Friday, April 01, 2005

Just How Jolly Good is Exuberance?

Exuberance: The Passion for Life

By: Guy Brown, Ph.D.

Exuberance_coverWhat do Theodore Roosevelt, young elephants, and a sky full of stars have in common? According to Kay Jamison, the answer is exuberance, and, in this long and rambling book, she sings its praises. Exuberance: The Passion for Life is a strange book. Its passion, fervor and, at times, lack of critical analysis, reminds me somehow of a sermon. Is one perhaps glimpsing Christian America in the 21st century? Indeed, Jamison repeatedly refers to America as an exuberant nation, presumably in contrast to the tired Old World. Admittedly, it is difficult to imagine a European intellectual today producing such an ardent and exuberant text. 

Although a final chapter warns us of the dark side of exuberance, Jamison, in general, will accept no criticism of her beloved. This leads her into all kinds of trouble. At one point, she defends exuberant Tigger against Pooh, Eeyore, and the rest of the inhabitants of A.A. Milne’s 100 Aker Wood in Winnie the Pooh, who are understandably alarmed at Tigger’s annoyingly bouncy behavior. She even accuses them of ganging up on Tigger, because they are jealous of his sunny disposition. Jamison gets into similarly deep water when defending exuberant Toad of The Wind in the Willows against the solicitous interference of Ratty, Mole, and Badger. Okay, Jamison is concerned that we are undervaluing the exuberant among us. But do we have to praise Tigger and Toad, too? 

The ostensible goal of this book is to give a psychological sketch of an important positive emotion, which psychologists have in general ignored (perhaps for good reason) when concentrating instead on the negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, and anger. The obvious exception to this is mania, an arguably positive emotion associated with a clinical condition: manic depression (bipolar disorder). Famously, Kay Jamison has both suffered from and treated others with bipolar disorder, and in her autobiographical book, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, she revealed how it led her to attempt suicide, a subject that she tackled again later in Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide. Also, she is professionally concerned with people with bipolar disorder, because she is a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and has done important research on mood disorders and their link to creativity (treated in another of her books, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament). Perhaps mania is just an extreme form of exuberance, part of a psychological continuum that includes depression, sadness, exuberance, and mania—forming one of the key architectural dimensions of the human psyche. If this were true it would argue for the strategic need for psychologists, such as Jamison, to understand the role of exuberance. 


Do depressed or exuberant people have a more accurate view of the world? Pop psychologists always seem to be telling us that depressed people have an unrealistic view of the world and themselves because they focus only on the negative aspects of their situation. Interestingly, research suggests that depressed people have a more accurate view of their situation (a view closer to the assessment of their situation by outside observers) than do non-depressed people. This suggests that most of us have egos cushioned by unrealistic views of ourselves and our prospects, whereas depressed people are buffeted by the full force of reality. No equivalent research has been done on exuberant types, but might they not have even less realistic views of the world? 

Jamison argues that cycling between exuberance and depression may aid artistic creativity, writing that: 

The juxtaposition of the exuberant and malignant is potentially dangerous, but a balance between the two can provide ballast and gravitas. Excessive lightness can be given a grace note by the dark, as melancholy and mania can give each other depth and height. To make use of despair is an ancient gift of the artist: to learn from pain; to temper the frenzied enthusiasm; to rein in the scatter, the rank confidence, and expansive ideas generated during times of unchecked exuberance. Melancholy has a way of winding in the high-flying expectations that are the great gift of exuberance but its liability as well; it forces a different kind of looking. “In these flashing revelations of grief’s wonderful fire,” wrote Melville, “we see all things as they are; and though, when the electric element has gone, the shadows once more descend, and the false outlines of objects once again return; yet not with their former power to deceive.” Melancholy forces a slower pace, makes denial a less plausible enterprise, and constructs a ceiling of reality over sky-borne ideas. 

What about the social context of exuberance? Although Jamison describes exuberance engendered in lone individuals by the contemplation of nature, it seems to me that these states are better classified as “ecstatic.” Exuberance appears to require and feed off social interaction. Jamison has fascinating chapters on exuberant play in children and young animals, and in adults exuberant behavior can be regarded as youthful playing or “kidding around.” Notice here exuberance is a behavior or mode of interaction, rather than an emotion. Elsewhere in the book, Jamison equates exuberance with extroversion, which could be regarded as a temperamental drive to interact playfully with people, whereas introversion is the avoidance of interaction. This may relate to the infectiousness of exuberance: Exuberant people are driven to seek out other people to infect with exuberance, which feeds back on their own exuberance. 


Jamison, in general, regards exuberance as a jolly good thing. At various places in her book, she urges its importance for artistic, scientific, and political creativity, good teaching, and much more. No doubt exuberance is a jolly good thing, but reading all this impassioned sermon I could not help feeling like a doubting Thomas at a religious revival meeting. By the end of the book, my sympathies had moved all the way from Tigger to Eeyore. If exuberance is such a good thing and has been selected by evolution in animals and humans, why is it that when I go out on the streets I find so few exuberant people? Why is it that we spend so relatively little of our time being exuberant? Why is exuberance such an unstable emotional state? Why is it that we do not use drugs to make ourselves exuberant 100 percent of the time? Why is it that only 10 percent of people are supposedly temperamentally exuberant? Surely exuberance is beneficial only in limited and specific contexts, and in other contexts it is detrimental. 

