I’ve always been pretty emotional, easily moved to tears by everything from a sad song to a wedding to the beauty of a fall sunset to a predictable romantic comedy. I used to think this was a problem and was embarrassed by my tears—I even went to therapy to try to “stop crying so much.”
But according to Susan Cain’s new book, Bittersweet, this tendency to be easily moved is a strength that helps fuel deeper relationships, creative thinking, and self-understanding. Cain, author of Quiet, a popular book about the power of introversion, has written a poetic, philosophical book—with some science thrown in—about how embracing our darker emotions and yearnings can benefit us, making our lives fuller and more meaningful.
According to Cain, the “bittersweet” feelings involve “a tendency to states of longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of the passing of time; and a curious piercing joy at the beauty of the world.” They involve the recognition that light and darkness, life and death, are forever paired, and that living with that dichotomy front and center can bring us psychological richness.
“Bittersweetness is . . . a quiet force, a way of being, a storied tradition—as dramatically overlooked as it is brimming with human potential,” writes Cain. “To fully inhabit these dualities—the dark as well as the light—is, paradoxically, the only way to transcend them.”
The power of bittersweet feelings
As Cain explains, we Americans are often discouraged from feeling darker feelings, like melancholy or grief, in favor of presenting a stoic or smiley face to the public. This is problematic, says Cain, as mixed emotions are important for our mental health and denying them can make us feel inauthentic. Meanwhile, pursuing happiness at all costs can backfire, making us more miserable.
How can tuning into sorrow help? For one thing, it deepens our connections to other people and increases our sense of common humanity. Cain points to the movie Inside Out and its celebration of the power of sadness, and to Dacher Keltner’s research on the “compassionate instinct”—the way we’re hardwired to care about others who are in pain. While being happy certainly has social benefits, being in a low mood does, too: It can make us more empathic toward others and draw others to us.
“If we could honor sadness a little more, maybe we could see it—rather than enforced smiles and righteous outrage—as the bridge we need to connect with each other,” writes Cain.
Of course, admitting to pain and sharing vulnerability lets others know we’re human, too, and they help us stay humble in relationships. Cain suggests that we recognize our bittersweet emotions as a yearning for perfect, unconditional love, where we are seen and appreciated just as we are. This longing can never be fulfilled, not even in romantic partnerships. If we hold on to that truth, and simply acknowledge that the longing will always be there, we may blame our romantic partners less and stop holding them to unrealistic standards.
Embracing our bittersweet side can also motivate us toward pursuing difficult goals, she says. Bittersweet feelings create momentum for change and help us find our purpose, because they point us toward inner truths about our lives and what matters most to us. If we lean into our sense of longing and sorrow, says Cain, we can better assess what’s wrong with our current lives and access our deepest passions.
It’s why people who go through traumatic events can sometimes grow from their pain and use it to promote good, like the mother who lost her child to a drunk driver and formed the nonprofit Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It’s also why an expressive writing practice, where people examine their difficult feelings to glean meaning from them, can be so helpful for moving on from adversity. Not shrinking from sorrow can help us grow.
Cain devotes a large part of the book to making the connection between longing or melancholy and the motivation to create or appreciate art. Indeed, some research has shown a tie between experiencing difficult or mixed emotions and creativity. Perhaps that’s why many creative types are famously morose—think Leonard Cohen or Sylvia Plath. They turn their sorrow and longing into something beautiful, moving us all.
Even at work, argues Cain, people who are given free rein to stop putting on a happy face and, instead, to admit mistakes, share personal sorrows, and express their yearnings are happier, healthier, and more productive than those who try to appear sunny and infallible. Partly, being more authentic about our emotions builds trust and improves work relationships.
“Sharing troubles turn[s] out to be very good not only for mental health, but also for business,” writes Cain.
Another flavor of bittersweet feelings, recognizing impermanence, brings the beauty of the world into stark relief for us, says Cain. Transcendent experiences—feeling a sense of wonder, common humanity, and a part of something greater than yourself—are among the most bittersweet, meaningful experiences in life and can actually lead to higher self-esteem, kind behavior, greater life satisfaction, and less depression.
A bittersweet life?
All of this doesn’t mean we should wish to suffer or wallow in the limitations of our mortal lives, as if that’s a shortcut to creative genius or transcendence. That may just lead to depression. Instead, we need to allow sorrow and pain to coexist with moments of joy or connection and not push it away, says Cain.
“What we like are sad and beautiful things—the bitter together with the sweet,” writes Cain. “We like art forms that express our longing for union, and for a more perfect and beautiful world.”
Of course, there are arguments against giving in to pain and longing, and Cain spends some time uncovering counterarguments to her thesis. For example, she notes that Buddhist philosophy admonishes us to eschew longing, as it interferes with equanimity and accepting our present experience. She also attends a conference of people who think accepting mortality is wrongheaded and that we should be busy finding ways to extend our lives indefinitely, helping take away the bitter pill of death.
While I may quibble some with Cain’s use of research findings—which seemed to focus more on the upsides of negative emotions than the benefits of mixed feelings, downplaying the happiness side of the equation—I do think she makes a good case for not turning away from darker impulses too quickly. As I’ve gotten older, the fact that death is more imminent has definitely made me take stock of my life and added poignancy to the time I have left. It’s why I started a daily hiking practice and fulfilled old dreams of traveling abroad. These activities have deep meaning for me, as they have enhanced my love of nature, culture, and language and strengthened my commitment to conservation efforts—all important for my well-being.
Though I wouldn’t say Cain’s book changed my thinking, exactly, it did reinforce it. By embracing the bitter with the sweet, I find that my relationships are deeper, my creativity more accessible, my capacity for compassion stronger, and my life richer. Perhaps, reading her book will give you permission to explore your own bittersweet side—and reap the benefits.