The sunny side of life

In her new book, "Exuberance," author Kay Redfield Jamison looks at who has joie de vivre -- and why.

Published October 11, 2004 4:51PM (EDT)

Over the last decade, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison has become perhaps our foremost chronicler of the mind's darkest weather. In 1993 she published "Touched with Fire," her exploration of the relation between creative genius and manic depression, and followed that up in 1995 with "An Unquiet Mind," a memoir of her own struggle with the illness. "Night Falls Fast," her most recent book, studied suicide. So it might come as a bit of a shock to find her cavorting with the likes of Tigger, rough-riding Teddy Roosevelt, and other exceptionally irrepressible characters in her latest book, "Exuberance," which attempts to define what it's like to be touched with another, more joyful, sort of fire.

Exuberance, Jamison writes, "denotes a mood or temperament of joyfulness, ebullience, and high spirits, a state of overflowing energy and delight. It is more energetic than joy and enthusiasm but less intense, although of longer duration, than ecstasy." It's got the dynamism that marks the manic half of manic depression -- but without the danger of falling into psychosis or debilitating lows. If you've got it -- and it's probably hereditary -- you're most likely one of those people who rolls out of bed in the morning trilling that line from Longfellow "Let us then be up and doing, with a heart for any fate." Even though it might be tiresome for the Eeyores among us, Jamison demonstrates that such positive thinking and doing is necessary for creativity and discovery. It's exuberance, Jamison says, that buoyed James Watson to discover the double helix, that drove John Muir to preserve the wilderness, and that fueled Americans' pioneer spirit.

Salon spoke with Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine, about why psychologists haven't generally been interested in joy, the secret lives of scientists, and who is more exuberant -- Bush or Kerry.

Given your backlist, have you ever felt that you've had to shy away from exploring positive emotion in your work?

I've never felt that I had to shy away from it, as I felt basically as an academic and clinician, like all my colleagues, that the illnesses we treat are really lethal terrible illnesses, and they don't get written about enough. And so I think there was more of a sense of feeling a professional obligation to write about suicide and bipolar illness. But I've always been a lot more interested in mania and a lot more interested in exuberance. Exuberance speaks to a more universal human quality. This is the book I really wanted to write, as opposed to having a strong professional commitment to write it.

In the book you talk about nature usually being the thing that triggers transcendent ecstasies. It seems to me that we don't really come upon an overabundance of joyful feeling in our daily lives now, or make room for it -- and so we really don't have words in our vocabulary to discuss how we feel when we're taken out of ourselves.

I couldn't agree with you more. One of the things that's striking in academic literature in psychology is how many words we have for depression and anxiety and fear and how relatively few words we have for joy. If you really looked at where the words for joy come from they come from theology and literature. But we don't really talk about joy a lot. We look for it, but I don't think we talk about it. Probably because it's such a physical state, it's so nonverbal in many respects, and it's pretty obvious when you're around somebody who's really loving life and really enjoying life. By definition, however, when people get depressed they're unable to express themselves, so it could be that society tries harder to come up with words to communicate such an internal state.

Why do you think your field has been so concerned with the darker side of human nature?

Modern psychology became, for a lot of reasons, much more interested in psychopathology -- partly because of the real issues of World War I and World War II where you had a huge population of people with severe psychiatric and psychotic problems, and so you needed psychologists and psychiatrists to start dealing with the pathology, and so a lot of psychologists became interested in that. It goes back to ancient doctoring -- you want to help people. So in grad school, when you start off, there's an attraction to sitting down with a patient and trying to help them. I think that's human nature.

When you look at the people in your exuberance hall of fame, you notice that they have a great capacity for making noise, for bounding from one idea or project to the next, but this energy seems to go hand in hand with a great capacity for contemplation and reflection, for processing what they discovered in their exuberance.

That's certainly true for people who have the capacity to feel deeply. We have this tendency to pigeonhole people emotionally as much as we do by any other characteristic. We tend to say, OK, this person is dreary and depressed and crabby, and this person is ebullient -- and very often it's the same person. Which is one of the reasons why I wrote about Virginia Woolf in the book. One of the things I find annoying about how she was written about is that she's often portrayed as this kind of doomed, gloomy character, when by every account she was unbelievably vivacious and lively, and full of wit. She was both. The capacity to feel great joy and great despair is not unrelated at all.

Can you talk a bit about that relationship?

We do know that people who have wildly exuberant temperaments are inclined toward melancholy. That's been known for a couple thousand years -- the great philosophers and the ancient doctors studied that in detail. So just as depression is sorted along a continuum, from very mild states of wistfulness to something incapacitating or psychotic, so is exuberance. People feel anything from mild happiness to just complete and utter mania, which, like psychotic depression, is a very psychotic state indeed.

What do we know, in terms of neurochemistry, about exuberance?

The neurochemistry of exuberance is not that well worked out. One of the limitations is that there's been more research done on depression than mania -- mania and elated states are still very much being investigated. A lot of neuro-imaging studies have been done on depression, as there have been on mild mania, but obviously it's harder to do a brain scan of somebody who's manic because most people who are manic have a lot better things to do with their lives! But what has been studied pretty closely with exuberant temperaments and etxroversion and the tendency to be bold and out there are studies of infants that show this temperament tends to carry on into adulthood. And there's certainly a genetic tendency toward extroversion as a temperament.

What distinguishes exuberance from mania?

