56 pages 1 hour read

Susan Cain

Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole is a 2022 book by Susan Cain that examines how embracing all emotional responses, whether commonly thought of as positive or negative, can result in a fuller and more meaningful life. Rather than live up to societal pressures to always remain positive, Cain recommends that readers welcome moments of melancholy and asserts that of all human emotions, the duality of sadness and beauty offers the most opportunities for human connection and personal growth. Crafted as part memoir, part self-help book, Cain provides a broad range of views on topics such as how best to respond to pain and how one should learn to cope with mortality.

Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole is Cain’s follow-up to her 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. She has also delivered a TED Talk on both books, each having been viewed millions of times.

The edition used for this guide is the Kindle Edition published in 2022.


The book begins with a prelude as Cain provides a brief historical sketch of the famous Cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailović, who as a response to the killing of innocent civilians during the war in the former Yugoslavia, played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor for 22 consecutive nights as a tribute.

The Prelude acts as an impetus for the introduction of the book and lays out Cain’s motivation for writing it. She says that for as long as she can remember, she has always been drawn to sad music, and she points out that her all-time favorite musician is the late Leonard Cohen whose music is known for its gloomy undertones. Cain also feels compelled to mention that as much as she is drawn to sad music, she also likes more upbeat music as well, a point that she finds peculiar. She then discusses how certain cultural values, notably the American obsession with positivity, contribute to a sense that publicly acknowledging one’s taste for sad music—and the corresponding melancholy that arises from it—needs a counterbalancing claim like the one she makes about upbeat music. The introduction also contains a multitude of questions that Cain asks herself, which act as the book’s primary research questions and the titles for each section of the book. She also introduces the book’s primary themes, including how people should best respond to pain, and suggests that turning that pain into a creative offering is one way to overcome it. The introduction concludes with a quiz that Cain developed with the help of research scientist Dr. David Yaden, a professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine, and cognitive scientist Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman (27). The quiz attempts to help readers identify their predisposition to a melancholic temperament.

Part 1, entitled “Sorrow and Longing: How can we transform pain into creativity, transcendence, and love?” is the book’s longest of three parts and consists of four chapters. Cain begins the first chapter narrating her relationship with her mother from her early childhood into adulthood. She fondly recalls her younger years when her mother seemed caring, kind, affectionate, and responsive. As Cain grew into adolescence, things between them began to change. Cain perceived her mother as more domineering and possessive. As a result, by the time Cain was considering going to Princeton University, she could hardly wait to escape her mother. While away at Princeton her first year, Cain wrote extensively in diaries, and much of the contents therein were outbursts of anger and hostility toward her mother. Cain realized the power writing could have on dealing with negative emotions and sensed that diary-writing was a productive exercise that helped her productively process her complicated relationship with her mother. However, after her first year ended, Cain prepared to move back home. Her family arrived to help and to transport her back. Inadvertently, Cain handed her diaries to her mother. By the time Cain returned home, her mother had read the journals. This altered their relationship forever, and as Cain grew into adulthood, their relationship was marked by artificial kindness that masked the real tension between them. Cain felt guilty and responsible for the state of the relationship and felt as though she killed her mother in some psychologically deep way. The anecdote about her mother sets up the later discussions on how best to deal with loss.

In the next chapters of Part 1, Cain moves to a discussion on the nature of “perfect” or unconditional love. She frames the discussion with a synopsis of the novel The Bridges of Madison County, and she explores why people tend to be drawn to stories like this one. Cain claims that our attraction to ideas such as the existence of soulmates is a manifestation of our longing for union. She discusses how this tendency to form an idealized picture of what love should be contains hidden pitfalls because perfection does not exist. Cain further examines how people have an innate desire to experience melancholy because when compared to upbeat and happy music, people generally listen to sad music more often. She then discusses a viral video in which a two-year-old boy cries at a piano recital when he hears “Moonlight Sonata” for the first time. Cain believes that the rawness of the boy’s reaction is symbolic of humanity’s longing to experience the “perfect and beautiful world” (23), a term Cain uses in place of the more religiously affiliated term “heaven.”

