Bittersweet (2022) is a profound meditation on an often-overlooked emotional experience – the bittersweet. It argues that opening up to the bittersweet, where pain and joy mingle, allows us to experience life to the fullest. It also shows how vulnerability can be a strength, longing can be a guide, and sorrow can set us on the path to joy and fulfillment.
Introduction: Open yourself up to both joy and pain.
Imagine a world without sadness, loss, or suffering.
It’s pretty great. No one is ever in a bad mood. Tears are unheard of. You never wake up at 3:00 a.m. riddled with worry or anxiety about the future. Lovers never leave each other. Loved ones never die.
Could you be happy in this kind of world? Maybe you’re thinking, Of course! But it might be harder than you think.
See, sadness, pain, and loss all have an important role to play. Without them, life’s joys would be more mundane. The people you love wouldn’t feel so precious. And moments of happiness wouldn’t feel special at all. Without darkness, you don’t notice the light. If you’ve never tasted bitterness, you can’t recognize sweetness.
In other words, as you’ll learn in this summary, these two seemingly conflicting ideas often work in tandem. Learning to reconcile ourselves to – and even embrace – the bitter side of life can help us live more sweetly. And as you open yourself to the bittersweet, you might realize that relentless positivity is overrated. Because pain and loss have lessons to teach you in their own right.
As you’ll soon find out, there are reasons that you almost instinctively feel compassion – or why the track you play on repeat isn’t your favorite dance tune but the saddest song in your playlist. We’ll explore, and try to understand, the benefits of not only accepting but welcoming the bittersweet.
In this summary, you’ll learn
- why we’re hardwired to experience compassion;
- why we love listening to sad music; and
- why staying positive isn’t always a good thing.
- Follow your longing where it’s telling you to go.
- Transform your pain into beauty, your longing into belonging.
- The art we love best, the music we love most, express our yearning for a perfect and beautiful world.
- Upbeat tunes make us dance around our kitchens and invite friends for dinner. But sad music makes us want to touch the sky.
- Whatever pain you can’t get rid of, make it your creative offering.
- Creativity has the power to look pain in the eye and turn it into something else.
- Our oldest problem is the pain of separation, our deepest dream is the desire for reunion.
- You don’t have to believe in the deities of the ancient books to be transformed by spiritual longing.
- We transcend grief only when we realize how connected we are with all the other humans who struggle to transcend theirs.
- We are taught that when things are going well, that’s the main road. When things go wrong, it’s the detour. But there is no detour. Life is one road.
- We’re just humans: flawed and beautiful and longing for love.
Emotions can’t be neatly compartmentalized.
It’s May 27, 1992, and Sarajevo, a city in former Yugoslavia, is under siege. There are gunfights in the streets and mortar shells falling from the sky. Amid the chaos, Sarajevo’s citizens still need to perform the mundane tasks necessary to stay alive – like lining up outside the bakery in a downtown marketplace to buy bread. Most days these citizens return home safe, carrying loaves under their arms. Other days they might not be so lucky. On this particular day, a mortar attack kills 22 of the people waiting in line.
The next day, the scene outside the bakery is bleak. Then, a man in a tuxedo arrives, finds a place in the rubble to set up a plastic chair, sits down, and begins to play Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor on his cello. The man is Vedran Smailović who, in times of peace, is a cellist for the Sarajevo Opera. He will play outside the bakery, as shells fall in the streets around him, for 22 days – one day for every life lost.
The sweetness of Smailović’s song doesn’t soften the bitter scene. And the desolation of the ruined city doesn’t detract from the beauty of his playing. Instead, pain and beauty combine to throw each other into even sharper relief.
This is the bittersweet, where painful and joyful feelings harmonize rather than clash.
Across generations and cultures, humans have long intuited that bitterness and sweetness, joy and sorrow are intrinsically intertwined. There are, in every life, “Days of honey, days of onion” as one Arabic saying goes. We can find pleasure in these intermingled emotions.
In Japan, festivals are held when the sakura, or cherry blossoms, bloom. Picnics are held under pink, fragrant boughs of cherry blossom trees each spring. There are other spring blossoms that are equally lovely, but the Japanese prize sakura most of all because they have the shortest season. Celebrating these ephemeral blossoms elicits a feeling they call mono no aware – which, roughly translated, means “a gentle sorrow connected to the knowledge that everything is impermanent.”
