Once, when I was a twenty-two-year-old law student, some friends picked me up in my dorm on the way to class. I’d been  happily listening to bittersweet music in a minor key. Not the  Albinoni, which I hadn’t heard back then; more likely a song  by my all-time favorite musician, Leonard Cohen, aka the Poet  Laureate of Pessimism. 

It’s hard to put into words what I experience when I hear this kind of music. It’s technically sad, but what I feel, really, is  love: a great tidal outpouring of it. A deep kinship with all the  other souls in the world who know the sorrow the music strains  to express. Awe at the musician’s ability to transform pain into  beauty. If I’m alone when I’m listening, I often make a spontaneous prayer gesture, hands to face, palm to palm, even though  I’m deeply agnostic and don’t formally pray. But the music makes my heart open: literally, the sensation of expanding  chest muscles. It even makes it seem okay that everyone I love,  including me, is going to die one day. This equanimity about  death lasts maybe three minutes, but each time it happens, it  changes me slightly. If you define transcendence as a moment  in which yourself fades away and you feel connected to the all,  these musically bittersweet moments are the closest I’ve come  to experiencing it. But it’s happened over and over again. 

And I could never understand why. 

Meanwhile, my friends were amused by the incongruity of mournful songs blasting from a dorm room stereo; one of them asked why I was listening to funeral tunes. I laughed, and we  went to class. End of story. 

Except that I thought about his comment for the next twenty-five years. Why did I find yearning music so strangely  uplifting? And what in our culture made this a fitting subject  for a joke? Why, even as I write this, do I feel the need to reassure you that I love dance music, too? (I really do.) At first, these were just interesting questions. But as I searched for answers, I realized that they were the questions,  the big ones—and that contemporary culture has trained us, to  our great impoverishment, not to ask them. 

Two thousand years ago, Aristotle wondered why the great  poets, philosophers, artists, and politicians often have melancholic personalities. His question was based on the ancient be lief that the human body contains four humors, or liquid  substances, each corresponding to a different temperament:  melancholic (sad), sanguine (happy), choleric (aggressive), and  phlegmatic (calm). The relative amounts of these liquids were thought to shape our characters. Hippocrates, the famed Greek  physician, believed that the ideal person enjoyed a harmonious  balance of the four. But many of us tend in one direction or  another. 

This book is about the melancholic direction, which I call  the “bittersweet”: a tendency to states of longing, poignancy,  and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. The bittersweet is  also about the recognition that light and dark, birth and  death—bitter and sweet—are forever paired. “Days of honey,  days of onion,” as an Arabic proverb puts it. The tragedy of  life is linked inescapably with its splendor; you could tear civilization down and rebuild it from scratch, and the same dualities would rise again. Yet to fully inhabit these dualities—the  dark as well as the light—is, paradoxically, the only way to  transcend them. And transcending them is the ultimate point.  The bittersweet is about the desire for communion, the wish to go home.  

If you see yourself as a bittersweet type, it’s hard to discuss Aristotle’s question about the melancholia of the greats with out sounding self-congratulatory. But the fact is that his observation has resonated across the millennia. In the fifteenth  century, the philosopher Marsilio Ficino proposed that Saturn,  the Roman god associated with melancholy, “has relinquished  the ordinary life to Jupiter, but he claims for himself a life sequestered & divine.” The sixteenth-century artist Albrecht  Dürer famously depicted Melancholy as a downcast angel surrounded by symbols of creativity, knowledge, and yearning: a  polyhedron, an hourglass, a ladder ascending to the sky. The  nineteenth-century poet Charles Baudelaire could “scarcely  conceive of a type of beauty” in which there is no melancholy. This romantic vision of melancholia has waxed and waned over time; most recently, it’s waned. In an influential 1918 essay,  Sigmund Freud dismissed melancholy as narcissism, and ever  since, it’s disappeared into the maw of psychopathology. Main stream psychology sees it as synonymous with clinical depression. 

But Aristotle’s question never went away; it can’t. There’s some mysterious property in melancholy, something essential. Plato had it, and so did Jalal al-Din Rumi, so did Charles  Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone . . . Leonard Cohen. 

But what, exactly, did they have? I’ve spent years researching this question, following a centuries-old trail laid by artists, writers, contemplatives, and  wisdom traditions from all over the world. 

This path also led  me to the work of contemporary psychologists, scientists, and  even management researchers (who have discovered some of  the unique strengths of melancholic business leaders and creatives, and the best ways to tap them). And I’ve concluded that  bittersweetness is not, as we tend to think, just a momentary  feeling or event. It’s also a quiet force, a way of being, a storied  tradition — as dramatically overlooked as it is brimming with  human potential. It’s an authentic and elevating response to  the problem of being alive in a deeply flawed yet stubbornly beautiful world.

Excerpted from Bittersweet. Copyright © 2022 by Susan Cain. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.


  • SUSAN CAIN is the author of Quiet JournalQuiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts, and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which spent eight years on The New York Times best seller list, and has been translated into 40 languages. Susan’s TED talk has been viewed over 40 million times and was named by Bill Gates as one of his all-time favorite talks. LinkedIn named her the Top 6th Influencer in the World, just behind Richard Branson and Melinda Gates. Susan partners with Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant and Dan Pink to curate the Next Big Idea Book Club. They donate all their proceeds to children’s literacy programs. Her new masterpiece, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, was published by Crown on April 5, 2022 and is an instant #1 New York Times bestseller.