Cain returns to her interest in the appreciation of sad music and digs deeper into her infatuation with Leonard Cohen. She describes a memorial concert she attended where during the performance of Cohen’s song “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Cain was moved to tears and became emotionally overwhelmed. She uses this experience to begin an exploration into Self-Transcendent Experiences (STEs) and interviews Dr. David Yaden who spends his career researching the phenomenon. A Self-Transcendent Experience stems from theories by Abraham Maslow in the early 1900s and describes a state where one has unwittingly shed all personal thoughts or concerns and feels completely at one with all things. Buddhists commonly refer to this experience as Nirvana.

Cain continues probing into the question of how beauty is often created from sadness, and then considers why sadness is useful. She presents findings from neuroscience that indicate our compassion for the pain of others is rooted in an ancient part of the brain known as the vagus nerve. Cain interviews scientists in this field and learns that when we see others suffer, particularly children, we have a biological reaction much as we do when we are hungry. As it turns out, compassion for others is as fundamental to our lives as breathing and eating. Cain argues that because people become sad across cultures for similar reasons whereas they become happy for culturally distinct and personal reasons, sadness is the most unifying emotion, and it taps into this innate tendency to feel compassion for the pain of others.

Part 2, entitled “Winners and Losers: How can we live and work authentically in a ‘tyranny of positivity’?” takes a wider look at the American obsession with putting on a “happy face.” Locating the source of this cultural value in its Calvinist roots, Cain traces how it became further entrenched as the United States developed into a more robust and capitalist economy. Eventually, success and failure were both attributed to outward displays of strength. Those who were quiet, contemplative, and prone to sadness were considered weak, while those who were aggressive and exuded confidence were considered strong. In a materialist culture, these outward displays became crucially important in the minds of citizens as they tried to achieve financial and social success.

Cain then examines ways that this cultural value is slowly transforming. She points to research that reveals that leaders who show the full range of their humanity tend to have more loyal employees. They also tend to have healthier relationships with their employees, which helps drive success. Cain interviews Dr. Susan David, who holds conferences on the topic of developing emotional agility in corporate boardrooms, including some of the largest ones. Much of the second part of the book is argument-driven, as Cain, a former lawyer, makes the case for a reevaluation of what Susan David calls the “tyranny of positivity” (David, Susan. “Overthrow the Tyranny of Positivity.” Emotional Agility, 3 Jan. 2023 In Cain’s estimation, the insistence of the appearance of strength is artificial, as she asserts that no matter who you are, at some point you will experience suffering and pain. She acknowledges The Dangers That Arise When We Don’t Acknowledge Our Negative Emotions. It is better, therefore, to allow space to be sad rather than to suppress it in favor of inauthentically always putting on a confidently happy face. Allowing for sadness and melancholy enables people to live fuller and more enriching lives.

In Part 3, which is entitled “Mortality, Impermanence, and Grief,” Cain takes a deep dive into the heavy topic of death and grief. She begins by looking at a movement she refers to as “immortalism,” which contends that humanity is within reach of being able to live forever. With advancements in science and technology, immortalists believe that we can overcome death once and for all. They see death as the ultimate source of all suffering and believe that once death is conquered, other suffering will likely go away. Cain points out that the movement is a utopian ideal, and while there may be evidence to suggest that the cause might not be as far-fetched as it seems, it does not consider the full ramifications of what immortality would do for the human condition. Cain asks whether becoming immortal would mean that we are no longer human, since part of what it means to be human involves suffering and eventual death.

Cain then explores other ways of Coming to Terms With Death, both one’s own and the deaths of their loved ones. In Cain’s view, shared by many religious and secular traditions, coming to terms with death first depends on accepting its reality. She contends that death is what gives life meaning and that it affords people the opportunity to appreciate their lives more. She points to studies that demonstrate that people with terminal illnesses who are facing imminent death have a more grateful outlook on their lives than those for whom death is an abstraction. She also points out that we all are living under a death sentence that comes into being the moment we are born. This may seem morbid, but Cain insists that forcing oneself to a full reckoning of this fact will provide benefits when compared with the tendency to push the thoughts aside. Cain suggests that we should meditate on death and understand that the sadness that may arise is not something we should be afraid of. Instead, we should embrace it and understand that it is through this sadness that we can access the glory of what it means to live.

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