We are drawn to the bittersweet in music, too. Not everyone favors bittersweet songs over catchy pop melodies. But, as one study from the University of Michigan found, people whose favorite song is happy tend to listen to it 175 times on average. People whose favorite song is bittersweet, on the other hand, listen to that song roughly 800 times.
Why do we respond so viscerally to expressions of the bittersweet? Well, this reaction might be hardwired into us. While the strength of it varies from person to person, humans all share something called the compassion instinct. Our compassion is prompted when we observe others suffering or experiencing pain. Our instinct to act compassionately toward each other is just as primal as our instinct to eat when we are hungry or seek warmth when we feel cold. In our earliest days on Earth, our survival as a species depended on this instinct to protect and care for others.
In this sense, sadness – the bitter in the bittersweet – has an important evolutionary function. As psychologist Dacher Keltner puts it, “Sadness is about caring.” Paying attention to the sadness of others helps us build community and grow connections. Paying attention to our own sadness allows us to experience life in all its richness and complexity.
And yet, in the West, people tend to live in cultures that don’t honor bitterness. Popular psychology focuses on progress and positivity. Grief is framed as something which can be moved through in seven steps and then left behind. Trauma is something that needs closure. As a result, our experience of the bittersweet is diminished.
Perhaps it’s time we opened ourselves up to the bittersweet and all the possibilities it holds. The bittersweet recognizes there is a place for joy in sadness, and that beauty is tinged with pain.
The way we meet our pain defines who we are.
Maya Angelou was a poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. Her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, spent two years on the New York Times best-seller list. It describes some incredibly painful moments. When Angelou was eight, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. That boyfriend was later beaten to death in front of her eyes. These events left Angelou so traumatized she didn’t speak to anyone but her brother for the next five years.
Buckminster Fuller was a visionary architect who pioneered the geodesic dome – a structure so strong it can withstand extreme weather in many different climates. Fuller was also a philosopher, inventor, writer, and futurist, sometimes known as the Leonardo da Vinci of the twentieth century. When Fuller’s daughter was four years old, she died of meningitis. Fuller was so heartbroken he considered suicide.
These people were exceptional in their fields. And both were marked by pain and trauma. What is it that we can learn from their life stories – and many others like them?
We could give you a glib response to that question. Something along the lines of: These people turned their pain into a productive force. See? Everything does happen for a reason!
That wouldn’t be true, though. Not everything happens for a reason. Trauma, abuse, pain, and loss are senseless and unfair. But they are also inevitable. The bittersweet teaches us that pain exists alongside joy, love exists alongside loss, and inspiration exists alongside despair. If we turn away from the negative, we also turn away from all the good that comes with it. When we turn away from the bitter, we turn away from the sweet. Life might seem more bearable without pain. But it is also more muted.
A study from the University of Toronto found that people who accepted their negative emotions actually experienced less stress and a greater sense of well-being than their peers. This finding remained true even after these people experienced negative life events.
When we listen to our pain, it can tell us what’s important. When we use that pain to help others, we can become what Carl Jung called a “wounded healer,” just like Maya Angelou and Buckminster Fuller. Wounded healers use the pain they’ve experienced to move toward love.
Shortly after the events of September 11, 2001, one of the USA’s most painful national wounds, a record number of Americans applied to become firefighters, teachers, and health workers. When we listen to our pain, it can tell us what we need to do.
And there are ways that we can bring this concept into our lives more actively. The Buddhist practice of loving kindness meditation – also known as metta – allows practitioners to move from pain to love through the repetition of simple mantras. These mantras, like “May you be free from danger” and “May you be free from suffering” wish love on everyone in the world. To begin with, you wish this love on yourself. Then, radiating outward, you begin to wish love on family and friends, on acquaintances, and even strangers. Does all this sound more sweet than bitter? The meditation culminates in wishing love – from a safe distance – even on those who have caused you the most pain. In sending that love, you begin to release the pain’s hold on you.
There is a story from the same Buddhist tradition that gives us metta. A woman has lost her child. She carries its tiny corpse in her hands to the Buddha and asks him to please bring her child back to life – let her avoid this pain, this suffering. The Buddha agrees, on the condition that the woman bring him one mustard seed. The woman agrees, ecstatic. The Buddha then explains that this mustard seed must come from a house that has never seen pain or loss. Of course, the woman can’t produce this mustard seed. Suffering is as inevitable as love.
