What causes the feeling of longing? Why do some of us long for something more in life?
According to award-winning author Susan Cain, the feeling of longing for something more is a common experience for people with a bittersweet disposition. From a desire for belonging to a yearning for a better world, Cain explores the complexities of different kinds of longing in her book Bittersweet.
Read on to learn more about where our feelings of longing come from, according to Cain.
The Feeling of Longing for Something More
According to Susan Cain’s book Bittersweet, one major characteristic of people with a bittersweet disposition is a feeling of longing for something.
(Shortform note: The feeling of longing is a partly melancholic state because we feel sorrowful about our separation from the thing we yearn for. However, it’s also sweet because there’s at least a small possibility that we’ll achieve our dream. These joyful possibilities live in our memories and imaginations, making the feeling of longing inherently bittersweet.)
What we yearn for varies from person to person—many of us long for a sense of belonging or a feeling that we’re finally home. Others long to visit faraway places. Ultimately, Cain argues that we’re all searching for a glimpse of a better world, one that is idyllic and sublime, and it’s from this longing that bittersweetness arises.
(Shortform note: Many languages from across the world have distinct terms to represent different forms of longing, exemplifying Cain’s assertion that bittersweet yearning of many kinds is a universal part of the human experience. For example, the Welsh word hiraeth conveys a deep longing for home. Hiraeth goes beyond mere homesickness—it’s a yearning for a time, a person, or a place that may no longer exist. Additionally, the German concepts of Fernweh and Sehnsucht describe different kinds of yearning: Fernweh means longing for places you’ve never been, sometimes in the context of searching for home, while Sehnsucht evokes a deeper, more general sense of longing for a beautiful and perfect world.)
Religious Perspectives on Longing
According to Cain, religious belief systems claim that our feeling of longing comes from our innate desire to return to our proper place with the divine. Only when we die and return to our creator will we regain our sense of belonging.
(Shortform note: In contrast to this research, other spiritual traditions consider romantic love not separate from but rather an expression of divine love and belonging. They believe that being in love is the closest we can get to the perfect wonder and beauty of heaven on Earth. Falling in love with another person gives us a small glimpse of our oneness with each other and with God.)
For example, Sufism (a type of Islamic mysticism) teaches that we’re separated from God when we come into this world, and we spend our entire lives yearning to get back to him. The feeling of longing itself is proof of God’s existence because it’s the result of that original separation.
(Shortform note: The concept of divine love and Sufi mysticism arose in the 8th century. Its origin is credited to a woman named Rābiʿah al-ʿAdawīyah, who introduced the idea of a pure love for Allah (God) that wasn’t tied to a hope for paradise or fear of hell. Mysticism developed in the Islamic world in the decades after her death, partially influenced by ideas from Christian hermits. Over the centuries, the mystical path came to be about awakening the inherent ability inside of us to love and be loved, since the bond of love with God is at the core of every human.)
Cain argues that no matter what you believe or how your feeling of longing manifests—whether it’s for God, nature, music, other people, and so on—it all comes from the same place. Everyone yearns for perfection, beauty, understanding, and love.
(Shortform note: Beauty isn’t just an ideal we long for—it can be important for our health, too. Studies show that having aesthetically pleasing surroundings improves our cognitive function, behavior, mood, and general well-being. Similarly, some psychologists state that understanding is important to our well-being—even more important than love. For any kind of love to last, we need to feel like the other person understands who we are. Gaining understanding from others also indicates acceptance and belonging. In contrast, being misunderstood leads to intense feelings of loneliness and a sense of disconnection from other people, which can have seriously negative consequences for our mental state.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full Bittersweet summary:
- Why you should embrace a bittersweet disposition in life
- How sadness has the power to foster creativity and empathy
- How to accept your own mortality and the impermanence of life