Rational Exuberance

Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison gives four cheers to this little-understood, often mocked, slightly scary emotion.

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison

BY CECILIA CAPUZZI SIMON, The Washington Post, September 28, 2004 >>

In her new book, "Exuberance: The Passion for Life" (Knopf), Kay Redfield Jamison offers a more complete view of the emotion, examining it in all its glories and pitfalls. Often mocked, frequently trivialized and routinely suspect, exuberance may be the most misunderstood of human feelings, Jamison argues.

Jamison should know a thing or two about it. A professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Jamison, 58, is a leading authority on mood disorders. She is author of five books on the subject, including "An Unquiet Mind" (Knopf, 1995), her moving memoir about her struggles with bipolar disorder -- a disease whose manic phases can resemble exuberance run amok.

But in its energy, ebullience, contagiousness and sheer pleasure, Jamison writes in her new book, which hits stores this month, exuberance can be powerful and healthy. It is the stuff of great leadership, adventure, art and science. "Exuberance," she says, "binds us to life, and to the future."

In a cafe near her home in Northwest Washington, Jamison -- looking girlish, relaxed and, yes, at times exuberant -- sliced into a peach muffin and talked about why exuberance is important, why we don't have enough of it in our lives and how we can harness its power.

How do you define exuberance?

Exuberance is a more energetic version of joy. It is a high- energy, high-mood state.

Why is it important to study exuberance?

I've always been interested in what makes some people vital and others not so. I wanted to say how exuberance had been seen by great writers. I wanted to interview living scientists who are exuberant, because scientists get a rap for being living drones. And to show interesting women doing such exciting work, particularly in neuroscience.
With the people I interviewed, I wanted to say, "Okay, everyone says you are exuberant -- what is it, and why is it important to you?" I wanted to write a book about what I loved.

So you are exuberant?

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! I've always seen life as fantastic. I couldn't wait to get up in the morning, didn't want to go to sleep at night, had a lot of things I wanted to do.

But you've struggled with manic-depression. Has your illness given you special insight into the high states of exuberance?

The majority of people who have manic-depression have an exuberant underlying temperament. All my life I've been very exuberant by temperament.

So exuberance can be accompanied by the dark side of emotional life, such as depression?

That's a terribly important aspect of exuberance. Many do have both sides. Like Virginia Woolf -- I get so sick of writers and filmmakers painting her as a doomed character. She was not a gloomy, doomy person. She had a bad disease, but for the most part she was vivacious, filled with laughter, had a wicked wit.

People need to know that very often the other side of despair is a great capacity for joy and capacity for life.

Any examples of how exuberance has played out in your life?

Exuberance is wonderful if you bring a sense of wonder or enthusiasm to something.
[During my husband's and my] first Christmas together, I bought 12 strands of Christmas tree lights -- we had a tree yay big [she gestures to show a tree about two feet tall]. We got in a big argument about it.

At the time he was outraged -- "You don't need half of those!" And I said, "The bulbs could go out, we can use them next year." He said, "Take the lights back!" I refused. We did eventually grow into the lights -- over 10 years our trees got bigger.
He thought it was funny about a month later.

But as you've said, sometimes healthy exuberance crosses the line into pathological behavior -- manic illness, for example.

I once started using a psychology article to teach residents about what a waste of time teaching rounds were on the floors. We had a dreadful rounds chief. I was deeply in love with that article. At the time, it had that significance, that exuberance, that over- the-top [quality]. I got in a lot of trouble from the ward chief. I was annoying.

Looking back, it's not that I wouldn't have taught that article. I remain very partial to this article, but I am not in love with it. [The problem] was the way that I [presented] it. It was not in a reasoned manner.

This is where exuberance goes aground. Very often it is the manner, the sense that you have an inner road to the truth and you alone [laugh] have that road to the truth. At the time, it seemed perfectly legitimate. But I paid for it -- from my ward chief, and partly because [shortly afterwards] I got wildly, psychotically manic.

Even if it's not manic, people often don't know what to make of exuberance, do they?

No question about it. Of those I interviewed for my book -- to the person -- they all said the same thing: People make fun of exuberant people. It's very easy to mock.

Why is that?

Some of it is envy, probably. But some of it is, if you're exuberant, you're out there. You're going to be vulnerable.

Carl Sagan was an incredible scientist and a great teacher, but he's got to be the poster boy for laughable exuberance. He was lethal because he popularized science. Frightening! People might actually love astronomy!

I think there was professional resentment from other astronomers and mathematicians. He was out there waving his arms around -- it's easy to laugh at.

There's something slightly absurd about larger-than-life emotions. People feel mistrustful, and probably legitimately so. We all have wired in us mistrust of anything that's too far outside the norm. It alerts us -- you don't quite know what's coming from this person. They might have great judgment or not. They may lead you down an interesting path or take you somewhere that's dangerous or ridiculous. It makes sense that people are wary.

Do we live in exuberant times?

Now seems to me a pretty unexuberant time. It's hard to see where the national joy is.
In some respects you can say, "Well, 9/11." But as important as 9/ 11 was, it doesn't account for a lot of the sociological factors [that mitigate against exuberance] -- the lack of time and how driven our society has become. For exuberance to exist, you have to have a sense of free time and free spirit, of relaxation, joy. Exuberance doesn't tend to exist in situations that are tense or high-pressure, or fraught.