As the story teaches us, we can’t avoid pain and suffering. It touches us all. We will all have pain inflicted on us. We will all inflict it on others. The only thing within our control is how we welcome pain when it arrives on our doorstep.
We lose a lot when we think of ourselves as winners.
Americans are said to smile more than any other nation on Earth. But it’s not because they’re happier. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, about 30 percent of Americans will suffer anxiety over their lifetimes. Around 20 percent will suffer major depression.
Why consistently project positivity when you’re not consistently happy?
At least in this context, the answer might lie in colonial history. In the early days of the USA, New England was settled by white colonists who observed the Calvinist faith. In Calvinism, after death, some people ascend to heaven while others are cast into hell. Here’s the catch: it’s predestined, meaning God has already decided your fate. Either you’re a winner in this religious lottery, or you’re a loser. You can’t change your fate. What you can do, however, is act like a winner. Calvinists worked hard and acted devoutly to create the impression that they were among the winners.
Over the centuries, the US has grown increasingly secular. But the division between “winners” and “losers” has stuck. And while winning is desirable, losing is something to be avoided at all costs. Instead of extending compassion to those undergoing misfortunes, we treat loss and failure as if they’re contagious. The result? A society that smiles through sickness, disaster, and loss. A culture that believes it’s possible to “win” in terms of a career or romantic relationships – to “win” against illness and death.
But remember the story of the mustard seed? Loss and failure touch us all. Pretending they don’t doesn’t change that fact. And plastering a smile over negative feelings only makes them feel worse, thanks to a phenomenon psychologists call amplification. Essentially, the more you try not to think about something, the larger it looms in your mind. It’s like having a slice of delicious chocolate cake sitting in your fridge. The more you think about not eating it, the more you want to eat it. The same holds for negative emotions and experiences. The more we try to pretend they don’t affect us, the worse they become. Repressing these feelings doesn’t actually make them go away. They simply manifest in other parts of our lives. Someone who goes to great lengths to keep it together at work might find themselves snapping at their children or picking fights with their partner. Someone who wants a picture-perfect family life might secretly be a compulsive shopper, or drinker, or gambler.
So what could you do with these negative emotions?
You could follow the example of James Pennebaker and write them down. Just out of college and newly married, Pennebaker’s life stretched before him. But he and his wife hit a rough patch. He didn’t want to deal with this perceived failure. So he didn’t. And his dysfunctional coping mechanisms soon spiraled out of control. The more frequently he fought with his wife, the more Pennebaker drank; the more he drank, the more depressed he became; the more depressed he was, the more he fought with his wife.
One day, he tried something different. Instead of drinking or fighting away his negative feelings, he wrote them down. In committing his truth to the page, Pennebaker felt a sense of release. Admitting failures and shortcomings proved to be a pathway out of his negative spiral. He communicated more openly with his wife. He felt his depression ease.
Here’s the thing: Pennebaker isn’t just some guy who wrote down how he was feeling. He’s also a social psychologist. And when he saw the positive impact of expressive writing in his own life, it intrigued him. Pennebaker has since run several groundbreaking studies on the topic of expressive writing. In one such study, two groups were asked to write for 20 minutes. The first group wrote about their problems, ranging from bereavement to abuse. The other wrote about mundane topics, like the clothes they were wearing. They did this once a day for three days. At the end of those three days, after just 60 total minutes of expressive writing, the first group were calmer, happier, and less stressed than the second. And in follow-up tests, months later, the first group reported lower blood pressure, fewer health issues, and more success at work.
Pennebaker’s solution sounds simple. But in a culture that values winning over everything, admitting that you’ve failed is a big deal – even if you’re only admitting it to the page in front of you.
When you want to project that you’re a winner at all costs, you lose. Simple as that. But look at what you can gain if you’re frank with yourself and others about the ways you’ve failed and the misfortunes you’ve experienced. A fresh start, a repaired relationship, a new sense of purpose – these are things that are gained because of loss, not in spite of it.
Embracing life means accepting death.
At night, Tibetan monks turn over a water glass as a gentle reminder to themselves that they may not live to see the morning. To a Western mindset, this simple ritual might seem morbid. After all, our most important rituals celebrate life, not death. We mark our birthdays every year but don’t observe the Day of the Dead, as people in Mexico do. Embracing death, whether through vibrant festivals or small gestures, strikes us as strange. But perhaps it shouldn’t. After all, death shapes life and imbues it with meaning.
