George Vaillant is at the forefront of scientific analysis of human personality. His writing is based on actual facts based on careful life-long study of three large and distinct American groups. 1. The Grant Study of the best Harvard students selected in 1938-44. 2. The Terman Study of brilliant females from the 1920s selected for very high IQ test scores. 3. The Glueck Study of underprivileged kids from the poorest areas of Boston. I previously reviewed George Vaillant’s recent book Triumphs of Experience, which covered in depth those three decades long longitudinal studies. His earlier book, Spiritual Evolution: How We Are Wired for Faith, Hope, and Love, goes further into what a healthy person might strive toward. He is more direct in his suggestions of how a person can choose to guide their life’s trajectory toward a more positive outcome.
I have been reading Vaillant’s books for decades and have modified my life to some degree to be more in alignment with his findings. This book was the culmination of decades of work by a man at the center of tested human development, and therefore I expected it to be revelatory. Unfortunately, for me at least, this book seemed to end with a whimper rather than a hooray. It clearly has good advice, and the advice has been tested in the crucible of reality, but it feels bland. It is advice Ben Franklin could have given three hundred years ago, and did so in a more eloquent and persuasive way. For example, “Drink does not drown Care, but waters it, and makes it grow faster.” Poor Richard’s Almanack 1749. Also, “Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation,” was Ben’s first principle. Vaillant may have added scientific backing to these quotes, but no quotable proverbs; thus a hundred years from now Franklin will still be quoted and Vaillant will not be remembered, at least by the masses.
There is fantastically valuable information in Vaillant’s books, but it must be dug out by the reader, and it isn’t an easy dig. We live in a world awash in advertising designed to sell us stuff we don’t need, and the ad men are paid fabulous salaries to create memorable and effective sales pitches. It is against these forces that this book must ultimately be directed. The odds of success are stacked a million to one against those competing messages of how to live a good life. Vaillant’s success in getting his message past the blizzard of product selling lies is miniscule. The final chapter is mostly about Alcoholics Anonymous and the Twelve Step Program for salvaging lives destroyed by alcohol, but this is a sad acknowledgement that his life’s work is a failure. If he were successful there would be no alcoholics, but his message is being smothered.
Spiritual Evolution is a great book for those already on the path toward wisdom.