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Bittersweet summary

Susan Cain

How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole

4.7 (338 ratings)
26 mins

Brief summary

'Bittersweet' by Susan Cain explores the complex nuances of the introverted personality. Through personal examples and scientific research, Cain illuminates the strengths and challenges of introversion to help readers understand and embrace their own unique traits.

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    Emotions can’t be neatly compartmentalized.

    It’s May 27, 1992, and Sarajevo, a city in former Yugoslavia, is under siege. There are gunfights in the streets and mortar shells falling from the sky. Amid the chaos, Sarajevo’s citizens still need to perform the mundane tasks necessary to stay alive – like lining up outside the bakery in a downtown marketplace to buy bread. Most days these citizens return home safe, carrying loaves under their arms. Other days they might not be so lucky. On this particular day, a mortar attack kills 22 of the people waiting in line.

    The next day, the scene outside the bakery is bleak. Then, a man in a tuxedo arrives, finds a place in the rubble to set up a plastic chair, sits down, and begins to play Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor on his cello. The man is Vedran Smailović who, in times of peace, is a cellist for the Sarajevo Opera. He will play outside the bakery, as shells fall in the streets around him, for 22 days – one day for every life lost. 

    The sweetness of Smailović’s song doesn’t soften the bitter scene. And the desolation of the ruined city doesn’t detract from the beauty of his playing. Instead, pain and beauty combine to throw each other into even sharper relief. 

    This is the bittersweet, where painful and joyful feelings harmonize rather than clash. 

    Across generations and cultures, humans have long intuited that bitterness and sweetness, joy and sorrow are intrinsically intertwined. There are, in every life, “Days of honey, days of onion” as one Arabic saying goes. We can find pleasure in these intermingled emotions. 

    In Japan, festivals are held when the sakura, or cherry blossoms, bloom. Picnics are held under pink, fragrant boughs of cherry blossom trees each spring. There are other spring blossoms that are equally lovely, but the Japanese prize sakura most of all because they have the shortest season. Celebrating these ephemeral blossoms elicits a feeling they call mono no aware – which, roughly translated, means “a gentle sorrow connected to the knowledge that everything is impermanent.” 

    We are drawn to the bittersweet in music, too. Not everyone favors bittersweet songs over catchy pop melodies. But, as one study from the University of Michigan found, people whose favorite song is happy tend to listen to it 175 times on average. People whose favorite song is bittersweet, on the other hand, listen to that song roughly 800 times. 

    Why do we respond so viscerally to expressions of the bittersweet? Well, this reaction might be hardwired into us. While the strength of it varies from person to person, humans all share something called the compassion instinct. Our compassion is prompted when we observe others suffering or experiencing pain. Our instinct to act compassionately toward each other is just as primal as our instinct to eat when we are hungry or seek warmth when we feel cold. In our earliest days on Earth, our survival as a species depended on this instinct to protect and care for others. 

    In this sense, sadness – the bitter in the bittersweet – has an important evolutionary function. As psychologist Dacher Keltner puts it, “Sadness is about caring.” Paying attention to the sadness of others helps us build community and grow connections. Paying attention to our own sadness allows us to experience life in all its richness and complexity.

    And yet, in the West, people tend to live in cultures that don’t honor bitterness. Popular psychology focuses on progress and positivity. Grief is framed as something which can be moved through in seven steps and then left behind. Trauma is something that needs closure. As a result, our experience of the bittersweet is diminished.

    Perhaps it's time we opened ourselves up to the bittersweet and all the possibilities it holds. The bittersweet recognizes there is a place for joy in sadness, and that beauty is tinged with pain.

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    What is Bittersweet about?

    Bittersweet (2022) is a profound meditation on an often overlooked emotional experience – the bittersweet. It argues that opening up to the bittersweet, where pain and joy mingle, allows us to experience life to the fullest. It also shows how vulnerability can be a strength, longing can be a guide, and sorrow can set us on the path to joy and fulfillment. 

    Bittersweet Review

    Bittersweet (2011) by Susan Cain is a captivating exploration of the complex emotions that come with life's ups and downs. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • Through thought-provoking stories and personal anecdotes, the book delves into the bittersweet nature of experiences, offering a fresh perspective on how we navigate our emotions.
    • By examining the intertwining of joy and sorrow, the author helps readers develop a deeper understanding of the complexities of life, inspiring personal growth and self-reflection.
    • With its relatable content and honest exploration of the human experience, the book captures the essence of what it means to live a truly fulfilled life.

    Who should read Bittersweet?

    • Anyone who finds pleasure in sad songs and tear-jerker movies
    • People who’ve experienced loss or trauma and want to find a way back to joy
    • Lovers of the ephemeral, the impermanent, and the fleeting

    About the Author

    Susan Cain is a writer and lecturer whose TED Talk on the power of introverts has been viewed over 40 million times. Her follow-up book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has sold over 2 million copies and been translated into 30 languages.

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    Bittersweet FAQs 

    What is the main message of Bittersweet?

    The main message of Bittersweet is finding the balance between pleasure and pain in life.

    How long does it take to read Bittersweet?

    The reading time for Bittersweet varies depending on the reader's speed. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Bittersweet a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Bittersweet is worth reading for its exploration of the complexities of life and the bittersweet moments that shape us.

    Who is the author of Bittersweet?

    The author of Bittersweet is Susan Cain.

    What to read after Bittersweet?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Bittersweet, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • Quiet Power by Susan Cain
    • It's OK That You're Not OK by Megan Devine
    • Welcoming the Unwelcome by Pema Chödrön
    • Didn't See That Coming by Rachel Hollis
    • Quiet by Susan Cain
    • Big Feelings by Mollie West Duffy and Liz Fosslien
    • Frames of Mind by Howard Gardner
    • When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön
    • The Mindful Way Through Depression by Mark Williams
    • Platonic by Marisa G. Franco