Death wasn’t always so removed from the Western imagination. For centuries, death was part of our everyday life. People died at home. Their corpses were washed and tended at home. And because we were comfortable with death, we were comfortable with grief. The Victorians, for example, observed strict rituals around mourning, wearing all black and withdrawing from society for a period after their bereavement. But around the 1930s things began to change. Death moved from the home to the hospital. And the work of tending to the dying and the dead was outsourced to health-care workers. As death became more removed from life, we grew less comfortable with grief and mourning. Now, the freshly bereaved are exhorted to be brave, to stay positive – they are told the deceased would have wanted it that way.
We no longer routinely engage with death. We no longer afford ourselves and others time and space to grieve. But in diminishing death, are we also diminishing life?
You don’t need to accept death with the tranquility of a Tibetan monk. But trying to live in a bittersweet state, where you recognize that life is fleeting and death is inevitable, can bring profound rewards. It turns out, cultivating an awareness of life’s impermanence can actually make us happier.
Dr. Laura Carstensen is a psychology professor at Stanford University. Through her research, she has identified a group of people predisposed to happiness. These people forgive easily, love unguardedly, are quick to experience gratitude and slow to experience anger. Who are these happy, well-adjusted beings? The elderly. The reason they’re happy is their heightened sense of impermanence. The older we become, as a rule, the more aware we are of death and loss. Moments of joy become more poignant. In other words, as life goes on, its bittersweet nature naturally emerges.
Dr. Carstensen believes moments of sweetness mean more to the elderly because these moments are shot through with a sharper awareness of their transience. Young people know, of course, that they will one day die – but death still feels far away. So they look outward. They explore, seeking out new people and experiences. But they also tend toward negativity bias, meaning they’re more likely to focus on and remember negative interactions and feelings.
Older people are more conscious that life is fragile. They tend to savor what they have rather than seek out what’s new. They pour care and love into the things they already treasure and, doing so, find more reasons to treasure them. Perhaps because of this, they show a positivity bias. They’re far more likely to focus on and recollect positive memories.
So, how can we learn to better live with death?
To start, we might need to reframe our thinking about grieving. People in grief are constantly told to “let go” of what they have lost, to “find closure” for their own pain. What if, instead of trying to deny grief, we focused on our incredible capacity to carry it with us through life without growing bent under its burden?
We might also remember the central truth of bittersweetness: there’s no sweetness without bitterness, no love without loss.
There’s a story Cain shares about the writer Franz Kafka. Kafka came across a little girl crying in a Berlin park. She had lost her doll and was inconsolable. Kafka informed the girl she was in luck. He happened to be a doll postman. Over the next weeks he delivered letters to the girl from her doll. In these letters, the doll told the girl all about her adventures. Finally, Kafka presented the girl with a new doll and one final note, concealed in the doll’s skirts for the girl to find much later – perhaps when she was an adult.
This note simply read, “Everything that you will love, you will eventually lose. But love will return again in a different form.”
Western cultures often downplay grief, diminish loss and pain, and pretend that death doesn’t exist. In short, we’re collectively in denial. And our lives are poorer for it. Closing yourself off to sadness shuts down the possibility of experiencing authentic joy. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
You’ve just learned about how various people have not only accepted, but leaned into the sorrows in life. They’ve paired these experiences right alongside the joy. And you, too, can commit to savoring the bittersweet in order to wholly appreciate life – in all of its complexities.
Practicing compassion toward yourself is a good place to start. If you’re going to accept the bitter in life, along with the sweet, be sure to extend yourself that same courtesy. Talk to yourself as kindly and gently as you would to a treasured friend. And maybe, similarly to the Buddhist mantras we mentioned earlier, by starting to value the bittersweetness in yourself, it will slowly ripple out to loved ones, strangers, and the rest of the world.
Mindfulness, Happiness, Personal Development, Religion, Spirituality, Self-Help, Relationships, Emotional Mental Health, Love and Loss, Popular Psychology Personality Study, Science, Philosophy, Sociology, Self-Improvement, Personal Transformation
About the author
Named one of the top ten influencers in the world by LinkedIn, Susan Cain is a renowned speaker and author of the award-winning books Quiet Power, Quiet Journal, and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Translated into more than forty languages, Quiet has appeared on many best-of lists, spent more than seven years on the New York Times bestseller list, and was named the #1 best book of the year by Fast Company, which also named Cain one of its Most Creative People in Business. Her TED Talk on the power of introverts has been viewed over forty million times.
