Understanding enthusiasm

Kay Redfield Jamison says exuberance often leads to advances in society

September 30, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Where would America be without exuberance, that infectious, agitating mood that sent Teddy Roosevelt to explore the Badlands, write 40 books, recover from his wife's death, remarry and run for president?

Where would this country be without the passion of John Muir for Yosemite or the enthusiasm of James Watson for the inside of a cell?

Outsized enthusiasm, sometimes ridiculed and often supressed, is underrated in our society - perilously so. At least, that's the theory of Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, the Johns Hopkins psychiatrist who has studied moods most of her career and whose books shattered myths about depression.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Today section Oct. 3 misidentified Kay Redfield Jamison as a psychiatrist. She is a psychologist in the department of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The Sun regrets the error.

Her latest work, Exuberance, examines the up-side of life. She's always been curious about it, she says, because she grew up around it, experienced it in the early stages of her own bipolar illness and is surrounded by exuberant people. And these moods seem to be the underpinning or source of creativity.

"Many of my colleagues are highly exuberant," she said by phone from Vancouver, where she was attending a medical conference. "I don't think most people realize how enthusiastic scientists are." People in any field who are very involved in work are often very enthusiastic, she says, "but people have a stereotype of scientists as unemotional and boring."

Exuberance, to Jamison, is a high energy and high mood state that is much more likely to lead to action than many other states. In contrast, she says, "Happiness tends to keep you who you are. You don't have the kind of restlessness associated with exuberance. It is future-oriented."

She links exuberance, in fact, to the survival of the species. Exuberant people are forward thinking, rather than stuck in the past.

Her latest work isn't as practical in impact as books she has written on her own mental illness, An Unquiet Mind, and Understanding Suicide, which revolutionized thinking about manic depression. That's because people aren't looking to cure their exuberance.

Instead, hers is a history of exuberance designed to reveal its importance to discoveries, thinking and life itself and, perhaps, to raise its status. Only in recent years have scientists begun to explore the positive emotions.

And while people with manic depressive or bipolar illness experience exuberance, most exuberant people never become manic.

"Part of the reason I wrote the book - other than as a love song to life - is I think exuberance is infinitely more important as a temperament, an emotional state, and we need to appreciate it more, and recognize it more, and not to discourage it.

"Sometimes I think, in children in particular, there's a tendency, and particularly with girls, to put a lid on it, and to convey it is not entirely feminine and very sophisticated."

In short, she wonders if we are in danger of quashing something special when we overschedule our children or restrict their free time. Play, she says, increases flexibility in thinking and behavior and helps us adapt.

"Play is not a luxury," she writes. Exuberant playfulness lasts far beyond childhood - Tigger and Toad, Snoopy and Mary Poppins are part of her story, all children's characters written by adults.

And then there are animals - the young ones play wildly to learn how to get along.

What's so great about exuberance?

It's contagious. It's important to conveying and transmitting ideas, Jamison says. "If a person is exuberant about an idea, he can usually call attention to it.

"People with it tend to see the world in different ways and are more apt to act on cues in the natural world and explore it," she says. "All those things are very important for the species."

Many of the people in her book are early explorers; they examined the physical world, the heavens, land, geology, agriculture. She calls exuberance part of our national character, something that propelled us westward and into space - sometimes dangerously - and into the inner workings of the brain.

Exuberance is also a source of resiliency.

The neurology of high moods is just starting to be explored. Jamison says dopamine in particular seems to have a primary role in the reward system of the brain. "The assumption is it will be involved in exuberance, and it certainly is involved in extroversion, the temperment most studied in science."

She includes some people in the book to dispel the mistaken assumption that if you have a mental illness, you don't have any capacity for joy. Robert Louis Stevenson and Virginia Woolf, for instance, had a terrible time with depression, she says, "but they were unbelievably lively and charming. People were drawn to them. These intense emotions sit very close."

Like the dark moods, the high moods are often inherited, but people can and do seek out exuberance. Unfortunately, some seek it out in drugs, she says. Others seek it all around them.

"You have to be cold fish indeed not to respond to exuberance in music, dance or song. Everyone finds those circumstances or people in life that bring out the joy in them. We do that in our friends."

She cautions: "You don't want a world full of exuberant people, not only would that be highly irritating and agitating, but nobody would get anything done for the common good. You want people who are shy and cautious because otherwise the world would be exhausting."

Reading

Who: Kay Redfield Jamison reads from Exuberance: The Passion for Life.

When: tomorrow at 7 p.m.

Where: Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Washington

Call: 202-364-1919

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