In a provocative and important book published last year, “The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot) of Success in America,” John Gartner, Ph.D. of Johns Hopkins contends that in many individuals hypomania needs to be regarded more as a positive personality temperament than a pathology.
These are America’s success stories, your visionaries and go-getters who are “up” practically all the time without being too far up and who are down only when temporarily sidelined due to their own excesses.
What initially hooked me on the book was that I used to be a financial journalist, and that Dr. Gartner was writing about the very people I used to interview. In a pilot study he conducted, Dr. Gartner surveyed 10 Internet CEOs, and asked them to rate on a scale of one to five how certain personality traits (such as “feels brilliant, special, chosen, perhaps even destined to change the world”) applied to them. “Many,” he reported, “gave ratings that were right off the chart … One subject repeatedly begged me to let me give him a seven.”
Bipolar disorder is more prevalent in the US than in Europe, says Dr. Gartner, and his theory to explain this is that it took driven individuals who were crazy enough to risk their lives to leave their familiar surroundings at home for an uncertain future on a strange shore. Their genes live on in today’s generation of bright sparks, entrepreneurs and political and religious zealots.
In this context, genetic transmission refers to temperament as well as a biological predisposition to mental illness. In Darwinian terms, the risk of full-blown mania and depression justified the positive benefit in passing on high-performance DNA to the next generation.
Dr. Gartner illustrates his thesis by examining the lives of a number of figures who explored, settled, founded and otherwise defined America. Queen Isabella’s advisers, for example, thought Columbus was mad for more reasons than simply wanting to sail west to reach the East (such as wanting to use the profits from his venture to fund a new Crusade). The Puritans were religious fanatics, but they were also entrepreneurs whose “risk capital” amounted to their very lives.
Then there was Alexander Hamilton, who led a foolhardy charge at Yorktown, saved a fledgling nation from bankruptcy, set the scene for US capitalism and foolishly stopped Aaron Burr’s bullet. Yes, too much hypomania can be bad for you.
There was no keeping Andrew Carnegie down. A dirt-poor immigrant with big ambitions, young Carnegie came to the attention of his superiors by showing initiative and breaking the rules. He broke yet more rules by getting into steel in the middle of an economic depression. The rest is history.
Movie mogul Louis B. Mayer played golf five balls at a time, while geneticist Craig Ventner mapped the human genome years ahead of schedule, only to get fired from the company he founded. Hypomanic individuals can be a wacky and wild lot.
As Dr. Gartner’s book makes clear, even successful individuals with hypomanic temperaments can engage in self-destructive behavior. Treatment may be justified, but intervention shouldn’t be equated with medicating the personality out of individuals. This is what so many of our population are fearful of.
But lest we confuse hypomania with an exuberant joy ride, first we need to look at its dark side.
To be continued …
Part IV: Hypomania Can Make Us Want to Crawl Out of Our Own Skin
Published On: March 06, 2006
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