Are you elevated by sad songs? Have you ever cried over a TV commercial? Do you like rainy days? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you know the power of bittersweet. Yet there have likely been times when you’ve struggled to square your melancholy disposition with our culture of counterfeit gaiety.
You won’t feel this way after hearing Susan Cain discuss her new book, Bittersweet: how pain and desire make us whole. Today the The next big idea podcast, argues that desire, pain and pain are the sources of connection, creativity and hope. Listen to the full episode below or read some highlights. And follow host Rufus Griscom on LinkedIn for behind-the-scenes looks from the show.
Don’t be ashamed of your bittersweet tendencies.
Susan: This book was basically a five-year quest to grasp the power of a bittersweet and even melancholy way of being. And what I’ve learned is that the bittersweet tradition spans centuries, spans continents. And it teaches us that we are creatures born to transform pain into beauty. It also teaches us that our bittersweet feelings are some of the biggest doors we have to states of creativity, connection, and love.
We live in this culture that doesn’t really like talking about these kinds of emotions: pain, desire, and intensity. They are seen as vaguely unsightly. And that’s a real shame, because it cuts us off from some of the best parts of ourselves.
Why do we love sad music?
Susan: This book started for me with a question, well, with an experience that I kept having. Before becoming a writer, I was a lawyer for almost 10 years. (Very unlikely.) In my first year of law, some friends came to pick me up for class. They were coming to my dorm and I, as I usually do, was listening to some kind of music in a minor key. It was probably Leonard Cohen, and it was blasting from my speakers.
One of my friends asked me: “Why do you listen to funeral tunes?”
And at the time, I just laughed and went to class, and that was the end of the story, except I couldn’t stop thinking about that comment, that listening to this kind of music is seen as something. to joke about, or even vaguely embarrassing. Normally you wouldn’t blow it up, I suppose. But also: what is that music that I love so much? I was trying to figure it out. For example, why should something so seemingly sad really be happy? While I was digging, I realized that it is a musician’s will and ability to transform pain into beauty.
“Why should something so seemingly sad be really happy? I understood that it is the will and the ability of a musician to transform pain into beauty ”.
And there is also a sense of communion. Music is expressing pain in a way that we have all experienced. So there is a kind of communion that you have by listening to him. I started researching it and found that people have listened to the happy songs on their playlist 175 times, but have listened to the sad songs 800 times.
On the Portuguese concept of To lose.
Rufus: The Portuguese have this concept of To lose: “sweetly penetrating nostalgia, often musically expressed, for something deeply loved for a long time that may never have existed in the first place.” This, I thought, was extraordinary.
Susan: It is so extraordinary. And the amazing thing: I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Lisbon?
Susan: You have to go! I love that city so much. They are so in their concept of To lose who even call their pastry shops “Saudade”. It’s everywhere. This comes from the fact that this is a city on the ocean and, historically, men would have gone out to sea, and there was a feeling of, Will they come back or won’t they? But then, of course, it also exists on a more metaphysical level. It is a sense of nostalgia for the unattainable.
You mentioned romantic love. I think it’s a really useful thing for us to know about ourselves when we enter our romantic relationships. Especially during the first moments of the romance, for a moment you feel that you have truly arrived at that place that all humans crave, and then reality kicks in and you have all the incompatibilities that you have. It happens in all couples. And if you are not aware of these dynamics, you may think that it means that there is something wrong with the relationship and that you should go to the next one – Eden will be over there – instead of realizing that this is the condition. Over the course of a given relationship, we continue to have those moments where Eden approaches, but we have to understand that the feeling that it will move away, and then move closer again, and then move away, and then move closer again, is normal state for humans.
“The feeling of [Eden] falling, and then approaching again, and then falling, and then approaching again: this is a normal state for humans.
Do you want to lower your blood pressure? Try writing in the journal.
Rufus: Writing about painful human experiences gives a lot of power, and it’s something you talk about as a tool. We can all write about our most painful experiences and get a lot of relief from that process.
Susan: Yes, absolutely. This is something I had just done naturally all my life. I used to keep journals, but it was many, many years after I came across the work of University of Texas Professor James Pennebaker, who has conducted this amazing series of studies that show the benefits of simply writing down your own problems.
He has done all these studies where he will compare a group of people who are asked to write down what they ate for breakfast that morning, and then the other group is asked to write about the things that annoy them. They are not asked to write it in any particularly beautiful, poetic or grammatical way; they just have to splash it on the piece of paper, then throw it away later. That’s all. And he found that the simple act of doing it improves your health. Enhance your sense of well-being. Improve your work skills.
There was a studio where he had this group of layoff engineers in their fifties who were very discouraged and hadn’t been able to find a new job. Half of them were asked to write down their problems, and those who did were much more likely to find work several months later. And they had lower blood pressure and all kinds of other indicators. Can’t believe it. So this is a really simple daily practice that all of us could do, and it would only take three minutes every morning.
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