Susan Cain: The glorious complexity of being human Words like introvert and extrovert help us make sense of the world, but one label can't sum up a person. Susan Cain explores how we can embrace the nuances that give our lives meaning and beauty.

Susan Cain: The glorious complexity of being human

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On the show today, We Contain Multitudes, which can refer to the various ways we identify ourselves, and also to how we see the world. Personality and perspective - it's something that psychologists have been trying to understand for decades.


CARL JUNG: Of course, that is the introvert. And that's - the introvert is always afraid of the external world.

ZOMORODI: Back in 1910, for example, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung introduced the concepts of introversion and extroversion.


JUNG: ...In general, particularly America - it's extroverted like hell. The introvert has no place because he doesn't know that he beholds the world from within.


ZOMORODI: And the world latched on to these binary terms, taking them to mean that we each fit into one of these two boxes. Either you are an introvert or an extrovert. But that's not what Jung intended.


JUNG: There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Those are only terms to designate a certain penchant, a certain tendency - for instance, the tendency to...

ZOMORODI: So why do we do this? Why do we find comfort in labeling ourselves?

SUSAN CAIN: It's such a difficult thing because as humans, you know, we naturally kind of sort people into categories and types, just a way - as a way of making sense of the whoosh of information coming at us.

ZOMORODI: This is author Susan Cain. She's best known for her 2012 book "Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can't Stop Talking." It offered a modern analysis of Carl Jung's ideas.

CAIN: "Quiet" was a book that looked at the bias that we have in our culture in favor of a very kind of extroverted self-presentation and the way in which that is a colossal waste of talent and energy and happiness for the a third to a half of the population who are actually introverts.

ZOMORODI: So you explore this idea that two conflicting labels or emotions can both be true in your new book, which is called, "Bittersweet: How Sorrow And Longing Make Us Whole."

CAIN: Yeah. So what bittersweetness is is it's this deep recognition of the way in which joy and sorrow in this life are forever paired, and that everything and everybody we love most will not be here forever, but that what comes with this deep recognition of these truths - there comes a kind of piercing joy at the beauty of the world and a kind of gateway to creativity and to human connection, like the sense of us all being humans together who are all in this sort of strange situation together, and then occasional moments of transcendence.


ZOMORODI: I mean, to me, it's very similar to "Quiet" in that you're saying you are not one thing or the other. You are not introverted or extroverted. You are a mix. You are not experiencing just sadness or just happiness, that there is so much nuance to the human experience and to each of us, who we are. We contain multitudes.

CAIN: Yes. Exactly. We contain multitudes. And the problem that we have had in our current situation is that we're not supposed to contain those multitudes. You know, there's a very strong message that's delivered to all of us that we should be perpetually smiling. And if that's not how we feel, we should act as if we feel that way. And we should only express the most optimistic points of view and really only talk about kind of that side of our emotional ledgers. And my argument here is that there's no human who feels that way all the time, number one. And so when we're not telling each other the truth, then we can't truly be connecting with ourselves and with each other.

ZOMORODI: You spend the book exploring this idea of experiencing these two things at once - longing, sorrow - and the beauty and creativity, even, that that can spark. But I wonder if you could talk a little bit about this paradox of tragedy, as the philosophers refer to it, you write, and what they've been puzzling over for centuries.

CAIN: Yeah. So the paradox of tragedy is the question of why it would be that we listen to sad music. Why do we watch movies that make us cry? Why is there a tradition of tragic drama, where you actually get yourself out of your home and go to watch performed on a stage very difficult and tragic events? Why would we do that? And I, in particular, had been puzzling over my extreme, intense, positive reaction to sad music that I have felt all my life. I dedicated this book to Leonard Cohen, who I love beyond all reason...


LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) On what has passed away...

CAIN: ...You know, and have always experienced when I would listen to that kind of music a kind of sense of uplift and joy and love and connection, you know, and not sadness at all.


COHEN: (Singing) Ring the bells that still can ring.

ZOMORODI: Here's Susan Cain on the TED stage.


