_Exuberance: The Passion for Life_ by psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison is a fairly interesting account of individuals who have exhibited a distinctive zest for living as revealed in their activities and work. Those who are prone to excessive enthusiasm, gregariousness, and creative insight are discussed by the author, who attempts to show what it is that uniquely determines this trait. While much of the writing in this book is beautiful, it must be pointed out that exuberance is not without its pitfalls. At times enthusiasm may overcome reason leading to unusual, eccentric, or even dangerous behavior, perhaps best illustrated in literature by the case of Toad from the book _The Wind in the Willows_ by Kenneth Grahame. And, often behind the personalities of exuberant individuals there lurks a darker side of irritability, depression, and despondency. Cases of collective exuberance include stock market booms and the battle lust exhibited by some soldiers during combat. However, as anyone quickly realizes both of these have their downside and can be highly destructive. In addition, exuberance often makes it difficult to interact with others. As the author explains, exuberance tends to be a trait that an individual either has or they don't. Those who lack this trait may become jealous of or annoyed with those who possess it in abundance. In the life of great scientists, the case of the physicist Richard Feynman provides an illustration of this. While he exhibited great exuberance in his teaching style, he often left students who could not keep up or who possessed a more placid personality completely alienated. Feynman himself seems to have understood this at times, and the author quotes one of his remarks to the effect that perhaps his style served only the purpose of amusing himself.
This book for me in many ways was a great temptation.
For many years I felt like much of what is described in this book. I was intensely enthuasiastic, curious, fascinated by detail, completely immersed in thoughts and ideas, and at times experiencing an almost mystical sort of communion with the world and nature. Then one day something happened. I began to realize that not everyone had these feelings and this zest for life, and that what was worse is that many resented me because I did. Things started to bother me more, I began to feel profoundly alienated, and feelings of distress and anxiety welled up inside of me. Little by little I was exhausting myself. As it turned out I became severely depressed, and it took a long while before I felt close to normal again.
I still sometimes have these feelings again, but I have learned now to keep them to myself. And this is the tragedy of exuberance. For every up side there is a down side.
The author Kay Jamison is perhaps best known for her research on and theories of manic depression. She herself is a sufferer from a rather severe form of this illness. And in this book, she attempts to link the more extreme forms of exuberance to mania. Exuberance may be seen on a continuum, in its milder forms it may involve an excess of enthusiasm, gregariousness, creativity, and perhaps even religious and mystical feelings. However, in excess exuberance may overcome reason and commonsense. It is in the form of hypomania and mania where excesses of exuberance prove most severe. And often lurking behind this great excess of feeling lies irritability, paranoia, and eventually depression. Perhaps most interesting in this regard is Jamison's discussion of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, himself plagued by wild changes in mood, who wrote on the dual nature of man, perhaps most famously in his account of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this story, Stevenson revealed the conflict within man between his better nature and his shadow, darker self. This conflict may be observed in those individuals who exhibit exuberance at its most extreme. My one fault with Jamison's analysis is that she seems to restrict exuberance to extraverted individuals, and this restriction to me seems unwarranted. While extraverts may seem the natural sort to experience feelings of exuberance, I certainly believe that it is possible to have an introverted sort of exuberance (one allied perhaps with mysticism or scientific creativity and discovery). In addition, while the author mostly focuses on scientists and a few "eccentrics" and observers of nature, many scientists look down upon those who are exuberant, finding them lacking in the proper degree of objectivity, skepticism, and rigor necessary for the scientific endeavor. Indeed, an entire movement exists in the sciences that seeks to move away from any sort of cosmic, pantheistic, or mystical feelings of awe associated with nature towards a more brute materialism. Within the field of religion a similar thing exists, with many religious looking down on mystics.
Finally, I must add that my major problem with this book as with all Kay Jamison's books is her tendency to romanticize suffering and mental illness. She seems to associate certain personality traits with high social status, something I find particularly noxious. What is worse, she seems to associate mental illness, particularly manic depression, with high social status, creativity, and genius. Not only does this re-inforce stereotypes, but also it entirely overlooks the fact of the many individuals who suffer from this illness in silence and alone, never to achieve any social status whatsoever. Jamison never really seems to face fully on the darker more destructive side of things. And this leaves her almost oblivious to the social issues raised by mental illness. As with all her books, this one is really written for the high IQ, highly socially connected manic; however, Jamison never really seems to consider the fact that there are many who suffer in silence who are not so blessed.