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Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION: The Power of Bittersweet
PART I Sorrow and Longing: How can we transform pain into creativity, transcendence, and love?
CHAPTER 1. What is sadness good for?
CHAPTER 2. Why do we long for “perfect” and unconditional love? (And what does this have to do with our love of sad songs, rainy days, and even the divine?)
CHAPTER 3. Is creativity associated with sorrow, longing—and transcendence?
CHAPTER 4. How should we cope with lost love?
PART II Winners and Losers: How can we live and work authentically in a “tyranny of positivity”?
CHAPTER 5. How did a nation founded on so much heartache turn into a culture of normative smiles?
CHAPTER 6. How can we transcend enforced positivity in the workplace, and beyond?
PART III Mortality, Impermanence, and Grief: How should we live, knowing that we and everyone we love will die?
CHAPTER 7. Should we try to live forever?
CHAPTER 8. Should we try to “get over” grief and impermanence?
CHAPTER 9. Do we inherit the pain of our parents and ancestors? And, if so, can we transform it generations later?
CODA: How to Go Home
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • Sadness is a superpower. In her new masterpiece, the author of the bestselling phenomenon Quiet reveals the power of a bittersweet outlook on life, and why we’ve been so blind to its value.
Bittersweetness is a tendency to states of longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. It recognizes that light and dark, birth and death—bitter and sweet—are forever paired.
If you’ve ever wondered why you like sad music . . .
If you find comfort or inspiration in a rainy day . . .
If you react intensely to music, art, nature, and beauty . . .
Then you probably identify with the bittersweet state of mind.
With Quiet, Susan Cain urged our society to cultivate space for the undervalued, indispensable introverts among us, thereby revealing an untapped power hidden in plain sight. Now she employs the same mix of research, storytelling, and memoir to explore why we experience sorrow and longing, and how embracing the bittersweetness at the heart of life is the true path to creativity, connection, and transcendence.
Cain shows how a bittersweet state of mind is the quiet force that helps us transcend our personal and collective pain. If we don’t acknowledge our own heartache, she says, we can end up inflicting it on others via abuse, domination, or neglect. But if we realize that all humans know—or will know—loss and suffering, we can turn toward one another.
At a time of profound discord and personal anxiety, Bittersweet brings us together in deep and unexpected ways.
In this inspiring masterpiece, bestselling author Susan Cain shows the power of the “bittersweet” — the outlook that values the experiences of loss and pain, which can lead to growth and beauty. Understanding bittersweetness can change the way we work, the way we create and the way we love.
Each chapter helps us navigate an issue that define our lives, from love to death and from authenticity to creativity. Using examples ranging from music and cinema to parenting and business, as well as her own life and the latest academic research, she shows how understanding bittersweetness will allow us, in a flawed world, to accept the loss of past identities; to fully embrace the loves we have; and to weather life’s transitions.
Bittersweet reveals that vulnerability and even melancholy can be strengths, and that embracing our inevitable losses makes us more human and more whole. This is a book for those who have felt a piercing joy at the beauty of the world; who react intensely to art and nature; and in a culture that celebrates toughness, who yearn for a wiser and more meaningful world. For bittersweetness is the hidden source of our love stories, moonshots and masterpieces.
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
What is sadness good for?
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
—NAOMI SHIHAB NYE
In 2010, celebrated Pixar director Pete Docter decided to make an animated film about the wild and woolly emotions of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. He knew the rough outlines of the story he wanted to tell. The film would open with Riley, uprooted from her Minnesota hometown and plunked down in a new house and school in San Francisco, while also caught in the emotional storm of incoming adolescence.
So far, so good. But Docter faced a creative puzzle. He wanted to depict Riley’s feelings as lovable animated characters running a control center in her brain, shaping her memories and daily life. But which feelings? Psychologists told him that we have up to twenty-seven different emotions. But you can’t tell a good story about so many different characters. Docter needed to narrow it down, and to pick one emotion as the main protagonist.
He considered a few different emotions for the starring role, then decided to place Fear at the center of the movie, alongside Joy; partly, he says, because Fear is funny. He considered Sadness, but this seemed unappealing. Docter had grown up in Minnesota, where, he told me, the sanguine norms were clear: “The idea that you’d cry in front of people was very uncool.”
