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Note: The following are excerpts from Bittersweet by Susan Cain.
Is creativity associated with sorrow and longing, through some mysterious force? The question has long been posed by casual observers and creativity researchers alike. And the data (as well as Aristotle’s intuition, per his question about the prominence of melancholics in the arts) suggest that the answer is yes. According to a famous early study of 573 creative leaders by the psychologist Marvin Eisenstadt, an astonishingly large percentage of highly creative people were, like Cohen, orphaned in childhood. Twenty-five percent had lost at least one parent by the age of ten. By age fifteen, it was 34 percent, and by age twenty, 45 percent!
Other studies suggest that even creatives whose parents live to their dotage are disproportionately prone to sorrow. People who work in the arts are eight to ten times more likely than others to suffer mood disorders, according to a 1993 study by the Johns Hopkins psychiatry professor Kay Redfield Jamison. In his study of the artistic psyche, Tortured Artists, a 2012 book profiling forty-eight creative outliers from Michelangelo to Madonna, author Christopher Zara found that their life stories share a certain amount of pain and suffering. And in 2017, an economist named Karol Jan Borowiecki published a fascinating study in The Review of Economics and Statistics called “How Are You, My Dearest Mozart? Well-Being and Creativity of Three Famous Composers Based on Their Letters.” Borowiecki used linguistic analytic software to study 1,400 letters written by Mozart, Liszt, and Beethoven throughout their lives. He traced when their letters referred to positive emotions (using words like happiness) or negative ones (words like grief), and how these feelings related to the quantity and quality of the music they composed at the time. Borowiecki found that the artists’ negative emotions were not only correlated with but also predictive of their creative output. And not just any negative emotions had this effect. Just as scholars of minor key music found that sadness is the only negative emotion whose musical expression uplifts us, Borowiecki found that it was also “the main negative feeling that drives creativity.
In another intriguing study, Columbia Business School professor Modupe Akinola gathered a collection of students and measured their blood for DHEAS, a hormone that helps protect against depression by suppressing the effects of stress hormones such as cortisol. Then she asked the students to speak to an audience about their dream jobs. Unbeknownst to her subjects, she arranged for some of these talks to be greeted supportively, with smiles and nods, and others with frowns and head shaking. After the talk, she asked the students how they were feeling; unsurprisingly, those with receptive audiences were in a better mood than the ones who thought they’d bombed. But she also asked the students to make a collage, which professional artists later rated for creativity. The students who faced disapproving audiences created better collages than the ones who were smiled upon. And those who received negative audience feedback and had low levels of DHEAS—that is, the students who were both emotionally vulnerable and suffered rejection from the audience—made the best collages of all.
Remember the linguistic origins of the word yearning: The place you suffer is the place you care. You hurt because you care. Therefore, the best response to pain is to dive deeper into your caring. Which is exactly the opposite of what most of us want to do. We want to avoid pain: to ward off the bitter by not caring quite so much about the sweet. But “to open your heart to pain is to open your heart to joy,” as the University of Nevada clinical psychologist Dr. Steven Hayes put it in a Psychology Today article he wrote called “From Loss to Love.” “In your pain you find your values, and in your values, you find your pain.” Hayes is the founder of an influential therapeutic technique called acceptance and commitment therapy. ACT, as it’s known, teaches people to embrace their thoughts and feelings, including the difficult ones: to see them as appropriate responses to the challenges of being alive, and of their own particular hardships. But it also teaches us to use our pain as a source of information about what matters most to us—and then to act on it. ACT, in other words, is an invitation to investigate the bitter, and commit to the sweet. When you connect with things that you deeply care about that lift you up, you’ve just connected yourself into places where you can and have been hurt,” Hayes explains. “If love is important to you, what are you going to do with your history of betrayals? If the joy of connecting to others is important to you, what are you going to do with the pain of being misunderstood or failing to understand others?
Hayes and his colleagues have distilled these insights into seven skills for coping with loss. In more than a thousand studies over thirty-five years, they’ve found that the acquisition of this skill set predicts whether people facing loss fall into anxiety, depression, trauma, substance abuse—or whether they thrive.