As Jamison allows, people in an exuberant mood are not the most productive, work-oriented, organized, rational, or intelligent of people. Often they can be silly, juvenile, annoying, and disruptive. Potentially, they may be more creative, because they generate random, playful ideas, but they are not generally in the mood to criticize or use their ideas. Perhaps that is why manic-depressive people are generally more productive; their creative ideas generated during mania can be subjected to reality and used during less buoyant states. 

Exuberance may really be an advantage only when we socialize, and it may have evolved in social animals partly to aid social bonding and collective action. To quote from the book: 

Expressions of joy are frequent in elephant families...especially when they greet one another after having been apart. The greeting ceremony may involve as many as fifty elephants and occurs after elephants have been separated for as short a period as a few hours or as long a time as several weeks. The greeting, Poole writes, is “pandemonium.” The elephants “rush together, heads high, ears raised, folded, and flapping loudly, as they spin around urinating and defecating, and secreting profusely from temporal glands. During all this activity they call in unison with a powerful sequence of low-frequency rumbles and higher-frequency screams, roars and trumpets.” Poole believes, as other elephant researchers do, that the joy female elephants feel when they reunite is part of a response essential to their survival. Calves born into large and closely united families are more likely to survive, and strongly shared positive emotional responses reinforce the social bonds within those families.

One suspects the same might be true of human families. 

Jamison then spends several chapters peddling the dubious idea that exuberance is important to the scientific process, or, rather, that exuberant people make great scientists. She has some nice examples, such as Richard Feynman, Ph.D., who, apparently, when depressed, was “just a little more cheerful than any other person when exuberant.” Contrary to the archetype of the cold, semi-autistic scientist, Jamison contends that exuberance provides the enthusiasm, creativity, and love of nature that drives the scientific process. She interviews several high-profile, exuberant scientists, including the co-discoverer of DNA structure, James Watson, Ph.D., who has a rather different take on the role of exuberance in science. Jamison quotes him as saying: 

Most individuals are only fleetingly happy, say after we have solved a problem, either intellectual or personal, that then lets our brain rest for a bit. Equally important happy moods also reward higher animals after they make behavioural decisions that increase their survivability… But these moments of pleasure best be short-lived. Too much contentment necessarily leads to indolence…it is discontent with the present that leads clever minds to extend the frontiers of human imagination. 

Happiness, joy, and exuberance likely exist because they lure us onward and give us respite from our pursuits, but too much pleasure slackens the desire to explore, compete, and make a difference. “Every successful society,” Watson emphasizes, “must possess citizens gnawing at its innards, and threatening conventional wisdom.” 

A scientist myself, I have seen little role for exuberance in my work or that of others. As Jamison notes: 

Strong emotion, more often than not, is at cross-purposes with accurate scientific description. Enthusiasm is meant to be kept on a tight rein and love itself on a short lead, although one could argue, as Cyril Connolly did, that he who is too much a master of his passions is reason’s slave. 

Jamison certainly can write beautifully and, in the past, she has done a fantastic job of communicating psychology and psychiatry to the general population. Unfortunately, in this book her brilliant prose fails to illuminate the subject at hand. But perhaps I am an antisocial Eeyore, jealous of a bouncy Tigger. 


From Exuberance: The Passion for Life by Kay Redfield Jamison. Reprinted with permission from Alfred A. Knopf.

It is a curious request to make of God. Shield your joyous ones, asks the Anglican prayer: Shield your joyous ones. God more usually is asked to watch over those who are ill or in despair, as indeed the rest of the prayer makes clear. “Watch now those who weep this day,” it goes. “Rest your weary ones; soothe your suffering ones.” The joyous tend to be left to their own devices, the exuberant even more so.

Perhaps this is just as well. Those inclined toward exuberance have enjoyed the benign neglect of my field. Psychologists, for reasons of clinical necessity or vagaries of temperament, have chosen to dissect and catalogue the morbid emotions—depression, anger, anxiety—and to leave largely unexamined the more vital, positive ones. Not unlike God, if only in this one regard, my colleagues and I have tended more to those in the darkness than to those in the light. We have given sorrow many words, but a passion for life few. 

Yet it is the infectious energies of exuberance that proclaim and disperse much of what is marvelous in life. Exuberance carries us places we could not otherwise go—across the savannah, to the moon, into the imagination—and if we ourselves are not so exuberant we will, caught up in the contagious joy of those who are, be inclined collectively to go yonder. By its pleasures, exuberance lures us from our common places and quieter moods; and—after the victory, the harvest, the discovery of a new idea or an unfamiliar place—it gives ascendant reason to venture forth all over again. Delight is its own reward, adventure its own pleasure. 

