A psychologist argues that America is rich because a lot
of us are a little bit nuts
By Annie Murphy Paul | February 27, 2005
WHO come to see Alden Cass, a therapist with a practice
in Manhattan, make their living from the market: bankers,
brokers, traders, financial advisers. They're a special breed.
''These guys love risk,'' says Cass. ''They eat it for breakfast.''
His clients think, talk, and act fast. They need just a few
hours' sleep. They're prone to reckless behavior, sexual promiscuity,
extravagant spending. They exhibit all the signs, that is,
of what psychologists call ''hypomania'': an energetic, ebullient
state that is a milder form of the mania associated with bipolar
Cass claims that the majority of his
patients are hypomanic, and though he treats them for the
problems that hypomania can produce - depression, burnout,
substance abuse, wrecked relationships - he also recognizes
its advantages. ''These people have a boldness and a self-confidence
that sets them apart from the average citizen,'' Cass asserts.
''Hypomania is great for business.''
John D. Gartner, a psychologist at
Johns Hopkins University, agrees. In his new book ''The Hypomanic
Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness And (A Lot of)
Success In America'' (Simon & Schuster), Gartner contends
not only that most of today's successful entrepreneurs and
businesspeople are hypomanic, but that many of our history's
leading figures, such as Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Carnegie,
and Henry Ford, had the condition as well. The United States
has more hypomanics than other countries, Gartner claims,
and these people are largely responsible for the nation's
power and prosperity.
''Energy, drive, cockeyed optimism,
entrepreneurial and religious zeal, Yankee ingenuity, messianism,
and arrogance - these traits have long been attributed to
an 'American character,''' Gartner writes. ''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
Might - or might not. Gartner himself
allows that his book rests largely on unproven assumptions,
but doesn't back away from his conviction that they're correct.
Hypomania, he proclaims, ''has made us what we are.''
Find out about these
hypomanics by clicking below...
The most striking element of hypomania,
as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders, is a wildly elevated and expansive mood. Such episodes
last at least a week, and during them hypomanics feel like
masters of the universe. Buoyed by a sense of their own importance,
they are restless and excitable, throwing themselves with
abandon into work or pleasurable activities like shopping
This state closely resembles the initial
stages of full-blown manic depression, or bipolar disorder.
But instead of spiraling into debilitating manias and then
into a paralyzing depression, hypomanics generally experience
only the invigorating effects of the onset of mania and usually
emerge from it without professional help (though sometimes
a period of mild depression follows).
''If you ask most hypomanics, they
don't experience the condition as a problem,'' comments Gartner,
who says he is himself hypomanic. ''When they're experiencing
hypomania, they feel vital, alive, energized. Their best self,
their healthiest self, is their hypomanic self.''
Indeed, while hypomania has been the
subject of relatively little research and clinical attention,
there are a handful of studies indicating that people in a
hypomanic state are more flexible and creative in their thinking,
are more motivated and productive, and have more positive
expectations for the future. And while there is a large speculative
literature on the connection between manic depression and
artistic creativity, Gartner claims that ''until now, there
has never been a serious suggestion that the talent for being
an entrepreneur and mania, the genetically based psychiatric
disorder, are actually linked.''
''American entrepreneurs are largely
hypomanic,'' Gartner declares, but the story doesn't begin
and end with today's would-be Donald Trumps. The United States
is a land of immigrants, he observes, populated by those whose
ancestors were energetic and optimistic enough to leave a
familiar homeland for strange shores. This self-selected group,
Gartner surmises, likely included many hypomanics. In addition,
studies have found that immigrants generally have higher rates
of bipolar disorder. Because there is a genetic link between
the disorder and hypomania - the relatives of manic-depressives
are more likely to be hypomanic - America's long history of
immigration, Gartner concludes, has made it a ''hypomanic
Some mental health experts endorse
many of his ideas. Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison ends
her recent book, ''Exuberance'' (Knopf), with musings about
the influence of immigration on Americans' characteristically
exuberant temperament. ''Individuals who sought the new, who
took risks that others would not, or who rebelled against
repressive social systems may have been more likely to immigrate
to America and, once there, to succeed,'' she writes.
But Jamison, who recorded her own
struggles with manic depression in ''An Unquiet Mind'' (1995),
thinks that Gartner may take his ideas too far. ''Certainly
there have been studies, long before his book, suggesting
that there is a disproportionate rate of bipolar illness in
immigrant populations, which is not surprising, really, when
you think about the energy and the optimism and impulsiveness
that drives people to immigrate,'' she said in a recent telephone
interview. ''Now, does that mean that most Americans are hypomanic?