Quite a few things. A lot of people who are highly exuberant have manic depressive illness and many more have milder forms of it -- everything from cyclothymia, which is a mild version [of manic depressive illness], to just kind of being moody, intense people who aren't clinically ill at all. Certainly in mania everything is more extreme. The dopamine system is very much involved in both mania and exuberance, but it's not revved up to a really pathological level, and it doesn't stay that way. In mania you really have your foot to the accelerator and it's going 175 miles an hour and there's not much break. But with exuberance it's a much more lulling speed. There's not that tremendous overdrive.

"Touched With Fire" was dedicated to the artistic temperament, but this book is peopled largely with scientists. Would you say that scientists are a disproportionately exuberant lot?

Why do some people look at the stars? What is it about that? Why is that some people will work all night? This has always fascinated me. There is much more, and for good cause, much more interest in artists and writers -- they tend to live interesting lives, and the kind of things they bring to people is remarkable, but I consciously wanted to focus on scientists here. I do think scientists don't get written about enough, though they do very important work and a lot of them are really wonderful people, and do fascinating things. If you read the things that are in the paper you'd never know that scientists are such interesting people; they're portrayed either as evil and wicked or they're portrayed as drones.

You have James Watson confessing to being arrogant and unbearable, and then naturalist Hope Ryden saying of her scholarly exuberance that mostly she tries to tamp it down. It seemed that the male scientists you discussed were more slapdash and forceful in their articulation of this state, while the women were more circumspect. But is there a real gender difference in the way men and women express or experience exuberance?

If you look at people who are hyperthymic -- it's a term that's used to describe those who are cheerful, talkative, extroverted -- the literature's been pretty consistent and clear, and it's true with exuberant children as well, that there are more males than females. Cross-species it's a pretty consistent pattern, but it's more mixed -- for example, in dogs, females and males tend to be equally bold and adventurous. I think it will be interesting to see how this pans out when the measures are better and when women have had a chance to really express themselves more. It's not that I think it's all cultural, because I don't, but I do think that young girls are taught that to be sophisticated and cool, they really have to tone down wild enthusiasms and being tomboyish and out there and having obvious fun. I don't think anyone's sorted out the role of testosterone, though. What's been looked at more is the neurochemistry -- dopamine and so forth. Up to a certain point in life, though, all kids are scientists. They all look at the sky, and they all look at the world, and they all look at animals, at the world, and say, Why? Why is this? And why is that? At some point society really shuts this down and they lose that sense of awe. Some of that's inevitable. People just do lose that awe and exuberance that was probably built in for a certain time in our species and most people move on emotionally in a way.

It's hard to figure out how to make room for play and experimentation in your life, whether you're a kid or an adult. But, as you point out in the book, there's an evolutionary necessity of play -- it encourages flexibility and communication, and makes for a fitter species.

Right. And how you build it into your own life is terribly important. There are those people who maintain that childlike capacity to fall in love with the world all over again, who are able to bring a new view to whatever problem they're looking at. Built into exuberance is an ability to, no matter what comes along, find something else to be interested in, to care about, to write about, to fall in love with. Like Watson says, it's the pursuit. If you're totally content you don't have any desire to pursue anything intellectually or geographically. Exuberance has a restlessness in it. It's not discontent -- it's a forward-moving, active restlessness.

That restlessness, you say, is what helped settle America. What led you to write the chapter on exuberance as a hallmark of the American temperament?

My family can be traced to the Mayflower and I've always thought, sort of like scientists, that the Pilgrims got a bad rap. On the one hand these guys sound like such prigs and so judgmental, but on the other hand anyone who got in a ship and faced that uncertainty -- I always felt that it had to be a lot more interesting. So I wanted to think about what kind of temperament gets you over the mountain, gets you settling the plains. There's the group that came to the Eastern seaboard, and a smaller group from that who got restless and took off for the American West. And the people who stayed in Boston are very different from those who are a bit restless, who had this dream. Some people see desolation when they look out at the prairie, but some people say, Wow, these are going to be orchards. The people who left were more willing to take risks. They really had to be able to imagine the future and act on their optimism.

From my own field, it's well known that there's a higher rate of bipolar illness in immigrants, and because bipolar is related to these temperaments it may be that there was some sort of genuine selection for that. Studies also show that Americans value enthusiasm so much more than other people; we tend to believe that we have a lot more control over our own fate than Europeans do. They see exuberance as superficial and not reflecting the seriousness of life, its tragic nature. But we're really based on going to the moon and settling the land, on the idea of improvement and doing better things. As soon as you say those words it sounds like stereotyping, but I really think it's true. If you look at the winners of Nobel prizes, it's not that we're a bigger country or spend money on sciences, it's that we really have valued that entrepreneurial spirit in science.

You write of George Patton's enthusiasm for war and annihilation as an example of the underside of exuberance and passion. Not to force you into political punditry, but do you think our characteristic optimism has become dangerously unreflective?

I'll try to take this outside the world of politics, but it's hard when you live in Washington. I think I would get back to my basic argument that it's great to have all different kinds of temperament and you want to have people who are very bold and who will act boldly. But there's nothing that keeps you from being both reflective and bold. And I think that's what you want in a great leader.

In terms of the coming election, who's your money on, exuberance-wise?

Senator Kerry -- because when he really starts talking about something he's quite passionate about it. He's not a wildly exuberant man, but he strikes me as someone who has very strong feelings. And has probably spent a certain amount of his life reining them in. The night of the first debate you could see that he was really engaged in what he was doing, unlike the president. He was someone I remember when I was part of the antiwar movement as an incredible leader because he was so passionate. He was unbelievably emotional and articulate -- he had this incredible combination of verbal discipline with raw feeling. But I think 20 years in the Senate does something to raw feeling. It hasn't seemed to have that effect on Ted Kennedy, but to most people, it does!

By Carlene Bauer

Carlene Bauer is an editor at Elle magazine.

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