. Over the years his message has become ever more focused: the foundation of human thriving is love. He reminds us that happiness arrives more surely as a byproduct rather than an object of our actions. When we try to make ourselves happy we often just make ourselves tired. When we remember to be grateful, to forgive, to pay attention to the hearts of the quirky people around us, we are often, as C.S. Lewis said, “surprised by joy.”
Vaillant sums it up, “Happiness is the cart. Love is the horse.”
Click here for his TED talk.
Photo credit: Jaroom Photography, Flickr
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