Goodbye, Darkness

The new science of exuberance.

What does the good life feel like? I mean the life worth living, the life we should and do admire. For most of the last century, that question was answered in terms derived from the study of depression, schizophrenia, and the anxiety disorders. A person in touch with the times would suffer existential angst and social anomie. To be wise was to experience ambivalence about important matters and to feel alienated from the culture.

If I am reading the tea leaves right, our fascination with emotional paralysis may be nearing an end. Philip Fisher, a literary scholar at Harvard, recently made the case for “the vehement passions” in a book of that title. Fisher is referring to emotions dear to the ancient Greeks—anger, pride, obstinacy, and rashness.

The passions are precisely not modern. Those who hold them lack double-mindedness; their perspectives are not tinged with irony. Passionate grief, for example, leads to bold action. Think of Electra or Antigone; think of Achilles roused to battle with Hector.

Of course, melancholics have always written in praise of a simplicity that they could not attain—while secretly taking pride in their own inner complexity. But we seem now to have entered an era in which intellectuals praise whole-heartedness and mean it wholeheartedly. Our aesthetics have undergone a sea change.

This shift in taste is now becoming apparent in books meant for a general audience. In January, Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist whose work is grounded in Buddhism, will offer up Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life. And this month, Kay Redfield Jamison contributes Exuberance: The Passion for Life.

Jamison, a psychologist in the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins, is best known for her account of her own manic-depression, An Unquiet Mind. She is the author of Touched With Fire, an exhaustive study of the relationship between mood disorder and creativity, and the co-author, with Frederick Goodwin, of Manic-Depressive Illness, the definitive resource on bipolar mood disorder. It is no slight to the newest book to say that it is one of Jamison’s less substantial works.

Jamison does not so much argue the case for exuberance as illustrate it, through a flood of examples of men (mostly) whose optimism and energy led them to success. Exuberance opens with a thumbnail sketch of Teddy Roosevelt, our most insistently enthusiastic president. Like its subject, the portrait is relentlessly positive, praising Roosevelt’s vitality, his good humor, and even his immaturity. “You must always remember,” a British diplomat says, regarding Roosevelt’s apparent age, “the President is always about six.”

To any reader still inclined to melancholy, this opening may seem a false step. Aren’t we Americans already too prone to blind optimism, not least in our military adventures? Other biographers have called San Juan Hill an unnecessary battle conducted in a fashion that put Roosevelt’s men at excessive risk. Perhaps now is a time for less certainty and greater self-doubt—more waffling and flip-flopping, if you please.

As a rule, Jamison underplays exuberance’s downside. She presents Carlton Gajdusek as a model of the successful exuberant scientist, and of course he is. Working with a Stone Age tribe in New Guinea, Gajdusek and his colleagues discovered the progressive brain disease kuru. They then traced its origins to a slow virus, transmitted through cannibalistic rites. This work forms the basis for our understanding of mad cow disease—and it led to a Nobel Prize for Gajdusek.

Jamison does not mention that Gajdusek later pleaded guilty to two counts of child abuse and spent over a year in jail, based on a relationship with a teenage boy he had brought to the United States from Micronesia. In his scientific journals, Gajdusek had written openly about this sort of arrangement; the striking aspect of the story is Gajdusek’s unworldliness. Nor is Gajdusek the only possible example of the precept that poor judgment goes hand in hand with exuberance. A treatise on well-meaning men who made grave missteps might include many of the same characters Jamison discusses here. 

Still, Jamison is hard to resist. Her writing embodies the energy it celebrates. Jamison turns her attention to children’s literature (she likes Toad of Toad Hall and Tigger), physics (Richard Feynman), poetry (Byron), and warfare (George S. Patton). Example piles on example. To admire Jamison is to accede to her argument. There is something special about exuberance.

One might imagine that Jamison’s thesis arises from Martin Seligman’s “positive psychology,” a body of writing that promotes the virtues of optimism and proposes behavioral pathways to happiness. Jamison mentions Seligman’s research. But most of her book deals with temperamental traits—congenital high spirits. It may be less that Jamison has followed Seligman’s lead than that, in its many forms, the current interest in active, dynamic mental health has a common source.

My suspicion is that the new enthusiasm for simple, positive emotions is a matter of ideology following technology. Toward the start of his career, Freud wrote that the aim of his procedure was to transform hysterical misery into common unhappiness. This comment was mostly a quip about the human condition, but it speaks also to a frequent outcome in psychotherapy—the termination of an acute episode of mood disorder, followed by a modest amelioration of a chronic handicapping state. Until 10 or 15 years ago, a treatment that turned a major depression into a minor one was deemed a complete success.

But subsequent research found that even low-level residual symptoms carry substantial risk—of recurrent mood disorder, of suicide, and of other illnesses, such as heart disease. In the depressed, at least, personality traits that resemble symptoms look ever more like indicators of ongoing, progressive illness. These clinical findings bear an ominous relationship to research that links depression to concrete pathology—atrophy and disorganization of neurons in relevant parts of the brain.

At the same time, the occasional marked response to pharmacology, or to a combination of medication and psychotherapy, gives hints of what constitutes full recovery from depression. Remitted, major depression looks not like minor depression, but like energy, vitality, and resilience in full measure.

In this context, emotional paralysis loses much of its glamour. To the extent that angst, anomie, alienation, and ambivalence have a bad name, the vehement passions will have a good one. My impression is that books like Exuberance signal a turn in direction—a change in tastes and values—away from modern ideals of longing and brooding and toward post-postmodern (which is to say antique) ideals of fulfillment and adventure.

Observing this shift, we may mourn what is lost, in terms of respect for emotional complexity. At the same time, we may acknowledge that the change is overdue. The centuries-long romance with depression—what was that about?