What is the genetic and environmental cocktail that brings forth exuberance and makes it thrive?

Exuberance has a genetic component, no question about that. Bill Clinton's mother was clearly quite exuberant -- loved life, loved everything she was into, had three husbands, breast cancer, and she obviously loved [her son]. In his case, the apple did not fall far from that tree. [Clinton] had the best of all possible nature- nurture combinations.

In your book, you profile many famous, successful people to illustrate exuberance. Do you need to be exuberant to succeed?

Exuberance is highly useful. [But] it is a continuum; it's not all or nothing. I don't think anyone should be any one thing -- that would be an extremely boring world. If everyone were revved up like I am, it would be chaos!

I make clear in the case of scientists, for example, that there are a thousand ways to be a good scientist. There are a thousand ways to be a good writer or artist. Shyness is often one of them. Introversion is often one of them.

What I hope is that people would respect and appreciate differences more, not squash them.

One of the things you do in the book is to root exuberance in the natural world and our place in it as mammals.

If you've picked out a puppy as a kid, you know there's always a puppy under the chair quaking, and always a puppy with its tail wagging.

My last basset hound, Pumpkin, was morbidly shy. A wonderful animal, but wouldn't go near another dog or human. When she died, I got another. Named her Bubbles, because she is completely extroverted -- she sees a kid and goes bananas.

You're not going to make her shy and reticent. And you'd never make Pumpkin an extrovert. Just like you're not going to make a shy, anxious child into an exuberant one.
One of the problems with modern-day psychotherapy is that we're promising we can do that. You can't. Human society thrives because of that diversity. You [also] want to value people who are shy and anxious. You don't want to say, "You should be a hail-fellow-well- met extrovert." Why should they be?

You wrote this book partly during a time when you must have been feeling profound grief over your husband's death. (Richard Wyatt was chief of neuropsychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and died in 2002.) Was it difficult to write?

My husband got very sick about three years into [writing the book], so I wrote about half while he was alive and the last half after he died. It was a complicated time to write it. It was hard in the immediate months after his death.

My whole last chapter is about resilience and the fact that if you are naturally exuberant by temperament, you do naturally bounce back.

But resilience can be learned. Can exuberance be learned by those of us not genetically programmed for it?

You can learn resilience through cognitive psychotherapy. Do I believe for a minute you're actually making people more exuberant by doing that stuff? Absolutely not.
[With therapy] you're giving people a certain capacity to deal with difficulty, which is very different than putting in emotions or mood, or saying you can teach people to feel like they are fantastic or that life is fantastic.

I asked all my subjects, "Do you think exuberance is innate, learned, both?" They all said it was innate, which is consistent with the scientific literature. The feeling was you can squash exuberance out of people, but you can't put it in.

You can really discourage it in kids, and it's one of the reasons I emphasize play so much in the book. Especially in Washington, it's so competitive.

It can sometimes seem anti-play --

It's astonishing. Kids are so structured from the beginning of the day. They have structured play, structured soccer lessons on top of their structured violin lessons. The whole point of play is that it's not structured, that you can take chances.
I think [too much structure] inhibits exuberance. It inhibits imagination. It's not good from the point of view of psychopathology.

Take ADHD [attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder]. Can you imagine putting 7-year-old rhesus monkeys in a classroom and having them sit there all day in their chairs with pens strapped to their paws? It's an abomination of nature, and we're expecting it of kids more and more. Recess is gone in many schools. Public pools are taking away diving boards. It's outrageous.

You use the word "galumphing" in the book. It's a great word. How does one galumph?

Galumphing is that quality of constantly playing, constantly throwing the ball out and running after it.

Lewis Carroll uses it in "Through the Looking Glass." It sounds like it is -- it has that triumphant mood about it. It is a childlike quality that drops off after a person reaches a certain age and becomes aware from peers that they've got to rein it in.

But galumphing is what you see in great intellects -- that capacity to keep wandering, keep playing. Carter Brown [the late former director of the National Gallery of Art] had it -- constantly hands up in the air, in love with life, in love with art, in love with teaching.
Jim Watson [co-discoverer of the structure of DNA], always playing. My husband -- like a lot of scientists -- his mind was like a ferret's cage, all these little boxes. He'd be off in one of his little rooms, spinning his wheels, playing, and then he'd be off to another room and spin.

How can we keep galumphing, or bring the experience of exuberance into our lives?

When treating patients, I used to ask them to draw lists of things they liked doing that were sustaining. They would range from going to the zoo, to going to galleries, walking in parks, making time for friends.

People don't bring enough joy to their own lives. It's not like anyone is going to parachute into your life. You people your own islands in life. You can people them with naysayers, constantly dreary, constantly telling you that your ideas are terrible. Or you can people them with people who are not trying to do you in all the time.

Look for causes to celebrate. I went out with a man once who said my family broke out the champagne if you just walked across the street! We are great celebrators.

A lot of that is wired in, but I think people can build that into their lives, too. I don't know a single person who does not have the capacity for joy.

"In its energy, ebulllience, contagiousness and sheer pleasure, exhuberance can be powerful and healthy, Jamison writes. It is the stuff of great leadership, adventure, art and science."