But three years into the development of the film—with the dialogue already done, the movie partially animated, the gags with Fear already in place, some of them “quite inspired”—he realized that something was wrong. Docter was scheduled to screen the film-in-progress for Pixar’s executive team. And he was sure it was a failure. The third act didn’t work. According to the film’s narrative arc, Joy should have learned a great lesson. But Fear had nothing to teach her.
At that point in his career, Docter had enjoyed two mega-successes—Up and Monsters, Inc. But he started to feel sure that these hits were flukes.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he thought. “I should just quit.”
His mind spun into dark daydreams of a post-Pixar future in which he’d lost not only his job but also his career. He went into preemptive mourning. The thought of living outside his treasured community of creatives and business mavericks made him feel he was drowning—in Sadness. And the more despondent he grew, the more he realized how much he loved his colleagues.
Which led to his epiphany: The real reason for his emotions—for all our emotions—is to connect us. And Sadness, of all the emotions, was the ultimate bonding agent.
“I suddenly had an idea that we needed to get Fear out of there,” he recalls now, “and Sadness connected with Joy.” The only problem was, he had to convince John Lasseter, who ran Pixar at the time, to place Sadness at the heart of the movie. And he was worried that this would be a tough sell.
Docter tells me this story as we sit in the airy, light-filled atrium designed by Steve Jobs for Pixar’s Emeryville, California, campus. We’re surrounded by larger-than-life sculptures of Pixar characters—the Parr family from The Incredibles, Buzz from Toy Story, all of them striking poses by sky-high glass windows. Docter enjoys cult status at Pixar. Earlier that day, I’d led an executive session on harnessing the talents of introverted filmmakers, and a few minutes into the proceedings, Docter had bounded into the conference room, instantly lighting up the room with his warmth.
Docter resembles an animated character himself, drawn mainly of rectangles. He has a gangly six-foot-four frame and a long face, half of which is forehead. Even his teeth are long and rectangular, the beanpoles of the dental world. But his most salient feature is the animation of his facial expressions. His smiles and grimaces convey a bright, winsome sensitivity. When he was a kid, his family moved to Copenhagen so his father could research a Ph.D. on Danish choral music. Docter didn’t speak the language and had no idea what the other kids were saying. The pain of that experience drew him to animation; it was easier to draw people than talk to them. Even now, he’s apt to create characters who live in treehouses and float away into a wordless dreamscape.
Docter was concerned that the executive team would find Sadness too glum, too dark. The animators had drawn the character as dowdy, squat, and blue. Why would you place a figure like that at the center of a movie? Who would want to identify with her?
Throughout this process, Docter had an unlikely ally: Dacher Keltner, an influential University of California, Berkeley, psychology professor. Docter had called in Keltner to educate him and his colleagues on the science of emotions. They became close friends. Keltner’s daughter was suffering the slings and arrows of adolescence at the same time as Docter’s, and the two men bonded over vicarious angst. Keltner taught Docter and his team the functions of each major emotion: Fear keeps you safe. Anger protects you from getting taken advantage of. And Sadness—what does Sadness do?
Keltner had explained that Sadness triggers compassion. It brings people together. It helps you see just how much your community of quirky Pixar filmmakers means to you.
The executive team approved the idea, and Docter and his team rewrote the movie—which ultimately won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and was the highest grossing original film in Pixar history—with Sadness in the starring role.
When you first meet Dacher Keltner—who has flowing blond locks; the relaxed, athletic aura of a surfer; and a lighthouse-beam smile—he seems an unlikely ambassador for Sadness. His default state seems more like Joy. He radiates warmth and caring, and has a sincere politician’s gift for seeing and appreciating others. Keltner runs the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab and the Greater Good Science Center, two of the world’s most influential positive psychology labs, where his job is to study the emotional goodies of being alive: wonder, awe, happiness.
But spend some time with Keltner and you notice that the corners of his eyes turn down like a basset hound’s, and that he describes himself as anxious and melancholic—as a bittersweet type. “Sadness is at the core of who I am,” he tells me. In my book Quiet, I described the research of Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan and Elaine Aron, which found that 15 to 20 percent of babies inherit a temperament that predisposes them to react more intensely to life’s uncertainty as well as its glory. Keltner considers himself what Kagan would call a born “high-reactive,” or what Aron would call “highly sensitive.”
Keltner was raised in a wild and starry-eyed 1970s household. His father was a firefighter and painter who took him to art museums and taught him Taoism, his mother a literature professor who read him Romantic poetry and was especially fond of D. H. Lawrence. Keltner and his younger brother, Rolf, who were very close, roamed around nature at all hours of the day and night. Their parents encouraged them to figure out their core passions, and to build a life around them.