The first five skills involve acceptance of the bitter. First, we need to acknowledge that a loss has occurred; second, to embrace the emotions that accompany it. Instead of trying to control the pain, or to distract ourselves with food, alcohol, or work, we should simply feel our hurt, sorrow, shock, anger. Third, we need to accept all our feelings, thoughts, and memories, even the unexpected and seemingly inappropriate ones, such as liberation, laughter, and relief. Fourth, we should expect that sometimes we’ll feel overwhelmed. And fifth, we should watch out for unhelpful thoughts, such as “I should be over this,” “It’s all my fault,” and “Life is unfair.”
Indeed, the ability to accept difficult emotions—not just observe them, not just breathe through them, but actually, nonjudgmentally, accept them—has been linked repeatedly to long-term thriving. In a 2017 study by University of Toronto professor Brett Ford, subjects were asked to give an impromptu speech describing their communication skills to an imaginary job interviewer. Those who’d been prescreened as habitual “negative emotion acceptors”—even people who’d recently experienced major stresses, such as losing a job or being cheated on—suffered less stress. Another study found that habitual negative emotion acceptors had a greater sense of well-being than their peers, even when they experienced stresses such as an argument with a significant other, or a phone call from a son in prison.
But it’s the final two of the seven skills—connecting with what matters, and taking committed action—that move us from bitter to sweet, from loss to love. “Connecting with what matters” is realizing that the pain of loss can help point you to the people and principles that matter most to you—to the meaning in your life. “Taking committed action” is acting on those values. “Your loss can be an opportunity to carry what is most meaningful toward a life worth living,” writes Hayes. “After having identified what is truly close to your heart, act on it.
In one study, [James Pennebaker] divided people into two groups. One group was asked to write about their difficulties for twenty minutes a day, for three days; they wrote about sexual abuse, breakups, abandonment by a parent, illness, death. The other group wrote about everyday things, such as what shoes they were wearing. Pennebaker found that the people who wrote about their troubles were markedly calmer and happier than those who described their sneakers. Even months later, they were physically healthier, with lower blood pressure and fewer doctor’s visits. They had better relationships and more success at work.
In another study, Pennebaker worked with a group of despondent senior engineers who’d been laid off four months earlier by a Dallas computer company. Most were over fifty and had worked at the company their entire adult lives. None had found new work. Once again, Pennebaker divided the men into two groups. One group wrote down their feelings of rage, humiliation, and fear of the future; the other group described neutral topics. And once again, the results were almost too remarkable to be true. Within months, the men who’d written out their cares were three times more likely than the control group to have found work.
“Expressive writing” encourages us to see our misfortunes not as flaws that make us unfit for worldly success (or otherworldly heaven), but as the seeds of our growth. Pennebaker found that the writers who thrived after pouring their hearts onto the page tended to use phrases such as “I’ve learned,” “It struck me that,” “I now realize,” and “I understand.” They didn’t come to enjoy their misfortunes. But they’d learned to live with insight.
If we don’t transform our sorrows and longings, we can end up inflicting them on others via abuse, domination, neglect.
What orients a person to the bittersweet is a heightened awareness of finality.
But you have dead people’s goals. Only dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts, never experience the disappointment that comes with failure.
Safety holds hands with fear; innovation holds hands with failure; collaboration holds hands with conflict; and inclusion holds hands with difference.
No matter how much your culture tells you to smile, it’s not human to simply move on. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t move forward.
The word “loser” is spoken with such contempt these days, a man might like to forget the losses in his own life that taught him something about good judgment. — Garrison Keillor
Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past? The sun shines today also. There is more wool and flax in the field. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
I was going to buy a copy of The Power of Positive Thinking, and then I thought, “What the hell good would that do? — Ronnie Shakes
There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful. — Fernando Pessoa
Someday when the descendants of humanity have spread from star to star, they won’t tell the children about the history of Ancient Earth until they’re old enough to bear it; and when they learn they’ll weep to hear that such a thing as Death had ever once existed. — Eliezer Yudkowsky, from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality
Learn more about Bittersweet on Amazon.
Buy Bittersweet: Print | Kindle | Audiobook
If you enjoyed this summary, please consider buying me a coffee to caffeinate my reading sessions.