Bittersweet — in search of the melancholic temperament
Susan Cain’s new book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole (2022) has immediately made it to the top spot of the New York Times bestseller list. Like with her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012), there is a lot I can identify with. Like the former book, it’s a potpourri of anecdotes, scientific research and a lot of reflection, in which sad music feature prominently:
Sad music is much more likely than happy to elicit what the neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp called that “shivery, gooseflesh type of skin sensation” otherwise known as “chills.” People whose favorite songs are happy listen to them about 175 times on average. But those who favor “bittersweet” songs listen almost 800 times, according to a study by University of Michigan professors Fred Conrad and Jason Corey, and they report a “deeper connection” to the music than those whose favorites made them happy.
I regularly get goosebumps when listening to music (a trait connected to the Big 5 personality trait “openness to experience”) and I play my favourite sad songs over and over again. For “The Sound of Silence” (by Simon and Garfunkel, but also more recent versions by Disturbed and Pentatonix) has definitely been more than 800 times as I sometimes listen to it several times a day. I also share Susan Cain’s love for Leonard Cohen’s music.
While Bittersweet is perhaps not as original and focused a work as Quiet, there is a lot in Bittersweet I missed in Quiet . One reason is that while being introverted makes you feel a bit different (even if half of all people are introverts), having a melancholic temperament is far less common.
This love for melancholy is linked to various traits
- High sensitivity (HSP)
- Longing for a better or perfect life/world
- Higher association with self-actualization and transcendence
- Tendency towards social justice
- Anxiety and depression
Contrary to Quite , Cain never makes it quite clear if bittersweet is a trait/temperament or something to be celebrated in all people (e.g. when it comes to loss). However, more often it seems like something that people “have got”:
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 Simon, Leonard Cohen.
Also, often the theme comes close to introversion vs extraversion again when she contrasts the introverted melancholic temperament with the extraverted sanguine temperament prevalent in America. While most of the people Cain mentions are indeed introverts, some of them (e.g. Maya Angelou) are extroverts.
So, while Cain’s first book was about I (in terms of Myers-Briggs), this one is about N (intuition), which is correlated with both openness and high sensitivity but is generally considered an outdated, non-scientific concept.
Nor are temperaments themselves given much research in contemporary psychology. If we trace back the origin of temperament theory it’s found in ancient medicine, just like in ancient Ayurveda which represented a holistic body-mind philosophy. The three doshas are pitta (light-skinned, mesomorph), vata (dark-skinned, ectomorph) and kapha (endomorph, intermediate complexion). I have argued that these three doshas come from three “tribes” the Indo-Ayrian pastoralist invaders (pitta), neolithic farmers (kapha) and South Asian hunter-gatherers (vata).
Hippocrates chose four temperaments rather than three. Can they be related? I think it is possible: Sanguineous corresponds to pitta (pastoralists), phlegmatic to kapha (farmer) and bile to forager. There is black bile (melancholic) and yellow bile (choleric), what is the difference? Ibn Sina, one of the greatest Islamic scholars came up with these physical, physiological and psychological traits:
Apart from having traits Susan Cain associates with melancholic (anxiousness and pensiveness), melancholics also tend to suffer from insomnia and gastrointestinal problems. This would make sense if they are more highly sensitive foragers types who are less adapted to a farmer-herder diet (dairy and grains). So, the two bilious temperaments have their origin in hunters and gathers.
In his On Hippocrates’ The Nature of Man, Galen stated: “Sharpness and intelligence are caused by yellow bile in the soul and perseverance and consistency by the melancholic humor. According to this, we can associate yellow bile with analytic hunters (rationals in Keirsey’s temperament sorter) and black bile (melancholics) with the idealistic/diplomatic gatherer temperament:
The temperament labels don’t perfectly match the four evolutionary temperaments. Both hunter and gatherer types are often quiet, calm and reflective and they can be both angry and sad. However, hunters tend to get angry more often (think of how angry Richard Dawkins tends to get in discussions with religious fundamentalists) and gatherers tend to become sad more often. Apart from our love for sad music, I also share the INFP personality type with Susan Cain. Also, depression is more common in women than men, who tend to be F types more frequently.
One thing most gatherer/NF types have in common is best described by the German word “Weltschmerz”. Susan Cain uses “cosmic sadness”, which is actually a pretty close translation.
I enjoyed reading Susan Cain’s new book. What is absent: any hint of where the melancholic temperament may come from. Our longing for a perfect world stems from our hunter-gatherer egalitarianism, as does our empathy for non-ingroup members of our immediate communities, high sensitivity, anxiety and, of course, our sadness.
In case you don’t find my hunter-gatherer hypothesis completely outlandish check out my books
Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on April 20, 2022.