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.