No, that means - at least from my point of view - that a very
real minority may be hypomanic, though perhaps a very important
Others in the field are less receptive
to Gartner's conjectures. ''Gartner is trying to use a few
fascinating cases to explain an entire country's economic
behavior, and that's a bit of a stretch,'' says Jon McClellan,
an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of
Washington in Seattle who has written about the dangers of
overdiagnosing bipolar illness. Besides, he adds, ''I'm really
bothered by this notion that we're genetically superior to
people from other countries. That's an argument that's been
used for all sorts of bad things, and we should be very careful
about making it.''
What's more, McClellan notes, Gartner's
claims go beyond what the rather meager research on hypomania
can support. (For example, estimates on the prevalence of
the condition range from as low as .1 percent to as high as
10 percent.) ''Scientifically,'' he says, ''the evidence just
Peter C. Whybrow, a psychiatrist and
neuroscientist at UCLA, agrees - though he has his own theory
about how Americans' genes make them different. He has just
published a book, ''American Mania: When More is Not Enough''
(W.W. Norton), that he describes as ''the flip side'' of Gartner's
cheerful depiction of a country full of enterprising entrepreneurs.
But, Whybrow explains, ''I use the word 'mania' metaphorically,
not literally.'' In contrast to Gartner's largely upbeat assessment
of American culture, Whybrow's book warns that our innate
desire for all that's new and exciting has spun out of control,
leading to rising levels of anxiety, depression, and obesity.
In the book, Whybrow traces the unique
character of the United States - what he calls ''America's
astonishing appetite for life'' - not to hypomania but to
a genetic variation, found more frequently among Americans
than among other peoples, that inclines individuals who have
it toward taking risks.
''We don't know enough about the genetics
of hypomania to say that it's what drives the American temperament,''
says Whybrow (himself an immigrant from Britain). ''But we
do know that in the American population you find a much higher
prevalence of the D4-7 allele, which is the risk-taking gene.
I think the factor that distinguishes the inhabitants of the
United States is much more likely to be a novelty-seeking
gene than some form of manic-depressive illness.''
Gartner concedes that his book is
partly ''speculative.'' While he points to studies suggesting
that the United States (along with Canada and New Zealand)
has the world's highest incidence of manic depression, he
acknowledges that there is no data available on countries'
relative rates of hypomania. And he admits that his ''pilot
study'' - in which he diagnosed as hypomanic all 10 Internet
CEOs who responded to ads he placed on various websites -
is far from conclusive.
''What I'm doing is putting certain
things together, drawing an inference,'' he says. ''I'm saying:
'Look, isn't it interesting that the countries that have been
havens for immigrants also have the highest rates of bipolar
disorder? And isn't it interesting that those are the countries
that have the highest rates of new company creation?' Yes,
it could be coincidental - but in science, we say that the
simplest explanation is usually the right one.''
But as controversial as Gartner's
book is among scientists, it is likely to find even less of
a sympathetic hearing among historians. ''The Hypomanic Edge''
offers case studies of well-known Americans who Gartner believes
to be hypomanic. Some of them are contemporary, like Craig
Venter, the brash scientist whose company won the race to
decode the human genome. ''My self-diagnosis: I probably have
a very mild case of manic depression,'' he is quoted as telling
the author. Others died centuries ago.
Gartner makes his most vigorous case
for a posthumous diagnosis of hypomania on behalf of Alexander
Hamilton, the founding father and immigrant from the West
Indies. Unable to conduct an interview with the man himself,
Gartner turned to five of Hamilton's biographers, who he claims
recognized typical hypomanic characteristics - ''restless
and impatient''; ''unusually active at work and other pursuits'';
''supremely confident of success'' - while declining to identify
them as signs of pathology.
One of these biographers was Richard
Brookhiser, author of ''Alexander Hamilton, American'' (1999),
who Gartner reports was ''cool to the idea of diagnosing''
his subject. But Brookhiser said in a recent telephone interview
that he simply doubts the usefulness of such diagnoses.
As a student of American history,
he said, ''you have to be willing to use anything that comes
to hand if it looks promising or if it's going to teach you
something or take you further into the minds of these fascinating
people. You just have to be careful about imposing psychiatric
terminology from the 21st century on people who will never
be able to answer back.''
Annie Murphy Paul is a writer
living in Cambridge. Her book ''The Cult of Personality''
was published last September.
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper