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A Hypomanic Nation?
Energy, drive, cockeyed optimism, entrepreneurial and religious
zeal, Yankee ingenuity, messianism, and arrogance—these
traits have long been attributed to an “American character.”
But given how closely they overlap with the hypomanic profile,
they might be better understood as expressions of an American
temperament, shaped in large part by our rich concentration
of hypomanic genes.
If a scientist wanted to design a giant petri dish with all
right nutrients to make hypomanic genius flourish, he would
be hard-pressed to imagine a better natural experiment than
America. A “nation of immigrants” represents a
highly skewed and unusual “self-selected” population.
Do men and women who risk everything to leap into a new world
differ temperamentally from those who stay home? It would
be surprising if they didn’t. “Immigrants are
unusual people,” wrote James Jaspers in Restless Nation.
Only one out of a hundred people emigrate, and they tend to
be imbued “with special drive, ambition and talent.”
A small empirical literature suggests that there are elevated
rates of manic-depressive disorder among immigrants, regardless
of what country they are moving from or to.17 America, a nation
of immigrants, has higher rates of mania than every other
country studied (with the possible exception of New Zealand,
which topped the United States in one study). In fact, the
top three countries with the most manics—America, New
Zealand, and Canada—are all nations of immigrants. Asian
countries such as Taiwan and South Korea, which have absorbed
very few immigrants, have the lowest rates of bipolar disorder.
Europe is in the middle, in both its rate of immigrant absorption
and its rate of mania.18 As expected, the percentage of immigrants
in a population correlates with the percentage of manics in
their gene pool.
While we have no cross-cultural studies of hypomania, we
can infer that we would find increased levels of hypomania
among immigrant-rich nations like America, since mania and
hypomania run together in the same families. Hypomanics are
ideally suited by temperament to become immigrants. If you
are an impulsive, optimistic, high-energy risk taker, you
are more likely to undertake a project that requires a lot
of energy, entails a lot of risk, and might seem daunting
if you thought about it too much. America has drawn hypomanics
like a magnet. This wide-open land with seemingly infinite
horizons has been a giant Rorschach on which they could project
their oversized fantasies of success, an irresistible attraction
for restless, ambitious people feeling hemmed in by native
lands with comparatively fewer opportunities.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who traveled throughout
America in the 1830s, was among the first to define the American
character. He found us to be “restless in the midst
of abundance,” and the proof was that we were always
moving. Tocqueville was astonished to meet people moving from
east to west and west to east. That so many people would surrender
the comfort and safety of their home in pursuit of an “ideal”
struck him as odd. And we are still the most voluntarily mobile
people on Earth. The average American changes residences every
five years—more often than the inhabitants of any other
nation. We change jobs more frequently, too.19 Tocqueville
“found an entire people racing full speed ahead, and
we’ve kept on racing for more than three hundred years,”
wrote Michael Ledeen in Tocqueville on American Character.