Irrational Exuberance: the Meaning of Enthusiasm for Life. Book Review

Screenshot of the Book Cover  Exuberance The Passion for LifeExuberance: The Passion For Life

by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison

Reviewed by Julie Sara Porter

To be exuberant is to be lively, enthusiastic, and filled with energy. An exuberant person may have a great passion for something and want to share it with others. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, author of An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, and Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, wrote a fascinating account of the emotions that come with exuberance, the excitement of learning, the passions of a cause, and the emotional instability, and the manias that come and go with it. The author admits that there are cases when enthusiasm becomes irrational exuberance. The meaning of this change still puzzles scientific research.

Many of the book’s chapters focus on people whose enthusiasms and exuberances led to discovering new things and encouraging others to follow along. They include:

Teddy Roosevelt – Jamison writes about Roosevelt’s bombastic personality and fondness for athletic sports like hunting, hiking, swimming, and boxing. After Roosevelt’s father’s, his mother’s and wife’s deaths, Jamison wrote that Roosevelt threw himself in his outdoor activities and politics.

Roosevelt had a passion for natural history which continued into his Presidency. He doubled the number of national parks, created 150 national forests, and added nearly 150 million acres of timber to the government preserves.

Roosevelt found an equal partner in preserving nature in naturalist, John Muir. He traveled through the “University of the Wilderness” to experience nature around him. When he saw Yosemite National Park, Muir was enchanted by the glorious landscape around him. He threw himself into making sure that nature, especially Yosemite, would be preserved. In 1903 Roosevelt and Muir visited Yosemite. This trip emphasized their desire for conservation.

Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley – Bentley was a farmer who studied snowflakes. At 19, he took photomicrographs of snow crystals and became obsessed with studying this weather phenomenon. While Muir and Roosevelt studied the larger natural landscape, Bentley was more interested in the smaller attributes of nature. He was fascinated by snowflakes and devoted his life to study them.

For 25 years, Bentley took picture after picture of these little miracles. He became an expert on the subject even coining some of the ideas like no two snowflakes are alike. (Subsequent research said that is not necessarily true just that no two snowflakes of the same pattern fall in the same area.)

Naturalists like George Schaller, Barbara Triggs, and Gavin Maxwell – They observed various animals at play and showed how that enthusiasm transfers from one species to another. Schaller studied the behavior of a two-year-old panda after it was released from a dark cellar to the outdoors.

Triggs studied wombats and was amused by their athletics such as jumping and rolling on their sides to invite other wombats to play with them. Maxwell observed the behavior of river otters and how they made toys out of various items, including Maxwell’s broken suitcase. Their studies of animals at play show that play and exuberance are huge factors in the lives of everyone and that those experiences are needed for communication and developing bonds.

Children’s Literature – Exuberance is not just explored in reality. Jamison devotes a chapter to the exuberance found within fictional characters found in children’s literature.

Jamison cites various characters like A.A. Milne’s Tigger, James Barrie’s Peter Pan, Charles Schultz’s Snoopy, and Kenneth Grahame’s Mr. Toad as perfect examples of exuberance.

They shake things up around them by behaving very excitable, arguing against conformity, and sweeping closest friends and allies as well as Readers along in their excitement. For example, Tigger confuses his Hundred Acre Woods friends with his buoyant nature and endless bouncing. When they try to get Tigger lost in the woods to break him of those habits, it’s Rigger’s bouncing that saves the day.

Mr. Toad is another example. His friends despair of his manias such as traveling by gypsy cart or buying a motor car. While his friends are dismayed by Toad’s endless delight, they also have their own enthusiasms such as Rat and Mike having a vision of a Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Rat becoming obsessed with traveling with a Sea Rat.

Snoopy and Peter Pan are a couple of other fictional characters that exhibit joy by their very presences. In the comics and specials, Snoopy is an author, dancer, athlete, WWI flying ace, gourmet, art collector and many other positions that put his human companions to shame.

Peter Pan has a zestful childlike nature that never wants to grow old but always have fun. In his final battle with Captain Hook even claims to be youth and energy.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin – She was an astronomer who became fascinated with meteors at age 5. Her enthusiasm for science kept her going even though women were not encouraged to get degrees. She copied lectures word for word and studied to the point of near exhaustion. She had been rejected for various administrative positions but continues to work in her field of astronomy.

Among her discoveries were her studies of celestial bodies. She realized that they were composed of hydrogen. She also challenged the male-dominated field and was the first woman promoted to full professor and department chair.

Humphry Davy – Scientist whose love for science was only matched by his love for teaching. Many of his pupils spoke about his rapid, precise diction, his lively activity, and unfortunately his irritable nature that led him to interest his students.

He demonstrated experiments with his students and used enthusiastic dialogue to build an appreciation for science.

In his studies he showed that chemical compounds can be composed into parts by using electricity. He isolated various elements including sodium, calcium, barium, potassium, and magnesium. Davy’s lectures and experiments made him a popular teacher so that his sessions were packed. Other similar teachers in Jamison’s book that shared a love of knowledge included Richard Feynman and Michael Faraday.

While Exuberance can create great things, it can also lead to unhealthy behaviors like mental illness, addiction, and susceptibility to scam artists. The book also explores some of the worst in exuberant behaviors.

P.T. Barnum – The noted showman and some consider the father of modern advertising. As many know, Barnum promoted various curiosities like a woman he claimed was George Washington’s nursemaid (but was found to be in her eighties when she died), and the Feejee Mermaid, a decomposed figure that was a monkey grafted to a fish. Barnum never believed in halfway. He funded such elaborate promotional tools as creating elaborate hippodromes, light shows, and parades to promote his exhibits.

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Louis Stevenson – Many artists and writers often had mental illnesses and addictive personalities that allowed for creative thinking but also made them difficult people.

Stevenson’s most famous work Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde explored the dual nature within a person. This was a concept in which he was very familiar. He was described as mercurial, high-strung, and vivacious. However, he often also had frequent bouts of depression. The two extremes troubled many friends and family members.

Another writer who’s enthusiastic talent is matched by his darker nature is F. Scott Fitzgerald. Many of his works like The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night explore the champagne-drenched, jazz music party days of the 1920s. While Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, partied with the best of them, they also fell prey to such overwhelming mania. Zelda had psychological illnesses possibly Narcissistic Personality Disorder and was institutionalized. Fitzgerald was an alcoholic and prone to fits of anger and self-doubt.

Various fads and manias such as tulip mania – when in the 17th-century people invested in tulips. Some sold their homes and used tulips as payment. Some of the statistics that Jamison quoted include that one bulb was traded for a sum that could feed a Dutch family for a half a lifetime. Some bulbs can be exchanged for as much as 24 tons of wheat, 48 tons of rye, four tons of beer, eight fat swine and many others. Eventually, the tulip mania ended when the investors realized that speculation could not last, prices declined, and interest plummeted.

Exuberance could also lead to aggressive behavior especially during war. Various soldiers or people involved in war described the toxic and dangerous behavior that soldiers felt towards their enemies. War correspondent, Laura Palmer described an interview with American helicopter pilots in Vietnam. One used racial epithets as he described the killing as fun.

Jamison herself knows quite a bit about living with such extreme emotions. She describes the exuberance that she and the rest of her family shared for learning particularly about science. However, her books like An Unquiet Mind reveal that she also had bipolar disorder which caused her to see both sides to exuberance: the enthusiastic highs of creation and the unpredictable emotions of mania.

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