Susan Cain’s ‘Bittersweet’ Explores the Upside of Unhappiness

Have you ever ever puzzled why we love unhappy songs, or get choked up at a “Thanks, Mother” Olympics business? Questions like these have been the impetus for Susan Cain’s new ebook, “Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Entire.”

“Bittersweetness is the hidden supply of our moonshots, masterpieces and love tales,” writes Ms. Cain, who believes that we expertise our deepest states of affection, happiness, awe and creativity exactly as a result of life is imperfect, not despite that truth. On the coronary heart of her exploration is the naming and reframing of her titular paradox: that there isn’t a bitter with out candy.

“Bittersweet,” which is a component memoir and partly a have a look at neuroscience, psychology, spirituality, faith, epigenetics, music, poetry and artwork, makes a case for the underappreciated “curiously piercing pleasure at the fantastic thing about the world” inside a tradition of relentless optimism. The ebook goals to elucidate that irrepressible lump in our throat spurred by seeing a picture of our highschool grad as a grinning toddler.

“The unhappiness from which compassion springs is a pro-social emotion, an agent of connection and love,” she writes. And this “happiness of melancholy” has a physiological signature and clarification.

It seems, Ms. Cain writes, that the vagus nerve — the constellation of nerves that connects the mind stem to the throat and the stomach and is liable for digestion, respiratory and coronary heart price — can also be related to compassion within the face of unhappiness, our intuition to guard our younger and want to expertise pleasure.

Fittingly, the oldest, most instinctive a part of our nervous system, which advanced in order that we had the required empathy to answer our underdeveloped newborns, Ms. Cain signifies, can also be the positioning of the very sadness-joy-survival continuum that makes us human.

Ms. Cain, who can also be the writer of “Quiet: The Energy of Introverts in a World That Can’t Cease Speaking,” mentioned the significance of sorrow and extra within the edited interview under.

What would you want individuals to grasp about being open to or celebrating emotions like unhappiness and longing?

S. C.: We’d do higher to grasp that essentially the most elementary side of being human is the longing to reside in a extra good and delightful world than the one which we reside in now. Generally that’s expressed in explicitly non secular phrases, just like the eager for Mecca or for Zion, or for Eden, or like the best way the Sufis put it, which is my favourite, “the eager for the beloved of the soul.”

But it surely’s additionally in these moments after we see a beautiful waterfall or a portray that’s so lovely that it makes us cry. That’s a non secular impulse that we’re having. What we’re actually seeing is an expression of that extra good and delightful world that we really feel like we come from and that we have to return to.

Inform us a bit of concerning the significance of “longing,” the way it’s been misunderstood in trendy occasions and inside the context of a tradition pushed by “the tyranny of optimism?”

S.C.: In our tradition, you say the phrase “longing” and also you may assume “mired in longing” or “wallowing in longing,” however that’s not the way it has been understood traditionally. Within the “Odyssey,” Odysseus was seized by homesickness and that was what propelled him on his journey.

That’s what carries you to the divine, to creativity. I don’t consider we needs to be making a distinction between the divine and creativity and compassion and all these items. They’re all manifestations of the identical elementary state of humanity.

Should you had revealed this ebook earlier than the pandemic, do you assume there can be a distinct degree of reception?

S.C.: Once I gave my TED Talk on bittersweetness in the summertime of 2019, it was fascinating how a lot the very act of speaking about sorrow, longing and bittersweetness was seen as being an announcement of despair, versus a cleareyed view of what life is.

The truth that all people must undergo that collectively is one in every of our deepest sources of communion and one in every of our deepest sources of artwork and wonder. I feel it was very onerous for half the viewers to know that at that second in time. I feel if I have been giving that speak immediately, it may be totally different.

You make an enormous distinction between candy melancholy and despair. How do you outline the distinction?

S.C.: I’m melancholic by nature, however I consider myself as a contented melancholic. I’m really not depressive within the scientific sense of that time period.

It’s actually attention-grabbing as a result of there’s an extended custom that goes again centuries of speaking about melancholy and its mysterious virtues — greater than 2,000 years in the past Aristotle was asking why it’s that most of the nice poets and philosophers and politicians have a melancholic persona. Melancholy and despair are two distinct states, however typically no distinction is made.

What fields of psychology are bucking this tendency towards pathologizing melancholy?

S.C.: One psychologist, Dacher Keltner, who I wrote about within the ebook, has executed pioneering work on what he calls the “compassionate intuition,” and he factors out that the very phrase “compassion” means struggling collectively. So what you’re doing whenever you’re feeling compassionate is definitely experiencing this sorrow of others.

Once we consider human nature, we frequently both cynically or despairingly go to the thought of survival of the fittest, however Dr. Keltner says we must also actually be speaking about survival of the kindest, as a result of as people, the one manner that we survive is by with the ability to reply to the cries of our infants. What has radiated outward from there may be that we’re not solely responding to our personal infants’ cries, we react to the cries of different individuals’s infants after which we react to different human beings in misery basically.

Can listening to bittersweet, minor-key music, prime you for “the bittersweet mind-set” and life’s fragility?

S.C.: Sure, completely. The truth is, that was really the catalyst that acquired me to begin penning this ebook. I might take heed to a technically unhappy tune, however what it made me really feel as an alternative was a way of communion with different individuals who had additionally identified the sorrow that the music was expressing. And with this unimaginable sense of awe and gratitude towards the musician for with the ability to translate what had clearly originated in ache and to rework it into magnificence. It’s type of like my church after I take heed to that music. My playlist is on Spotify, really.

What are your “bittersweet” practices?

S.C.: Meditation is one thing that I apply on and off, together with mindfulness. However I’m additionally actually eager about exploring any experiences that make me really feel extra linked to a state of affection. There’s one other apply that I’ve began doing during the last 12 months or in order that got here out of the pandemic.

In the course of the starting of the pandemic, I fell into this behavior of doomscrolling Twitter. It was what I might do very first thing within the morning as I wakened. I made a decision that was actually unhealthy. I used to be considering of the poem by Rumi the place he talks about how we get up each morning, empty and frightened, and as an alternative of going straight to our examine, we must always pull down the musical instrument and let the sweetness be what you do.

So I made a decision to begin my mornings as an alternative with magnificence. I requested on Twitter for individuals to advocate their favourite artwork accounts and I began following them. And now my feed is filled with artwork. Earlier than I do the rest, I take the time to pair the artwork with a favourite poem or an concept that I’m fascinated by or no matter. It’s a each day apply that I like.


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