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The Passion for Life

A-ExuberanceAccording to Jamison, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins, Teddy Roosevelt, P.T. Barnum, Snoopy, Mary Poppins, and James Watson have more in common than fame: they’re exuberant beings. Exuberance, which has biological roots and evolutionary consequences, is a contagious state of "high mood and high energy" that enlivens our existence. It also, claims Jamison, sheds light on the origins of creativity, discovery, and leadership. Jamison uses examples drawn from science to support this idea, from physicist Richard Feynman’s unbounded enthusiasm for life to the "wild animal joy" that inspired John Muir’s clarion call for preservation. Exuberance is now a seriously sober subject.
Knopf. 405 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 037540144X

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"But a quieter kind of exuberance leads to steadfast immersion in one subject, as in the almost magical example of Wilson ‘Snowflake’ Bentley, a Vermont farmer who focused his life on photographing snow crystals, providing the invaluable basis for the science that followed. … Exuberance is both trenchant and entertaining." William Kowinski

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"... her wit does not undermine her serious investigation of a seldom-studied mood." Nancy Schoenberger

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"... she makes a powerful case that exuberance ‘is incomparably more important than we acknowledge.’" Andrew Scull

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Finding this writer—who is also a psychologist, Johns Hopkins professor and recipient of a MacArthur Fellows ‘genius’ grant—up to her ears in happy people is like reading a sunny tale by Edgar Allen Poe. … She has a capacity for moving smoothly between tasty digressions, hard science and sweeping cultural analyses." Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

Baltimore Sun 3 of 5 Stars
"[T]he author succumbs to the risk of exuberance that she so vividly describes—the tendency to fall too much in love with every detail, to overreach." Diana K. Sugg

Critical Summary

In three controversial if well-received books, Jamison previously examined manic depression, bipolar personality disorder, suicide, and their relation to creativity. Exuberance, which explores the biological and evolutionary roots of happiness, switches gears. Jamison approaches her subject by offering up diverse case studies, from animals to the accomplishments of writers, politicians, and scientists. While entertaining and informative (few scientists study happiness), her unflagging exuberance and addiction to example after example get tiresome. She often attributes every happy feeling under the sun, from love to ambition, to exuberance. Until it "gets more scrutiny from science," concludes the Baltimore Sun, "this champagne of emotions will remain hard to define." And yet, you know it when you feel it.

Also by the Author

Touched With Fire Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (1993): Jamison looks at Coleridge, van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and others, arguing that most geniuses are manic depressives.