It was the first week of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology graduate school program at University of Pennsylvania when I met George Vaillant, who would be one of our guest lecturers. I was excited to meet him because, working in the spa industry, I was a big fan of his book “Aging Well,” a book that certainly influenced my own “anti-anti-aging” philosophy. (Most people in the spa industry try to sell the idea of “anti-aging” treatments and products—and they do sell. But to me, trying to sell age prevention seems like a losing proposition. I’d rather help people learn how to enjoy the aging process, and get as much out of life as possible, regardless of the number of years they have.)
Being a big fan of Vaillant’s, I mustered up the courage to introduce myself and explain what I do for a living (I’m a Director of Global Spa Development and Operations for a large hospitality company) but I was shocked and dismayed by his reaction to me. He asked, “Why would someone from an industry as superficial and shallow as the spa industry be interested in positive psychology?” (Ouch George! Don’t sugar coat it–tell me how you really feel!)
We debated for a little bit about this, and I could tell the muddled definition and usage of the word spa was having a big influence on the discussion. I was talking about spas as places of nurturing healing, rest, recovery, and personal transformation. He was thinking of spas as elitist places to go for Botox, hair removal, or other more indulgent beauty services. The truth is, we were both right.
As I stammered in defense of my industry, I finally said, “do you realize that almost every civilization across time and culture has had some form of spa or similar place for communal healing, massage and relaxation?” As my comment sank in, he paused and smiled. “With that,” he said, “you have trumped my arguments . . . the spa is a surrogate for love.”
I wouldn’t fully understand what he meant by this until I had the opportunity to read Vaillant’s latest book (“Spiritual Evolution: How We Are Wired for Faith, Hope, and Love”) and hear him lecture. His message is that we are pulled by future oriented emotions of love, hope, faith/trust, awe, forgiveness, gratitude and compassion. None of these “pure” emotions are about an individual . . . you can’t experience them by yourself. “You can’t hug yourself or tickle yourself,” Vaillant says. “You need other people to create meaningful positive emotions.”
The idea of spas as a surrogate for love would not resonate well with most people, even in the “airy-fairy foo foo la la” world of spas. The spa industry already struggles to rise above the sexual innuendos caused by illegitimate spas and massage parlors. Most spas would not include love in their manifesto due to it being inseparably intertwined in our society with sexuality and the cultural taboos that go along with it.
But even if we deign not talk about it, we should admit that there is something offered in the spa that goes above and beyond what you can get from a perfectly programmed massage chair at Sharper Image: Being in the hands of compassionate and nurturing professional, who cares for your wellbeing and uses their senses of emotion and intuition to provide the most healing experience possible. Being touched by another person is not just about the manipulation of muscle and connective tissues. It generates certain feelings and releases certain hormones (such as oxytocin–also known as “the love hormone.”)
Some of you may have noticed that at the beginning of this year, I quietly added a new logo to my blog. The symbol of an atom, represents my interest in science, and a scientific approach to the pursuit of knowledge. At the nucleus of the atom, lies a heart, reminding me that while I try to be scientific, issues of human wellbeing are complex, difficult to measure, and often beyond the science we have available today. The science of wellbeing and emotion brings us to the intersection of left and right brain thinking.
“One can sing and the other can talk,” Vaillant says, describing the two halves of the brain. “One has feelings and the other has ideas.” He says this is why it doesn’t make sense to try and have ideas about feelings. And yet, the feelings are always there, at the nucleus, underlying everything we say, think and do. What does love have to do with it? Everything.
References and recommended reading:
Vaillant, G. E. (2003). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. Little, Brown and Company.
Vaillant, G. E. (2009). Spiritual Evolution: How We Are Wired for Faith, Hope, and Love. Three Rivers Press.