Susan Cain Wants You to Stop Being so Positive and Start Thinking About Death

As the century wore on, the consensus became that the reasons for failure had to do with something inside you—and the more important it became to have the emotional affect of a successful person, somebody who is unfailingly cheerful and positive, and acted like a winner. We started to divide people into winners and losers. You can trace this through the use of the word loser. A loser used to be just somebody who had lost. Then it came to mean somebody who had the soul of a loser, somebody who was predisposed to loss. Once you believe that, you’re going to try your hardest not to act like someone who has experienced loss, because that’s seen as a failure of character.

That’s the heritage that we’re living with today. You start to realize how impossible this is because life is lived with loss. The concept of bittersweetness is that life is inherently light and dark. It’s sorrow and joy. It’s love and loss. So when we talk today about a tyranny of positivity, or toxic positivity, what we don’t realize is that we’re carrying this historical imperative that no matter what you do, you should never act like a loser.

One of the things that made Quiet feel urgent was the idea that a society designed for extroversion misses out on a lot of talent, energy, creativity, and happiness that might come from introverts. What is the urgency here? What are some of the downsides of the edict for happiness?

The urgency is that we’re losing one of the greatest senses of connection, to each other and to ourselves. If we live in a culture where we’re not allowed to express sorrow, we’re cutting ourselves off from each other. [Psychologist] Dacher Keltner has done all this groundbreaking work, showing the power of sorrow to unite us. He looks at the vagus nerve, the biggest bundle of nerves in our bodies. It’s connected to our ability to breathe and to digest food. Our vagus nerve also reacts when we see another being in distress. We experience vicarious distress. This is deep in our bodies. The same part of our body that helps us breathe also helps us respond to other beings with compassion. We tend to think of compassion as a Sunday school attribute, and maybe a bit phony in some way. It’s actually fundamental.

I’m vaguely familiar with Dacher Keltner, but I had always associated him with awe.

He does do a lot of work on awe, and they are connected in a certain way. This whole suite of experiences that you can associate with awe—or spirituality, whatever you want to call it—seems to be associated with bittersweetness. Bittersweetness is really the state of longing that all human beings are in: longing for a different, a more perfect, a more beautiful world. For some people, that’s expressed in overtly religious terms. For others, it’s completely secular. It’s an impulse that is reaching for a higher state. There’s a sense of an asymptote. If you look at the etymology of the word “longing,” it means to grow longer, to reach for something. That is the heart of the creative impulse. It’s reaching to create something that’s more beautiful, or more interesting, than what existed before.

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