1-Sentence-Summary: Bittersweet explains where emotions like sorrow, longing, and sadness come from and what their purpose in our lives is, as well as helping us deal with grief, loss, and our own mortality.
Read in: 4 minutes
Favorite quote from the author:
Once upon a time, the writer Franz Kafka met a little girl on his daily stroll through the park, who was crying over her lost doll. Kafka told her he happened to be a mailman for doll-post, and for several weeks, he delivered letters “from the doll” to the girl.
The doll described her new and faraway adventures, and after some 20 letters, bid the girl farewell, for she was “getting married.” With the last letter, Kafka gave the girl an actual, new doll, hidden in the skirt of which he left a note, not to be found until years later. “Everything that you will love, you will eventually lose,” it read, “but love will return again in a different form.”
While this beautiful story is hard to verify, its message is not: Life is bittersweet, and the only way we can fully savor it is if we embrace both the light and the dark. That’s what Susain Cain‘s Bittersweet is about. After Cain’s book Quiet, a manifesto for introverts, became a huge bestseller, she took five years to study negative feelings like sadness, sorrow, and longing.
Here are 3 lessons from the resulting book about those emotions’ purpose in our lives:
- Good feelings have bad feelings attached to them, and if you reject one, you reject both.
- The Western world is too bent on positivity because it constantly thinks in “winners” and “losers.”
- Our sense of mortality heightens as we age, and this ironically makes us happier.
Let’s dive into the complex world of human feelings and see what we can learn!
Lesson 1: Positive and negative emotions go hand in hand, and if we want to avoid only some of them, we’ll suppress our feelings altogether.
During the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, a bomb fell on a marketplace, killing 22 people queuing for food rations that day. The next morning, a man in a tuxedo showed up with a cello. For the next 22 days, he played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor in plain view, sitting amidst the ruins, commemorating each of the victims.
The man’s name was Vedran Smailović, and if you imagine the scene — a destroyed town square, a man in a suit, a moving string piece of classical music — it’s impossible to separate the beauty of the picture from the pain, chaos, and suffering. That’s the case with all emotions, Cain argues: We can’t have joy without pain, love without loss, or inspiration without despair.
Think about it: If you didn’t feel down on some days, how could finding inspiration feel like it’s lifting you up? If your loved ones weren’t mortal, would you ever miss them? Isn’t the feeling of victory made all the sweeter by the sacrifices we had to endure to attain it?
Feelings live on spectrums, and if we try to avoid only one side of a balance, we’ll end up suppressing our emotions altogether. The next time you feel uncomfortable, remember that the discomfort is only one half of the emotions you are capable of in that moment. Look for the other side of the coin. Find the beauty, inspiration, or serenity that comes with it, and you’ll walk the bittersweet balance of life.
Lesson 2: Western society’s focus on “winners vs. losers” has led to a forced-positivity craze.
Americans supposedly smile more than any other people in the world, and yet, they also struggle with happiness. According to studies, 30% of Americans will suffer from anxiety at some point in their lives, and 1 in 5 will develop major depression.
Cain suggests the habit of smiling goes back to the first American settlers of Calvinist faith. They believed everything in life was preordained, including whether they’d end up in heaven or hell. With such little actual control, people were encouraged to “act like winners” — and that mentality sticks until today. In the west, we think we can “win” at life, in our careers, in relationships, and even against diseases and death itself.
In reality, just like not every Calvinist went to heaven, we can’t win at everything, especially not all the time. It’s okay to lose. You can have a bad day, and life still goes on, you know? It’s nice to be nice, but sometimes, you’ll feel like crap, and while you don’t have to yell at people over it, you also don’t have to pretend you’re having the time of your life.
There’s more to life than winning and losing, and if you’re tired of fake positivity, I encourage you to also check out Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.
Lesson 3: The older you get, the more aware of your mortality you’ll become — and this will actually make you happier.
The most liked tweet on Twitter marks the passing of Chadwick Boseman, who played the Black Panther. Here, too, pain and joy go hand in hand. In the movie’s sequel, his sister Shuri struggles with his death. At first, she tries to just “move on,” but it only makes her angry and resentful. Only once Shuri finally performs the traditional Wakandan funeral rites does she find a sense of calm.
We needn’t mute grief to deal with it. We can sit in it. Embrace it. And it’ll allow us to remember who we’ve lost without becoming completely paralyzed each time we think about them
You know who’s good at this? The elderly. According to Dr. Laura Carstensen, older people’s heightened sense of impermanence makes them happier and forgive more easily. They are slow to anger and fast to be grateful. Why? They’ve seen their fair share of loss, and they know the end is coming, so they appreciate all the positive moments a lot more.
Most of us don’t want to age — but the very thing we fear, death approaching — is the thing that also turns us into happier people as we get older. But we can still practice some of the habits the elderly naturally develop, even when we’re younger.
Don’t push away death, and don’t try to shut out grief when it comes. Reflect on your mortality regularly, and you’ll appreciate life more. Face the loss of the people you care about, and you’ll never truly lose them.
Like the emotions it aims to help us understand, Bittersweet is somewhat of a mixed-bag book. If you’re looking for an extremely focused manual on grief, anxiety, or depression, you won’t find it here. While the range of topics is broad and the book’s sections only loosely connected, everything Cain does tap into is worth exploring. If you’re looking for a good overview of our negative emotions and how they serve us, pick up this book!
Who would I recommend our Bittersweet summary to?
The 14-year-old high school student who lost her father at a young age, the 35-year-old young professional who feels as if they are in a pressure cooker at work, and anyone who, for some inexplicable reason, prefers sad songs over happy ones.