Viewpoint: Beyond Happy? You're Exuberant!

An extravagantly upbeat writer discovers that even joy has its ups and downs

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I guess I'm a bit of an oddball. ??I fill my apartment with funky and rusted furniture, old farm tools and flea-market flotsam, notebooks and drawing pads, bowls of stones, seed pods, shells and specimens of everything interesting I find. And I tend to find everything interesting. Although I'm not really a scholar, my shelves are packed with books on history, humor and politics, cartoons, neuroscience, biography and art; and the books are crammed with related clippings from magazines and papers. I am an inveterate researcher, an animal lover and enthusiastic friend. Lonely? I'll come over! I might show up in vintage high heels or fuchsia anklets--or both. I own a couple of neckties and a lot of hats. Out of a job? I'm on Craigslist for you. Blizzard outside? Let's go take a walk! It's Thursday? I'll bring champagne!

Don't get the impression that I'm a Pollyanna or never feel blue. Like everyone else, I have suffered the losses, rejection and sorrow that seem to come with the human experience. It's just that, as anxious and anguished as I've been, as crushing my worries and concerns are, there is a mechanism in me that always clicks on and bobs me back up to the surface. Or higher.

I have enough depressive friends to appreciate my own unsinkable temperament, yet life is hardly a cakewalk for me. I talk too much and too loudly. I've been shushed in the movies and lost a job or two because of my irrepressibility. My presence in an office can be as conducive to productivity as a kazoo. I can be overwhelming, giving advice before it's requested and zipping ahead of conversations in spite of my manners. I've tried to be sedate, but I simply cannot master it. Luckily, much of what I say is funny, but I'm not for the faint of heart.

I was therefore fascinated--and relieved--to read Exuberance: The Passion for Life (Knopf; 416 pages), the latest book by Kay Redfield Jamison. A professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Jamison has gained eminence writing about mood disorders and creativity. In a witty and seamless meditation, she explores the long-neglected positive trait of exuberance, a normal but highflying, button-busting appetite for life or, as she puts it, "a psychological state characterized by high mood and high energy." At last, for better or worse, I made sense to myself.

I humbly report that I am in mighty company, including Jamison herself. History and literature, she says, are peppered with exuberant people: leaders like Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill; writers like Walt Whitman, J.M. Barrie and Henry Thoreau; naturalists like John Muir; and scientists like James Watson and Francis Crick. All have accomplished great things by applying a restless curiosity, passion for discovery, embrace of nature, and sense of joy and play. There are imaginary exuberants as well. Tigger, Mr. Toad and Snoopy animate children's literature with their irrepressible capering and bounce. Lewis Carroll gave Jamison the perfect verb for expressing exuberance: galumphing. Part gallop, part triumph, galumphing is what the happiest children do, running in sunshine, splashing through puddles.

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