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Positive thinking

Exuberance: The Passion for Life

Alfred Knopf: 2004. 416 pp. $24.95 037540144X | ISBN: 0-375-40144-X

What quality is shared by the great innovators and leaders in science, arts and public life? What characteristic is common to such restless and inspirational figures as Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Feynman, Humphry Davy and James Watson, the co-discover of DNA? Jamison believes that there is a common thread in these disparate psyches, and she calls it ‘exuberance’. She describes this as an intersection of various different capacities: boundless optimism, energy, an ability to captivate others, a sense of joy, and a continuation into adulthood of the child's capacity for wonder and play.

Up to scratch: the exuberant Richard Feynman. Credit: BETTMANN/CORBIS

Readers may be familiar with Jamison's memorable previous books, on bipolar disorder (Touched with Fire) and suicide (Night Falls Fast), and her memoir (An Unquiet Mind). This latest book, Exuberance, draws as ever on a wide range of biographical and literary, as well as scientific, material. The link with her work as a psychiatrist is also clear, as the positive attributes of exuberance — energy, restlessness and optimism — can easily tip over into the pathology of clinical mania. Moreover, the highly exuberant are often prone to intermittent bouts of deep depression. Here, as in Touched with Fire, one is reminded that, as Dryden put it: “Great wits sure are to madness near allied/ And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”

Jamison writes poetically, as ever, and many of the portraits and literary examples are highly engaging. But I must confess that the book seemed to me to be limited by its lack of a strong underlying thesis. Jamison relies on the rather old-fashioned idea that emotions basically come in two types: negative ones, such as fear, worry and sadness; and positive ones, such as joy, enthusiasm, wonder, and so on. Exuberance then becomes simply having the capacity for all the positive emotions in ample dose. Psychologists no longer view emotions in this way, however. Emotion systems are probably better seen as discrete mental programmes, each with different design features and content. Fear is quite different from anger, even though both are negative, and it would be possible for someone to be temperamentally high on one but not the other. Similarly, joy is quite different from, for example, ambition, desire or openness to experience. At one point, Jamison says that happiness is a dilute version of exuberance, but it is far from clear that this is the case, because great innovators are often driven by dissatisfaction rather than well-being.

Jamison lumps all emotions that either feel positive or that she judges to have positive effects into one category, so we are left with an undifferentiated view of what really typifies the exuberant individuals of her study. Often it may be the combination of extraversion, which accounts for the ambition and socially captivating behaviour, and neuroticism, which keeps them worrying away at problems for so many years and leaves them vulnerable to depression. In truth, it could be that there is no single psychological trait common to all the highly diverse figures profiled in the book.

A much deeper problem is that Jamison is impartial, almost hectoring at times, as she evangelizes the many benefits of exuberance (though, to be fair, there is one chapter on the drawbacks). She believes the trait to be genetically based, and strongly advantageous, so one naturally wonders why exuberant individuals constitute only a small minority of humanity. She addresses this question only in passing, with a whiff of group selection: “We vary in our capacity for enthusiasm, because a diversity of temperaments serves the collective good.” But we know that evolution favours individual fitness, not the collective good. A more interesting story would explore the possible fitness disadvantages of optimism under some circumstances and advantages under others, leaving the population polymorphic, but Jamison doesn't really develop this possibility.

In the absence of a well worked-out model or evolutionary thesis, one is left with little more than descriptions of the exuberant lives. These are certainly vivid, but the prose often takes on a purple hue and the book is extremely repetitious. It may be my own phlegmatic temperament, but I was longing to see some sober hypotheses or experiments, and I was wearied by the constant explosion of the verbal sky-rockets: colourful, yes; eye-catching, certainly; but they tended to fizzle out and leave nothing lasting in the sky.

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Nettle, D. Positive thinking. Nature 433, 108–109 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/433108b

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Further reading

  • Astrophysics in 2005

    • Virginia Trimble
    • , Markus J. Aschwanden
    •  & Carl J. Hansen

    Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (2006)

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