What is the relationship between bipolar and success?
This excerpt from the American Psychiatric Association’s book Understanding Mental Disorders, suggests one kind of relationship…
“The symptoms of bipolar disorder can damage relationships, cause problems with work or school, and even lead to suicide. People with the disorder may feel out of control or ruled by their extreme moods and behaviors. Although there may be periods of normal mood as well, people with a bipolar disorder will often continue to have these mood episodes if the condition is left untreated… Although these disorders are lifelong once they begin, treatment can relieve symptoms and bring hope… With the right treatment, people with bipolar disorders can lead full and productive lives.”
All of this is true and yet, the story is much more complicated.
A set of population-based studies suggests that, just as there are many people with bipolar who face huge challenges reaching the goal of “full and productive lives,” there are also many people who achieve greatness despite, or perhaps because of, the traits that predispose them to bipolar mood swings.
One of the most renowned proponents of the view that a little bipolar can lead to great success is author, and psychiatrist, John Gartner, whose book, The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot of) Success in America, argues that hypomania may be what has made America great.
The book is great fun, and an entertaining read, but it doesn’t have a strong evidence base.
These new studies, however, support some of his ideas.
Daniel Smith, and colleagues, used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), a large UK birth cohort, to look for an association between measures of childhood IQ at age 8 years and lifetime manic features assessed at age 22–23 years using the Hypomania Checklist-32. They found that early measures of high IQ were associated with a higher risk of bipolar symptoms in adulthood. The association existed for all of the components of IQ but was strongest for verbal intelligence.
Simon Kyaga, and fellow researchers, conducted two studies looking at the relationship between bipolar disorder and two types of professional success: leadership achievement and creativity. They used registry data from Sweden that covers health information and other demographic information on the entire population of that country.
In keeping with other researchers, they found that individuals with bipolar disorder and healthy siblings of people with bipolar disorder were overrepresented in the creative professions. As you can see in the chart below, this was a strong correlation. Bipolar individuals were 1.35 x as likely as others to have creative professions, and siblings without bipolar were almost 1.5 x as likely to work in a creative career.
Recently, Nassir Ghaemi argued that many of the most significant leaders in the Western society of the last two centuries (such as Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Napoleon Bonaparte) suffered from mood disorders or had a hyperthymic personality, as evidenced by familiality, course of illness, and treatment.
In their population based study, Simon Kyaga, et al, did not find a straightforward relationship between leadership success and bipolar. What they found was that there was a strong relationship between having a family member with bipolar and success in a leadership career.
Since the study looked at all people who were diagnosed and treated for bipolar, it is perhaps not surprising that individuals with bipolar weren’t overrepresented among those in leadership positions. It remains true that a bipolar episode, and its treatment, is often associated with significant professional setbacks: loss of a job, loss of important friendships, etcetera. This study suggests that a little bit of the trait, not enough to lead to diagnosis and treatment, may be associated with success.
How to sum up this story.
It appears that at least some of the genes associated with bipolar are also associated with verbal intelligence, creativity, and leadership.
Thus, bipolar is more than just a disorder, it can, in some people, be a source of success.
Gartner, J. The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot of) Success in America. Simon & Schuster. 2005
A first-rate madness: uncovering the links between leadership and mental illness. New York, NY: Penguin Press; 2011..
Higier RG, Jimenez AM, Hultman CM, Borg J, Roman C, Kizling I, Larsson H, Cannon TD. Enhanced neurocognitive functioning and positive temperament in twins discordant for bipolar disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2014 Nov 1;171(11):1191-8. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.13121683. PubMed PMID: 25124743.
Kyaga S, Lichtenstein P, Boman M, Hultman C, Långström N, Landén M. Creativity and mental disorder: family study of 300,000 people with severe mental disorder. Br J Psychiatry. 2011 Nov;199(5):373-9. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.110.085316. PubMed PMID: 21653945.
Kyaga S, Lichtenstein P, Boman M, Landén M. Bipolar disorder and leadership–a total population study. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2015 Feb;131(2):111-9. doi: 10.1111/acps.12304. PubMed PMID: 24963750.
Smith DJ, Anderson J, Zammit S, Meyer TD, Pell JP, Mackay D. Childhood IQ and risk of bipolar disorder in adulthood: prospective birth cohort study. BJPsych Open. 2015 Aug 20;1(1):74-80. PubMed PMID: 27703726; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4995557.