Exuberance: The Passion for Life by Kay Redfield Jamison

Having read both An Unquiet Mind and Night Falls Fast, I looked forward to reading Exuberance.  After all, I think Kay Redfield Jamison writes with amazing insight into mental behavior, and the topics she writes about are interesting to me, both in an academic way and for personal reasons — I have loved ones with bipolar disorder.  Unfortunately, Exuberance, rather than being a mostly-scholarly work on positive psychology, is more of a rambling collection of historical anecdotes with some study information tossed in.

Jamison is definitely not an impartial author.  She herself has bipolar disorder.  From her account, her experience of mania was, while uncomfortable, was also thrilling and addicting, to a certain extent.  She acknowledges the fact that exuberance can blend with mania, and describes situations where people whom could be described as “exuberant” can also be considered to be experiencing mania.  She makes the attempt to give the warning that some of this behavior can be detrimental to the person and draining on those around them.  Her personal experience makes her at least somewhat sensitive to how mania works, and she does do lip service to the idea that, sometimes, being up is not great, especially not if it’s all the time.

She then spends the rest of the book talking about how great the people who experience an overabundance of exuberance are.  Scientists and naturalists are described as experiencing overwhelming awe and joy about their chosen topics and life in general.  She implies that others, who do not experience the same level of overt wonder, are not as good as others.  We aren’t as creative, we aren’t as vital to the perpetuation of the species, and we aren’t as able to see things in innovative ways and do innovative things.

That’s shortsighted and callous.  There are several people whom I would not consider to be exuberant — Steve Wozniak, for one — but are still creative and innovative.  As someone who lives more on the bottom register of open enthusiasm, it bothers me that Jamison finds it easy to dismiss the majority of humanity as not contributing much if they aren’t extroverted and jubilant.  I personally consider some people she would find “exuberant” to be, rather, draining and tiresome without real insight.

I think this is my main problem with Exuberance.  Jamison sees normalcy in people most of us would consider to be going through manic episodes.  She idealizes those states because she had some good experiences with hers, so it must be good when people experience them without a depressive backlash.  Not necessarily; people are just as irrational in manic states as they are in depressive ones, and are just as likely to have bizarre ideas and be harmful to themselves and others.  Plus, they’re just uncomfortable to be around.  No matter how valuable their work may be, few people want to be around those who are “up” all the time.  It takes a lot of personal energy.

One good thing about Exuberance is that Jamison does put forth research that discusses how playfulness and exploratory behavior can be beneficial for the individual and for the species as a whole.  A moderate amount of playfulness helps cement social cohesiveness and create interpersonal relationships; exploration can lead to new discoveries that benefits the species as a whole.  I don’t dispute these findings, and, in fact, thought that this is what the entire book was going to be composed of.  I am disappointed to find that it’s mainly made up of her own conjectures with a little bit of science tossed in.

Rating: 2.5/5.



Filed under 2.5/5, Book review, Mixed, Nonfiction

2 responses to “Exuberance: The Passion for Life by Kay Redfield Jamison

  1. This is the most sensible review I’ve read on Exuberance, a book which has some marked deficiencies. Jamison is so full of praise for people like Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt that she fails to see their shortcomings. She also slides too easily between terms like enthusiasm, mania, exuberance and joy. One needs to go catfoot here. Hitler, and New Gingrich, and Tony Blair and the unspeakable George Bush were, or are enthusiasts. Bush believed that bombing the hell out of Baghdad was mandatory and, besides, Jesus told him to do it. That kind of enthusiasm needs to be constrained in a straight-jacket. In all, Enthusiasm is very sloppy in its ‘thinking’ and, unlike her other books, which I much appreciated, it has almost no analytic power, no intellectual spine. KJR needs to be reminded that quite often what foreigners notice about Americans first-off is their enthusiasm, and they don’t, as Americans often think they do, see that as a compliment. In the 18th Century, even in America, enthusiasm was often regarded as a disease which needed correction. Her heart is in the right place in this book, but there is considerable intellectual slippage. One could, for instance, tell some awful stories about the other side of Churchill’s enthusiasm, from his very early days in South Africa until the fiasco of Malaya – let alone his very canny and cunning rise to power – and that would give his story some necessary shading and nuance.

    I hope she writes some more about cyclothemic personality disorders. Attention to that area of human behavior is essential. We are in the dark. About exuberance we are none the wiser, alas, after giving this book a fair trial. Sorry to be so un-exuberant about it. I am going against all the enthusiastic support the book has engendered. But then, people are enthusiastic about Sarah Palin, who has almost no capacity for thought. Thinking, beyond and through enthusiasm, is VERY difficult. KJR often does it, but not here.

    • You echo my thoughts exactly. After having read a couple of thoughtful and smart books from her, it was a shock to read Exuberance. I almost wonder if she weren’t going through her own manic or hypomanic state when she wrote most of it.

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