Leigh Haber: bittersweet was inspired by your passion for melancholy songs and a friend in college who would ask why you were always blasting “funeral” music, right?
Susan Caine: And it is. All my life I’ve had a strong response to supposedly sad music. Like, say, Leonard Cohen or Adele. Their music doesn’t make me sad—it lifts me up! And I’m not alone. In my research, I found that people listen to happy songs on their playlists about 175 times but sad ones 800 times. They say happy songs make them happy, but sad ones make them feel connected, full.
You write that we live in a culture of “toxic positivity.” Can you elaborate on what you mean?
Our culture discourages us from going to a sad or longing place. I attribute some of that to the school of psychology that Abraham Maslow started in the ’50s, which disproportionately emphasized being upbeat and happy as the norm, a person’s ultimate goal. Questions of human sorrow and yearning for something more were seen primarily as being on the pathological side of the human experience.
Where does your book title come from?
It’s the light and the dark, birth and death, the bitter and the sweet—the totality of life. If we don’t look at where emotions like sorrow and longing take us, we lose access to certain states of creativity, connection, even transcendence that we want to be open to.
Our culture prioritizes relentless optimism, but sometimes it’s okay to give in to being sad…
Sadness is the ultimate bonding agent. When someone expresses true sorrow, it elicits in us the impulse to join together with them.
You say it is the vagus nerve that plays a role in connection around sadness.
Yes, it’s one of the most fundamental collections of nerves in our body. It regulates digestion, breathing, our sex drive. But when we see someone in pain or sorrow, it’s the vagus nerve that makes us want to comfort them, to join together through the pathway of sorrow.
What is the “happiness of melancholy”?
Back to music. Sometimes it’s the melancholic nature of the singers’ voices that opens you up. The artist has succeeded in transforming pain into beauty, and there is a profound joy in that.
Are such artists examples of “transcenders”?
And it is. transcenders were first identified by Maslow as people who tend to be capable of attaining a higher state of consciousness. At the same time, they also have a cosmic sadness in them. Even noticing that those two things can go together is something unusual today; that there’s a connection between sadness and awe and wonder.
To be clear, we’re not talking about people who walk around feeling sad or down all the time, right?
No. We’re talking about something very different—about people whose capacity for joy and connection is strengthened by their ability to experience melancholy or sorrow. I call them “wounded healers.”
You refer to Maya Angelou as one such. How am I?
Her childhood included abandonment, racism, rape—trauma to the point where she stopped speaking to anyone but her brother for five years. And then she met a woman she connected with de ella, who helped her take her love of reading and turn it into an ability to express herself in a way that gave strength and joy and hope to so many others.
Thank you, Susan—and let’s crank up the Leonard Cohen!
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