The next time someone tells you to turn your frown upside down, you can use bestselling author Susan Cain's new book for a comeback. In Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, Cain writes about the way in which joy and sorrow are intrinsically linked — and shines a light on what is lost when we ignore our melancholy.
"Part of this book started with this love that I have of sad music," says Cain. She asked herself: why we don't feel worse when we listen to sad music? Instead, we often feel uplifted and connected to the artist and other listeners who are also trying to tap into the emotions of the songs.
In a conversation with Life Kit, Cain argues that those of us who love sad music have what she calls the "bittersweet condition." It's a state she describes as the recognition of life's impermanence, a kind of acknowledgement that everyone and everything we hold dear will not be here forever. And with that melancholic recognition comes greater, not less, contentment, says Cain. So, embracing your melancholy could make you happier in the long run.
It can also lead to greater human connection, she says. "If you're living in a way where you're only willing to look at the triumphs, you're not going to be in touch with your own difficulties and less open to the struggles that other people are going through."
The quiz: How bittersweet are you at this moment in time?
For Bittersweet, Cain created a quiz in collaboration with research scientist David Yaden and cognitive scientist Scott Barry Kaufman to help you assess whether you tend to be more sanguine or bittersweet. Take the quiz to find out where you land on the continuum — and gain insight into your personality.
If you scored between 0 and 3.8, you tend toward the cheerfully optimistic. If you scored between 3.9 and 5.7, you experience both states of optimism and bittersweetness to moderate degrees. If you scored between 5.8 and 10, you're a "true connoisseur of bittersweetness," writes Cain. (I scored an 8.8. No wonder my mom is always reminding me to 'think positive!')
Good news for those of us who are members of the melancholy club. "We found that people who score high [on this test] also score high on states of awe, wonder, spirituality and absorption, which predicts creativity," says Cain.
What if you tend toward cheerful optimism but want to embrace melancholy? Cain shares three tips on how you can better tap into your sad-happy side.
Fill your life with beautiful things
Tune into the things that make you feel very deeply. That might include listening to a sad song, taking a hike in the majestic redwoods or reading your favorite book of poetry. Poets, philosophers, artists and theologians have been preaching this idea for thousands of years, says Cain. She quotes Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet and mystic:
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
Rather than ignoring that melancholic emptiness we may feel when we start the day by busying ourselves with work, Cain says we should do as Rumi suggests: take notice of that emptiness, acknowledge that it exists and begin the day by filling it with things we find most beautiful.
Before she starts her workday, for example, Cain says she looks at art accounts on her social media feeds and shares her favorite piece with her Twitter followers. Doing so has "attracted this whole [online] community of kindred spirits who also wanted to start their day with beauty." By taking a few minutes to let the beauty she loves be what she does, as Rumi suggested, Cain unwittingly stumbled upon a connection with supportive people online.
Take note of death
Thinking about death will help you take fuller advantage of the life you're living.
"There's a reason that so many religions and wisdom traditions counsel meditating on death. It's because there's almost nothing that delivers you so quickly to the preciousness of life," says Cain.
In Buddhism, for example, there is a mindfulness practice called Maranasati, where meditators contemplate their mortality, going so far as imagining their bodies breaking down and decaying. Practitioners say the benefits include less anxiety about our inevitable demise and a much deeper appreciation for life.
Cain says thinking about death for just a couple of minutes a day has helped her gain perspective. When her sons were growing up, Cain admits she would often check her email and text messages as she was getting them ready for bed. That ended when she began their bedtime ritual by first reminding herself that there's no guarantee that she or her sons would be alive the next day.
"And boy, did that make me put my cellphone down. I wouldn't even feel tempted to pick it back up," she says. Taking note of the simple fact that death may come at any time helped redirect her full attention back to what mattered most, she says: spending time with her children.
Lean into (and learn from) longing
When you find yourself longing obsessively for something or someone, rather than forcing yourself to get over it, Cain says to think hard about what that person or thing means to you. Cain, for example, says she couldn't shake a preoccupation she had with a musician and songwriter she was once romantically involved with.
"One day a friend said to me, 'if you're this obsessed with him, he represents something that you long for,' " says Cain. " 'So what is the real thing you're longing for?' "
That interaction with her friend was a moment of clarity, says Cain. She realized that her fixation with the songwriter had nothing to do with him and everything to do with her. "He was symbolic of this world of art and writing that I wanted to be a part of since I was a little kid and had gotten so far away from."
Cain says acknowledging and reframing her longing made it melt away. She leaned into that epiphany, started writing and, years later, became a bestselling author.
The audio portion of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.
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