Bittersweet: understanding the emotion of growth

Bittersweet: understanding the emotion of growth

Posted on Aug 2, 2023

Leveraging tech for the inner landscape

Stefan Chmelik is co-founder of and inventor of the Sensate stress reduction system, which is based on his over three decades of clinical experience working with anxiety, stress and trauma. His mission is now the company's mission - to positively impact the lives of 100 million people by 2025.

Articles page HERE


Bittersweet is transformative

If you have seen the Pixar film Inside Out, the essential role of melancholy in emotional regulation and enabling joy may already make sense to you. In the film, human emotions are depicted as separate living characters inside of teen protagonist Riley. Riley is depressed from a sad memory, despite all ‘Joy’s’ efforts. It is only when ‘Joy’ hands control to ‘Sadness’ that teen Riley is able to process and transform the sad memory, enabling acceptance and creating a new reality.


“There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”

We can also see this philosophy in Kintsugi (金継ぎ, "golden joinery"), the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the breakage with gold seams– the idea that breakage and repair should be treated as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. American psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells us about women who tattoo their surgical scars with flowering vines, to celebrate rather than be shamed by their scars.

In Japanese culture, melancholy is an opportunity to gain a deeper sense of compassion. This perspective was found to be the reason that Prozac and Seroxat sold so badly in the Japanese market when they were released. They fixed this by inventing a new disease for Japanese people, ‘kokoro no kaze' (literally, ‘cold of the soul). By rebranding in this way sales picked up. (Ihara 2012).


There is a particular technique I employ when writing the Sensate Signature Soundscapes and this is the characteristic of Emotional Affect. I divide this into Serenity, Rapturous & Bittersweet, and each Soundscape has a specific orientation towards one of these three.

Serenity fosters feelings of calm and deep relaxation;

Rapturous helps us feel joy and a sense of wonder;

And then there is Bittersweet – the addition of sound elements that gently conjure feelings that present some potential challenge, but which make the other two characteristics hard or impossible to achieve if left unresolved. These are sound memories related to minor keys, lament - sorrow – melancholy. The experience of the Bittersweet helps soothe the transition through difficult or challenging thoughts and feelings, which are inevitable for every one of us at some point in our lives.

Our vagus nerve is the driver for compassion and empathy and one of the great powers of bittersweetness. Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, found the compassionate instinct in the more ancient parts of our nervous system and brain and in an even older, deeper and more fundamental part of the nervous system, the vagus nerve, which connects the brainstem to the body. Keltner sees it as one of our best and most redemptive qualities. The most viable way to prepare your nervous system for greater flexibility is through regular rebalancing of the autonomic nervous system, of which the Vagus Nerve is the greatest part. Your autonomic nervous system knows exactly what you need and exactly what to do, our job is simply to get our controlling minds out of the way to allow it to do its job and to benefit from the experience of millions of years of cellular wisdom.



Our vagus nerve is the driver for compassion and empathy and one of the great powers of bittersweetness. Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, found the compassionate instinct in the ancient parts of our nervous system and brain and in an even older, deeper and more fundamental part of the nervous system, the vagus nerve, which connects the brainstem to the body.

By developing a more flexible autonomic nervous system and increasing vagal nerve tone, we are directly working on what is called Anti-fragility.

This is different to resilience, which is mostly a measure of how much damage something can take before it breaks.

Research has demonstrated that biological organisms (e.g. us) actually need some adversity to push against to be able to survive. This is the definition of Anti-fragility, an ability unique to humans and other living organisms, where we can actually grow due to challenge. For instance, in the Arizona Biosphere, the trees in the sealed dome have to be supported by wires as they have no wind to resist – trees actually grow back stronger after a storm.

Concepts like resilience and grit can do more harm than good, when what we need is better Anti-fragility. When we learn to be ‘resilient or well adjusted’ we may be learning to not listen to or feel at home in our own bodies. We then tend towards attraction to distraction as a means of avoiding feelings of discomfort.

Distraction and excess comfort are the opposite of Anti-fragility!

The idea is that over emphasising self-regulation or resilience has the potential to end up as stiff upper lip. This needs to be counter balanced with willingness to welcome in the vulnerability. This enables genuine strength over paranoia.

Actions to become more Anti-fragile:

  • Commit to small acts of ‘comfort withdrawal’
  • Avoid the bad news cycle
  • Be conscious about who you follow or read
  • Immerse yourself in Elders and their wisdom
  • Realise that others are thinking about themselves and not you – so don’t seek approval from others, inc social media
  • Cultivate humility
  • Appreciate reciprocity


How Sensating can help

Bringing daily acts of small awe and moments of pause into our lives are the best way to build our personal ability to self-regulate more efficiently. (see article ‘Awe’ link). Perhaps this is one of the only ways for the normal person who is unable to drop out and enter a specific community where such matters can be explored. As the ‘Rule of the Bittersweet’ tells us (Cain), to be progressive, some of our personal work needs to be slightly outside of our personal comfort zone. Far enough for change to be possible, not so far as to be overwhelming. This is different to the trend towards ‘self-care’, which tends to mean relaxing baths and lounging on the sofa in a cosy cocoon. It’s good to take the pressure off sometimes and genuinely ‘do nothing’, but we need to get the ratio right. Too much comfort and not enough challenge only leads to stagnation and going backwards. Using the Sensate Soundscapes is a really effective way to achieve this.