Exuberance is an abounding, ebullient, effervescent emotion. It is kinetic and unrestrained, joyful, irrepressible. It is not happiness, although they share a border. It is instead, at its core, a more restless, billowing state. Certainly it is no lulling sense of contentment: exuberance leaps, bubbles, and overflows, propels its energy through troop and tribe. It spreads upwards and outward, like pollen toted by dancing bees, and in this carrying ideas are moved and actions taken. Yet exuberance and joy are fragile matter. Bubbles burst; a wince of disapproval can cut dead a whistle or abort a cartwheel. The exuberant move about the horizon, exposed and vulnerable. 

Exuberance keeps occasional company with grief, though grief may command the greater mention. Blake’s belief that “Under ever grief & pine / Runs a joy with silken twine” is a received theme in folklore. Our greatest joys and sorrows ripen on the same vine, says the American proverb. Danger and delight grow on one stalk, maintains the English one. Intense emotions inhabit a correspondent territory; joy may be our wings and sorrow our spurs, but the boundaries between the moods are open. Wings and high moods are shivery things; the joyous do indeed need shielding. 

Exuberance is a vital emotion; it demands not only defense but exposure, for despair far more than joy has found sympathy with poets and scholars. Joy lacks the gravitas that suffering so effortlessly commands. Joy without reflection is evanescent; without counterweight, it has no weight at all. Or so one would think. 

Yet joy is essential to our existence. Exuberance, joy’s more energetic relation, occupies an ancient region of our mammalian selves, and one to which we owe in no small measure our survival and triumphs. It is a material part of our pursuits—love, games, hunting and war, exploration—and it is a vibrant force to signal victory, proclaim a time to quicken, to draw together, to exult, to celebrate. Exuberance is ancient, material, and profound. “The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things,” wrote Louis Pasteur. “They bequeathed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—en theos— a god within. The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who bears god within, and who obeys it.” 

Like many essential human traits, exuberance is teeming in some and not to be caught sight of in others. For a few, exuberance is in the blood, an irrepressible life force. It may ebb and flow, but the underlying capacity for joy is as much a part of the person as having green eyes or a long waist. For them, as the psalm promises, a full joy cometh in the morning. Not so for most others. Exuberance is a more occasional thing, something to be experienced only at splendid moments of love or attainment, or known in youth but lost with time. The nonexuberant lack fizz and risibility: they need to be lifted up on the enthusiasm of others; roused by dance or drug; impelled by music. They do not kindle of their own accord. 

Variation in temperament is necessary. Exuberance, indiscriminately apportioned, is anarchical. If all were effervescent, the world would be an exhausting and chaotic place, driven to incoherence by competing enthusiasms or becalmed by indifference to the day-to-day requirements of life. Our species, like most, is well served by a diversity of temperaments, a variety of energies and moods. Exuberance is a fermenting, pushing-upwardand-forward force, but sometimes fixity is critical to survival. The joyous, and the not so, need one another in order to survive. 

I believe that exuberance is incomparably more important than we acknowledge. If, as it has been claimed, enthusiasm finds the opportunities and energy makes the most of them, a mood of mind that yokes the two is formidable indeed. Exuberant people take in the world and act upon it differently than those who are less lively and less energetically engaged. They hold their ideas with passion and delight, and they act upon them with dispatch. Their love of life and of adventure is palpable. Exuberance is a peculiarly pleasurable state, and in that pleasure is power. 

“Why should man want to fly at all?” asked Charles Lindbergh. “People often ask these questions. But what civilization was not founded on adventure, and how long could one exist without it? Some answer the attainment of knowledge. Some say wealth, or power, is sufficient cause. I believe the risks I take are justified by the sheer love of the life I lead.” Man’s exuberant spirit of adventure, Lindbergh argued elsewhere, is beyond his power to control. “Our earliest records,” he said, “tell of biting the apple and baiting the dragon, regardless of hardship or of danger, and from this inner drive, perhaps, progress and civilization developed. We moved from land to sea, to air, to space, era on era, our aspirations rising.” 

Psychologists, who in recent years have taken up the study of positive emotions, find that joy widens one’s view of the world and expands imaginative thought. It activates. It makes both physical and intellectual explorations more likely, and it provides reward for problems solved or risks taken. Through its positive energies, it heals as well. One joy, the Chinese believe, scatters a hundred griefs, and certainly it can be an antidote to fatigue and discouragement. Into those set back by failure, joy transfuses hope. 

Exuberance is also, at its quick, contagious. As it spreads pell-mell throughout a group, exuberance excites, it delights, and it dispels tension. It alerts the group to change and possibility. Ted Turner, who would know, believes a leader is someone with the ability to “create infectious enthusiasm.” This is a defining quality of great teachers, statesmen, and adventurers. Put to good use, infectious enthusiasm is a wonderful thing; used badly, it is calamitous.

About Cerebrum

Bill Glovin, editor
Carolyn Asbury, Ph.D., consultant

Scientific Advisory Board
Joseph T. Coyle, M.D., Harvard Medical School
Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Pierre J. Magistretti, M.D., Ph.D., University of Lausanne Medical School and Hospital
Helen Mayberg, M.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai 
Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., The Rockefeller University
Donald Price, M.D., The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Charles Zorumski, M.D., Washington University School of Medicine

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