The power of having a bittersweet outlook on life

Once, when I was a twenty-two-year-old law student, some friends picked me up from my dorm on the way to class. I listened with pleasure to bittersweet music in a minor key. Not the Albinoni, which I hadn’t heard at the time; more likely a song by my favorite musician of all time, Leonard Cohen, aka the Poet Laureate of Pessimism.

It’s hard to put into words what I feel when I hear this kind of music. It’s technically sad, but what I really feel is love: a great tidal outpouring. A deep kinship with all the other souls in the world who know the grief that music strives to express. Admiration at the musician’s ability to transform pain into beauty. If I’m alone when I’m listening, I often make a spontaneous gesture of prayer, hands to face, palm to palm, even though I’m deeply agnostic and don’t pray formally. But the music opens my heart: literally, the feeling of expanding chest muscles. It even makes it feel like everyone I love, including me, is going to die someday. This serenity in the face of death lasts maybe three minutes, but each time it happens, it changes me slightly. If you define transcendence as a moment when you yourself swoon and feel connected to everything, those musically bittersweet moments are the closest I’ve come across. But it’s happened time and time again.

And I never understood why.

Meanwhile, my friends were amused by the incongruity of mournful songs coming from a dorm room stereo; one of them asked me why I was listening to funeral tunes. I laughed and we went to class. End of the story.

Except I thought about his comment for the next twenty-five years. Why did I find the nostalgia music so oddly uplifting? And what in our culture made it an appropriate topic for a joke? Why, even as I write this, do I feel the need to reassure you that I love dance music too? (Really.) At first, these were just interesting questions. But as I searched for answers, I realized that these were the big questions, and that contemporary culture has led us, to our great impoverishment, not to ask them.

Two thousand years ago, Aristotle wondered why great poets, philosophers, artists and politicians often had melancholic personalities. His question was based on the ancient belief that the human body contains four humors, or liquid substances, each corresponding to a different temperament: melancholy (sad), sanguine (happy), choleric (aggressive) and phlegmatic (calm). We thought the relative amounts of these liquids shaped our characters. Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, believed that the ideal person enjoyed a harmonious balance of all four. But many of us tend in one direction or another.

This book is about the melancholy direction, which I call the “bittersweet” direction: a tendency to states of longing, emotion, and grief; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. Bittersweet is also about the recognition that light and dark, birth and death – bitter and sweet – are forever associated. “Days of honey, days of onions”, as an Arabic proverb says. The tragedy of life is ineluctably linked to its splendour; you could tear down civilization and rebuild it from scratch, and the same dualities would reappear. However, fully inhabiting these dualities – darkness as well as light – is, paradoxically, the only way to transcend them. And transcending them is the ultimate point. The bittersweet speaks of the desire for communion, the desire to return home.

If you consider yourself a bittersweet type, it’s hard to discuss Aristotle’s question about the melancholy of the great without sounding like you’re congratulating yourself. But the fact is, his observation has echoed through the millennia. In the 15th century, the philosopher Marsilio Ficino proposed that Saturn, the Roman god associated with melancholy, “has given up ordinary life to Jupiter, but he claims for himself a sequestered & divine life”. The 16th century artist Albrecht Dürer depicted Melancholy as a downcast angel surrounded by symbols of creativity, knowledge and desire: a polyhedron, an hourglass, a ladder rising to heaven. The 19th century poet Charles Baudelaire could “hardly conceive of a type of beauty” in which there is no melancholy. This romantic view of melancholy has waxed and waned over time; more recently it has declined. In an influential 1918 essay, Sigmund Freud dismissed melancholy as narcissism, and it has since disappeared into the jaws of psychopathology. Traditional psychology considers it synonymous with clinical depression.

But the Aristotle question never went away; it can’t. There is a mysterious property in melancholy, something essential. Plato had it, as did Jalal al-Din Rumi, as well as Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone. . . Leonard Cohen.

But what exactly did they have? I have spent years researching this question, following an age-old trail blazed by artists, writers, contemplatives, and wisdom traditions around the world.

This path has also led me to the work of contemporary psychologists, scientists, and even management researchers (who have discovered some of the unique strengths of business leaders and melancholy creatives, and the best ways to harness them). And I concluded that bittersweet is not, as we tend to think, just a momentary feeling or event. It is also a quiet force, a way of being, a historical tradition – as dramatically neglected as it is full of human potential. It’s a genuine and uplifting answer to the problem of being alive in a deeply flawed but stubbornly beautiful world.

Extract of Bittersweet. Copyright © 2022 by Susan Cain. All rights reserved. Published in the USA by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.