Several of the Sensate Signature Soundscapes feature the intention of Bittersweetness:

  • Darwin’s Octopus
  • Gaia
  • Orford Hum
  • Twylite



The word compassion literally means to suffer together. Our vagus nerve is the driver for compassion and empathy and one of the great powers of bittersweetness (ref: Bittersweet by Susan Cain). Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, found the compassionate instinct in the more ancient parts of our nervous system and brain (the anterior cingulate region and periaqueductal grey) and in an even older, deeper and more fundamental part of the nervous system, the vagus nerve, which connects the brainstem to the body and is the largest and one of the most important bundles of nerves we have. Keltner sees compassion as one of our best and most redemptive qualities (Dacher Keltner, Awe).


It is known that the vagus nerve has a regulating effect on digestion, heartbeat, breathing and sex, to the very mechanisms of life. Keltner has also pointed to several replicated studies that show the vagus nerve makes us care when we see others suffer; your vagus is activated when we witness suffering in others, even in a photograph. He found that people with particularly strong vagal nerve tone have greater empathy and are more likely to cooperate with others and to have strong friendships. Keltner he calls these people vagal superstars.

Ability to appreciate the bittersweet, the unavoidable events of life that are tinged with melancholy, makes us more Anti-fragile. People who have experienced depression tend to greater levels of compassion and empathy and people with greater empathy are enjoy sad music (ref: psychiatry Professor Nassir Ghaemi, Tufts University). We are greater than the sum of our evolutionary survival mechanisms, but it has been shown that having empathy for others activates the same brain region associated with eating lovely food or winning a prize (ref: neuroscientists James Rilling and Gregory Berns, Emory University).

Many animal species display comforting and soothing behaviour towards each other. But only umans have turned compassion into a superpower, by developing a capacity for sorrow and empathy for others. So, of all the human emotions, it is sadness that has the power to bring meaning and purpose to our lives, by way of helping the world around us.

We have come to separate art and science in what is referred to as the developed world, but this was not always the case and is unusual in traditional cultures. In fact, in our own society most people appreciate the role of art and the artist in exploring and providing meaning for the most difficult challenges of life.

Thinking of Leonard Cohen again, his song Hallelujah has become the popularist theme tune for the unifying power of melancholy with musician Nick Cave it’s poster boy. Perhaps this creates a means of self-expression for disaffected teens experiencing apparently conflicting feelings of joy and sadness. Sorrow and tears are one of the strongest bonding mechanisms we have. It's what Nick Cave calls the universal unifying force.


Traditionally, the Chinese talk about an excess of joy, just like any of the seven emotions, to the puzzlement of the western mind. This may be especially hard to get one’s head around in a culture which has literally enshrined the ‘pursuit of happiness’ as a right of the citizen. Daoism tells us about the power and essential balance of yin Yang, the nature of opposites is bitter and sweet – to be in balance, there must be both.

Modern psychology tends to dismiss sadness and melancholy as related to depression, but this is not the right way to look at it, and we have a greater appreciation of the essential role of silence or introversion since the global lockdown Every moment of beauty has a seed of inner sadness, because we know it must pass. Most great art and any meaningful expression of human emotion will contain the bittersweet feeling. Without a sense of longing, human ambition is immature rather than grounded in awe.

Since Aristotle, there has been an acknowledgement of the prominence of the bittersweet and melancholic in the arts. Have you noticed how many stories have orphans as protagonists? This may even be a prerequisite for the heroic journey. The sadness from which compassion springs is a pro-social emotion, an agent of connection and love.

In a famous study of 573 creatives, up to 45% had lost at least one parent by the age of 20 (ref: psychologist Marvin Eisenstaedt). Creative outliers from Michelangelo to Madonna and people who work in the arts are eight to 10 times more likely than others to suffer mood disorders (ref: Christopher Zara) and the best works of geniuses such as Mozart, Liszt and Beethoven correlate with times in their lives when their letters discussed feelings of grief and sadness (How Are You, My Dearest Mozart? Karol Jan Borowieck 2017).

In praise of melancholy from the School of Life: “Melancholy is not rage or bitterness, it is a noble species of sadness that arises when we are open to the fact that life is inherently difficult for everyone and that suffering and disappointment are at the heart of human experience. It is not a disorder that needs to be cured; it is a tender-hearted, calm, dispassionate acknowledgement of how much pain we must inevitably all travel through.”

And which is very similar to the thoughts of philosopher Alain de Botton (The Course of Love): “Melancholy isn't always a disorder that needs to be cured. It can be a species of intelligent grief which arises when we come face-to-face with the certainty that disappointment is written into the script from the start.”

There is an emerging trend of making room for the bittersweet, that “recognises that wellbeing actually involves a subtle dialectical interplay between positive and negative phenomena”, note Psychologists Dr. Paul Wong and Tim Lomas. And through his influential book Transcend, cognitive psychologists Scott Barry Kaufman is reviving Maslow's original concept of positive psychology, which recognised a bittersweet personality style that Maslow called “Transcenders”, people who, “are less happy than the conventionally healthy ones. They can be more ecstatic, more rapturous, and experience greater heights of happiness, but they are as prone or maybe more prone to a kind of cosmic sadness.”


How do we learn to appreciate the bittersweet?

If we could become a little less embarrassed by sadness and honour it a little more and allow this to become a means of connection with others. If we understand that someone has or will suffer, it becomes easier to connect with them as human beings, even if we don’t agree with their opinions.


Sensately yours,





Photo credits: Jonas Svidras; Mohamed Nohassi; Keegan Houser on Unsplash