Home Concepts Ethics Book Shelf: Spiritual Evolution

Book Shelf: Spiritual Evolution

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Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith

by George Vaillant

2008, New York: Broadway Books

[Review prepared by William Bergquist)


At the start of the 21st Century, two leaders in the field of psychology (Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) proposed that this new century should be one in which the more “positive” aspects of the human psyche receive major attention (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). While 20th Century psychology was primarily devoted to studies of such “negative” matters as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, substance abuse and violence, attention might now be directed during the 21st Century toward such matters as hopefulness, courage, persistence, vigilance—as well as love and peaceful behavior.  We might include spirituality on this list of positive human attributes—or at least make the case for the study of attributes related to spirituality. These might include faith, trust, forgiveness and compassion.

George Vaillant is one of the 21st Century advocates for positive psychology, and in Spiritual Evolution has made the case for the evolutionarily adaptive advantages of spirituality and its attendant attributes. Vaillant (2008, p. 3) puts it this way:

“Positive emotions—not only compassion, forgiveness, love, and hope but also joy, faith/trust, awe and gratitude—arise from our inborn mammalian capacity for unselfish parental love. They emanate from our feeling, limbic mammalian brain and thus are grounded in our evolutionary heritage. All human beings are hardwired for positive emotions, and these positive emotions are a common denominator of all major faiths and of all human beings.”

In making the case for the evolutionary advantages of spiritually oriented emotions, Vaillant also offers insights regarding specific attributes that professional coaches might incorporate on a spiritually oriented agenda that the coach might establish in working with their clients.

In his analysis of Hope, for instance, Vaillant (2008, p. 103) points out that “suffering is more than pain: it is loss of control, it is despair, it is the loss of hope.” Thus, when we are working with a coaching client who is “suffering” (e.g. failure of a business opportunity or struggling with work/life balance), then we can do more than just empathize with them. We can help them find “control” over their loss or dilemma. We can help them recall a time in the past when they successfully overcame a business failure or found a satisfying work/life balance. We can “catch them doing it right!” (Bergquist, 2003) By retrieving this past moment of doing it right, the client finds not only guidance for taking action today but also the “hope” that mobilizes this action.

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