Susan Cain On the Benefits of Bittersweet

We’re living, famously, through a time in which we have trouble connecting with others, especially outside our “tribes.” And Keltner’s work shows us that sadness–Sadness, of all things!–has the power to create the “union between souls” that we so desperately lack.

Susan Cain is the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a book that felt, in its quiet way, life-changing to me, with its underlying message of it’s ok to be how you are if you’re like this.

I was so looking forward to her newest, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Makes Us Whole (April 5, Random House) although I knew nothing could live up to the impact Quiet had.

Cain was inspired onto the multi-year journey of researching and writing about the specific feeling of sadness crossed with joy by the music of Leonard Cohen, her favorite musician. It takes some effort, but she ultimately describes quite well a feeling that I think can be stubbornly indescribable, that unique mix of sadness mingled with joy that can be so moving — something “rooted in brokenness, but point[ing] at transcendence.”

She finds a lot of ways to encapsulate the feeling of bittersweetness and its iterations, including using the German Sehnsucht, a combination of “yearning” and “an obsession or addiction”, and draws on other people’s experience of bittersweetness, like C.S. Lewis calling it “that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of ‘Kubla Khan,’ the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.”

I was actually a bit hazy — or maybe unconvinced? — about exactly what the feeling was, or the significance of it, because although I love some Cohen songs I don’t have that specific connection as she does. But it’s hard to argue with much of the above, and Cain also links to an accompanying playlist, which solidified the concept for me: “Landslide” was the song that most defined it for me.

Towards the end, she describes Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall,” written “to a young girl who’s upset that the leaves are falling from the trees in ‘Goldengrove'” and that was the icing on the cake. I read that poem for the first time in AP English in high school and I can still remember how it made me feel back then, and still does every time I encounter it. It made me love the entire book and endeavor a little more, because as intangible and strange as this entire concept is, it’s still lovely and affecting.

My issue with it is that aside from capturing these feelings well and validating them — so, showing where they can fit in our lives or in the big scheme of things and what benefit they can have for things like coping, grieving, or just managing bad days — this didn’t feel as actionable or informative as Quiet (unfair to constantly compare them, I know, but the structures and formats are so similar). I think it’s intended only to highlight the benefits of embracing sadness or melancholy, especially considering the particularly American relentlessness of happiness and positivity. (A chapter covers this as well, a topic I’m always interested in since it’s so emotionally and psychologically toxic, but Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided hits it more thoroughly and makes a good companion read.)

Cain braids memoir throughout the cultural and psychological research, including a detailed look at her relationship with her mother and its fracturing, never to be the same throughout the rest of her mother’s life. Her mother now has dementia, and Cain’s description of what’s significant to her — so what remained after the rest of the bitterness fell away — is hauntingly lovely and I think says a lot about what matters to people, ultimately. Her research points are fascinating as always, ranging from the scientific and academic to pop culture, like the story of how the entire script of the Pixar movie Inside Out was retooled to focus on Sadness.

I guess that’s really what this is about emphasizing — that life is never a series of high highs, it’s always tempered and it’s best to get used to that and in fact, to expect it. It’s absolutely worth the read, even if it does feel less innovative or revelatory. There’s a lot of power in these kind of subtle explorations, too.

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
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17 thoughts on “Susan Cain On the Benefits of Bittersweet

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  1. This sounds really interesting. I didn’t make it through Quiet because it was so US-focused, whereas the UK (especially southern England) is an almost aggressively introverted country, so I didn’t really relate to any of her examples. But I enjoyed her writing style, and this does sound really interesting – thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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    1. That’s true, Quiet was definitely more US-centric in its issues. I really enjoy her writing style too, and this was a great read during a period where I’m having a bit of a slump/abandoning a lot. That’s the best praise I can give it 🙂 Glad I could bring it to your attention, hope you enjoy it if you pick it up!

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    1. Yes, absolutely! Damaging and exhausting is EXACTLY the way to describe it. You might enjoy Bright-Sided as well, it really takes a deep dive into the decades of poisonous culture that created that mentality!

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  2. Sounds interesting if somewhat frustratingly unfocused. Periods of sadness are not necessarily something to be wiped away at all costs — sometimes they can bring us greater insight, soften our hearts, or just remind us that life cannot be all “brightness” without making us severely one-sided. I know I”ve been guilty of trying to push people I am close to out of their melancholy, because it makes ME uncomfortable. Would be good to learn more helpful strategies to cope with that.

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    1. What you’re describing is exactly what she found as well — that sadness is what makes us empathetic, insightful, and that that “softness” can be beneficial in myriad ways. And I agree, I’ve definitely tried to get people out of dark periods because it’s painful to see them there, or because I feel like there has to be a kind of “resolution” to sadness and I want them to get there. But it’s just not really the case, or else there are insights we can draw from these periods as well. I think you might like this one, if it is a bit flimsy in its focus, I thought.

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  3. This seems a weird and unfocused area to look at in this book, especially as bittersweet means so many different things to different people. I liked Quiet but didn’t love it – I don’t remember it making allowances for being a sociable introvert, for example, although I read it quite a while ago now.

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    1. She covers pretty well the many different elements bittersweetness can encompass, I’ll give her that…but it is quite a weird and often unfocused topic! I’m still not really sure I understood the intention of it.

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  4. Of course the church loves the power of positive thinking. It’s a money-making cornerstone of many religious organizations.

    I have new respect for Larry King after reading this. i feel our society would be healthier if it accepted the inevitable arrival of hardship. Those in crisis would at least feel accepted and in turn cared for rather than judged.

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    1. Ugh yes, exactly! You might like the book Bright-Sided if you haven’t read it already. She looks at Norman Vincent Peale’s contributions to the religious aspect of positive thinking and the prosperity gospel, etc. It was really interesting. Barbara Ehrenreich apparently got interested in the topic after being diagnosed with breast cancer and encountering the cultish positive thinking cliques of breast cancer patients who put the blame on sufferers themselves who can’t positive think themselves into remission. It’s completely sick but also just so sad, the sense of failure that puts on someone who’s already suffering so much

      And I completely agree, it IS healthier to accept hardship and heartbreak and all of the tough emotions we try to pass out of quickly rather than understand. She does make a really good point of that, and a little bit of the importance it has for our health and wellbeing, although I would’ve liked even more of a focus on that area!

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  5. I was definitely comparing this to Quiet as I read too and my feeling was that this book covered so many different aspects of the bittersweet parts of life that it didn’t dig into any of them with enough depth. I enjoyed this and thought it was really well written with lots of interesting research, but it wasn’t quite as good as Quiet for me.

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    1. It was so hard not to compare them! You make a good point, it was so broad that it didn’t end up making a good enough case for any of the theories or ideas, I think that’s why it felt a bit scattered to me overall. It was absolutely well written and had a few parts that really resonated, but I think it could’ve used some fine tuning!

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