Viewpoint: Beyond Happy? You're Exuberant!

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

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Playfulness is the most important feature of exuberance. Some of us never lose this childlike capacity. And some--the more cautious, fearful children--never fully indulge it. Exuberance, Jamison argues, is almost surely a genetically determined trait. And it seems to confer some advantages. In studies conducted at the University of Southern California, children who were more outgoing and exploratory scored higher on IQ tests and showed greater scholastic ability than kids who sought less stimulation. Psychologists find that very playful children tend to be more demonstrably creative. According to studies Jamison cites, exuberant people tend to live longer, be more decisive and may have better immune systems than their buttoned-up friends.

Whereas some people are born with plenty of fizz, life can knock them flat. Child psychologist Ellen Winner believes exuberance is in-born. "Environment can kill it," she told Jamison, "but I don't think it can create it." My own family experience could have pulled me either way. My mother was a good person, but she was a morbid, anxious parent. Under the weight of her overprotection, I was a whiny, weepy little girl who would not go off the porch. My father was an irrepressible presence, a self-taught expert on everything and one of the all-time great improvisational jazz whistlers. At some point during my middle school years, life flashed an irresistible signal that lured me out of my mother's gravitational pull, and I became my father's child. For better or worse, I am a carbonated character, a frisky, impetuous person, pretty much the same soda-out-the-nose companion I was when I was 10. Am I happy? Frequently. Playful? Usually. Exuberant? Always. ???

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