But in their quest to experience life in all its intensity, Keltner’s parents moved the family at a dizzying pace: from a small town in Mexico, where he was born in a tiny clinic; to Laurel Canyon, a countercultural California neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills, where they lived next door to Jackson Browne’s pianist and Keltner went to second grade at a school called Wonderland; to a rural farm town in the Sierra foothills, where few of his fifth-grade classmates were destined for college. By the time the family arrived in Nottingham, England, when Keltner was in high school, his parents’ marriage had imploded. His father fell in love with the wife of a family friend; his mother started traveling back and forth to Paris to study experimental theater. Keltner and Rolf, left on their own, got drunk and threw parties. They were never a foursome again.
On the outside Keltner seemed—seems still—like a golden child. But the abrupt shattering had what he describes as a “long, enduring sad effect” on him and his family. His father mostly disappeared; his mother became clinically depressed; Keltner suffered three years of full-blown panic attacks. Rolf, who would grow up to be a dedicated speech therapist in an impoverished community, and a devoted husband and father, battled the demons of what one physician diagnosed as bipolar disorder: insomnia, binge eating, and regular beer and marijuana to calm his nerves.
Of all these unravelings, it was Rolf’s struggles that shook Keltner most. Partly because his brother had been his anchor from the time they were small: In every neighborhood into which they crash-landed, they were boon companions, fellow explorers of the new terrain, tennis partners who never lost a doubles match. When the family fell apart, they fended for themselves, together.
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“Bittersweet grabs you by the heart and doesn’t let go.” – BRENÉ BROWN, author of Atlas of the Heart
“Susan Cain has described and validated my existence once again!”- GLENNON DOYLE, author of Untamed
“A sparkling ode to the beauty of the human condition.” – ADAM GRANT, author of Think Again
ONE OF THE MOST ANTICIPATED BOOKS OF 2022 – Oprah Daily, BookPage
An Amazon Best Book of April 2022: For the many of us who enjoyed Cain’s 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, the question of what she’d write next has lingered. Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole seems like a natural follow up, and it will have just as powerful an effect on readers. It turns out that sadness is the heart of compassion, and compassion is the heart of being human. Cain describes how sorrow and longing are adaptive traits with benefits that far outweigh the suffering they put us through. And they aren’t just human qualities. In fact, sorrow is on par with functions like digestion and breathing—it’s part of the mechanics of living. Through research and stories, Cain takes us through a journey of understanding, and Bittersweet will be a timely and welcome read for so many. It will help a lot of people to process how they are feeling—indeed, how we all feel sometimes. – Chris Schluep, Amazon Editor
“Bittersweet is astonishing—one of the most gracefully written, palpably human books I’ve read in years. Its powerful case will reshape how you think about yourself and those you love. Its sheer beauty will linger in your heart long after you turn the final page.” – Daniel H. Pink, #1 New York Times bestselling author of When, Drive, and A Whole New Mind
“Susan Cain does it again! As the author of the worldwide phenomenon Quiet, she changed how the world sees introverts. Now she has written a book that will change how the world sees sorrow and longing. This book is an absolute triumph: It’s for anyone who has ever really lived, loved, or lost.” – Greg McKeown, host of the What’s Essential podcast and the author of the New York Times bestsellers Effortless and Essentialism
“Susan Cain’s Bittersweet grabs you by the heart and doesn’t let go. I’ve thought about the depth and beauty in Cain’s research and storytelling every day since I finished the book. I will always be grateful for how much Quiet and Bittersweet have helped me understand myself and how I engage with the world.” – Brené Brown, Ph.D., author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Atlas of the Heart
“A decade ago, I found myself inside Quiet. With Bittersweet, Susan Cain has described and validated my existence once again! Her new book reaffirms that my constant, achy awareness of life’s brutiful is a way of being shared across the ages with artists, healers, and anyone who pays deep attention. I’ll place Bittersweet in the hands of all my feely, achy, beautiful friends.” – Glennon Doyle, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Untamed and founder and president of Together Rising
“This is the rare book that doesn’t just open your eyes—it touches your heart and sings to your soul. Susan Cain gave a voice to introverts, and now she masterfully paints our heaviest emotions in a light that’s long overdue. Bittersweet is the perfect cure for toxic positivity and a sparkling ode to the beauty of the human condition.” – Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again