CAIN: Why do we sometimes welcome sorrow when the rest of the time we will quite naturally do anything we can to avoid it? There's actually a scholarly debate raging over this question. But I have come to believe that, really, what we are craving at bottom is that state of longing, that joy that's laced with sorrow, which is often triggered when we experience something so exquisite that it seems to come to us from some other world. And this is why we give painters and rock stars such exalted status - because they're the ones who bring us the breath of magic from that other place. Except it only lasts a moment. And we really want to live there for good 'cause we know that we live in a deeply flawed world, and we have this stubborn conviction that we come from a perfect and beautiful one that remains forever out of reach.

And maybe that sounds depressing to you, but this state of mind, this longing, is actually the deep source of all our moonshots and our loves. It's because of longing that we play "Moonlight Sonatas" and build rockets to Mars. And it's because we're all in this same strange state of exile that we have the capacity to empathize with each other in the first place.

ZOMORODI: You trace it back to the ancient Greek and Plato, who called it pathos. Is that the same as empathy? Is that what that is? It's a deep empathy for the humanity, the eternal struggle?

CAIN: Yeah. One of the really cool things is that this longing impulse that we were just talking about - you see it expressed across time and across cultures. So, for example, with the ancient Greeks, that meant the longing for everything that is most good, most beautiful, most true and that is fundamentally unattainable, and yet we long for it. But the lesson that's embedded there is that the very act of longing for it is what brings you a little closer to that for which you long. And so, for example, in Homer's "Odyssey," the whole epic adventure starts with Odysseus weeping on a beach out of homesickness because he's longing for home. Like, that's the fundamental human state of - is longing for home. And it's understood that he's been away from his home for 17 years, and it's the longing to return there that propels him on the adventure in the first place.

ZOMORODI: I mean, as you - when you put it that way, like - and once you talk about it, you start to see it everywhere - in movies and music and books and arts. And yet, we're in this sort of denial about accepting the sadness with the joy. What - is that an American thing? Is that a cultural thing?

CAIN: Yeah. I mean, there's definitely a cultural variation, you know? And there are studies, for example, that look at the difference in smiling among different cultures. And, like, in the U.S., people smile way more than they do in others. And there are certain countries in which people would view excessive smiling as either, you know, foolish, like you must really not know what's...


CAIN: ...Out there if you're smiling that much (laughter)...


CAIN: ...Or insincere and dishonest, you know...


CAIN: ...Because, again, if you're smiling that much, you're not telling the truth about what you truly feel. So there's definitely a lot of variation there. And in this country, in the U.S., a lot of it can be traced to the rise of business culture in the 19th century. You started to have this language of winners and losers. And you can trace the rise of the word loser, you know, to the point that even in the Great Depression, there were newspaper headlines when somebody would lose their fortune and kill themselves on the street, and the headline would be, loser kills himself on the street.

And it's like, if we truly see people and ourselves in that - with that kind of a false dichotomy, then you want to do everything that you can to not have the emotional affect of a loser. So you don't want to engage with loss. You don't want to talk about it. You don't want to express the emotions associated with it. You want to show that you're - like, that everything's going well for you. You're cheerful. You're optimistic. You're forward leaning - all of those things. And you end up getting a very flat emotional landscape.


ZOMORODI: These labels of winner and loser, all these labels - they bring us back to our theme, this idea that we are all so much more nuanced than we often give ourselves credit for.

CAIN: Yeah. I think that is so true. And I'll tell you, it's also something I have really struggled with in terms of how to talk about questions like introversion and extroversion, you know, and being bittersweet because on the one hand, I do believe that these tendencies or these orientations or whatever word we want to use for them - they are meaningful, and they do explain some of the amazing variety of differences between humans. And at the same time, as you say - like, I mean, humans are gloriously complicated, and we contain these multitudes. And so how do you make sense of that? And I guess I just keep coming back to the idea of holding two truths at the same time - you know, that there are differences in temperament. There are differences in ways of being. There are outlooks. There are sensibilities that we all have that make us who we are and distinguish us from each other in these really wonderful and fascinating ways. And we're not ever all one thing.


ZOMORODI: That's author Susan Cain. Her book is called "Bittersweet: How Sorrow And Longing Make Us Whole". And you can see all of her talks at On the show today, We Contain Multitudes. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.

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