Susan Cain’s Bittersweet: Book Overview & Key Takeaways

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Bittersweet" by Susan Cain. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Susan Cain’s Bittersweet about? Do you have a bittersweet personality? How can we embrace the bittersweetness of life?

In her book Bittersweet, Susan Cain explores the bittersweet temperament, which involves experiencing joy, sadness, and yearning simultaneously. Cain argues that we can embrace bittersweetness to find greater meaning and wisdom in life, even if we don’t have a naturally bittersweet disposition.

Read on for a brief overview of Susan Cain’s book Bittersweet.

Bittersweet by Susan Cain

Do you prefer to listen to sad songs? Do you seek out beauty in everyday life? If so, you may have a bittersweet disposition. In Susan Cain’s Bittersweet, she defines the bittersweet disposition as frequently experiencing intense joy, sadness, and yearning simultaneously. People with this temperament are deeply conscious that their time in the world is finite, and they accept that pain, beauty, struggle, and hope are always intertwined. 

(Shortform note: Cain’s terminology here—bittersweetness—is arguably the most accurate word to describe things that are pleasant but also marked by suffering, and it has been for centuries. The first recorded use of the word bittersweet as a noun was in the 14th century, describing pleasure mixed with suffering or regret. It was first used as an adjective in the 16th century.)

Cain examines the bittersweet aspects of the human experience, including the connections between love and longing, joy and sadness, and life and death. In doing so, she argues that all of us can glean greater meaning and wisdom from life when we embrace bittersweetness, even if we don’t naturally have a bittersweet disposition. 

(Shortform note: Embracing bittersweetness is powerful because it involves acknowledging that happiness can’t exist without sadness. Happiness is a comparative emotion, so when we don’t allow ourselves to feel sad sometimes, we also limit how happy we can be.)

Cain is an award-winning author and speaker. She’s been recognized by LinkedIn as one of the world’s top 10 influencers and by Fast Company as one of their Most Creative People in Business. Cain is best known for her international bestseller Quiet, which underscores the importance of introverts’ unique skills and qualities in a world built for extroverts.

Longing for Something More

According to Susan Cain’s Bittersweet, one major characteristic of people with a bittersweet disposition is a feeling of longing for something.

(Shortform note: 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 experience 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. 

Religious Perspectives on Longing

Some religious belief systems agree that our romantic relationships with others will never entirely fulfill our feelings of yearning, but their reasoning differs from that of the above research. According to Cain, these traditions believe 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. 

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. 

Cain argues that no matter what you believe or how your 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. 

The Misunderstood Power of Sadness

Now that we’ve touched on the bittersweet nature of longing, let’s take a look at one of the other primary emotions of bittersweet existence: sadness. In Bittersweet, Susan Cain presents sadness as a powerful emotion capable of inspiring much more than just pain—sadness can lead to positive experiences, too

The Compassionate Power of Sadness

According to the author, though we often shy away from the pain of sadness, it’s actually one of our most important emotions. This is because sadness is a prosocial emotion, meaning it engenders compassion and empathy for other people. When we see someone who’s sad, we feel sad too, and we want to make it better. Since sadness inspires us to care for others and drives us to help others in response, it deepens our bonds.

Cain notes that sadness activates the same parts of our nervous systems regardless of whether we’re hurt or we witness the pain of someone else. Specifically, it activates the following parts of the brain:

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which regulates our ability to complete complex tasks. This region activates when we experience pain and when we see someone else suffering. For example, your ACC would activate in the same way whether you stubbed your toe or you saw someone else stub their toe.

The periaqueductal gray (PAG), which drives mothers to take care of their young. (Shortform note: Studies show that the PAG plays an important role in mediating survival behaviors, caregiving behaviors, and responses to vocalizations in mammals. Some research also suggests that the PAG is part of the auditory pathway in our brains that helps us distinguish between infant vocalizations and other similar sounds. Thus, it helps initiate a rapid care response toward our young.)

The vagus nerve, which helps regulate reproduction, breathing, and digestion. Additionally, the vagus nerve fires whenever we see someone in pain, such as children who are being treated for cancer. This suggests that it has a strong role in prompting us to care about the suffering of others. 

The Creative Power of Sadness 

In Bittersweet, Susan Cain states that, in addition to its connective power, sadness is deeply intertwined with creativity in two ways. First, naturally creative people may be more susceptible to sadness. Many artists, writers, musicians, and other creative people throughout history were prone to states of melancholy, and modern research shows that creative people are highly predisposed to sorrow. Additionally, some studies suggest that people who work in the arts—some of the most creative people in our society—are more likely to have mood disorders.  

Second, Cain notes, sadness may trigger increased creative output, even in people who don’t have a naturally creative disposition. This might be because sadness has some benefits: It primes our minds for the high level of focus, openness, and problem-solving that creative pursuits require. Some studies found that people in sad moods displayed sharper focus, greater attention to detail, fewer cognitive biases, and higher memory retention than usual. 

Accepting Impermanence and Loss

In the previous section, we discussed how sadness can be a powerful tool for inspiring compassion, connection, and creativity. Now, in this final section, let’s dive deeper into one of the main aspects of life that inspires sorrow: the inevitability that everything we care about will cease to exist someday. 

According to Susan Cain’s Bittersweet, people who are drawn to states of bittersweetness have a higher-than-average awareness that their time is limited and that they’ll eventually lose the things they love. Though this awareness might sound depressing to some, Cain argues that an intimate understanding and acceptance of impermanence can benefit us, enhancing our joy, togetherness, and wisdom. 

Embracing Impermanence

The author asserts that we all experience the effects of impermanence throughout our lives. We become aware of it in times of transition, like moving to a new place, and times of loss, like losing a loved one. Transformation and loss are painful because we must grapple with the truth that something in our life has changed forever, and we won’t be the same due to this shift. Because experiences that increase our awareness of impermanence are often painful and frightening (especially reminders of mortality), many people try to avoid or deny them.

Cain argues that instead of shying away from impermanence, we should coexist with it.

How to Bear Grief and Loss

The author argues that though we can learn to accept our own mortality and the impermanence of our own lives, we might find it harder to bear the fact that we’ll eventually lose the people we love: We can recognize this fact’s inevitability without feeling at peace with it. The pain of losing our loved ones comes from knowing that we’ve been separated from them, and we don’t know if we’ll ever be reunited. This makes loss extremely difficult to cope with.

Though we all experience the pain of grief and loss, people in modern Western culture often view extended periods of bereavement as inconvenient, self-indulgent, and even shameful. They prefer to keep death out of sight, so they feel uncomfortable with open displays of mourning. They most admire those who are able to keep their grief hidden.

Cain asserts that it doesn’t have to be this way—instead of ignoring the existence of loss and grief, we should treat it as an inevitable, normal part of life. When we normalize grief and allow ourselves and others to display and experience it fully, we realize we’re not alone, and we can find comfort in our shared pain. This feeling of understanding and connection with others can help ease our suffering, if only a little. 

Susan Cain’s Bittersweet: Book Overview & Key Takeaways

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Susan Cain's "Bittersweet" at Shortform.

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

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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