5. Places We Go When Things Aren’t What They Seem

Amusement, Bittersweetness, Nostalgia, Cognitive Dissonance, Paradox, Irony, Sarcasm

Irony and Sarcasm

Irony and sarcasm are forms of communication in which the literal meaning of the words is different, often opposite, from the intended message. In both irony and sarcasm, there may be an element of criticism and humor.

Sarcasm is a particular type of irony in which the underlying message is normally meant to ridicule, tease, or criticize.

The biggest watch-out with irony and sarcasm:

Are you dressing something up in humor that actually requires clarity and honesty?


A paradox is the appearance of contradiction between two related components.

While cognitive dissonance pushes us to resolve the tension of conflicting information, paradox challenges us to straddle the tension of two conflicting elements and recognize that they can both be true.

Paradox is not an emotion. Paradoxes can’t be fully resolved using rationality and logic—we need to allow the seeming contradictions to coexist in order to gain deeper understanding.

Paradoxes force us to think in expansive ways and lean into vulnerability.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs when a person holds two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent with each other.

Intelligence might be measured not only as the ability to think and learn, but also the ability to rethink and unlearn.


Nostalgia is a yearning for the way things used to be in our often idealized and self-protective version of the past.

Researchers describe nostalgia as a frequent, primarily positive, context-specific bittersweet emotion that combines elements of happiness and sadness with a sense of yearning and loss.

Nostalgia is more likely to be triggered by negative moods, like loneliness, and by our struggles to find meaning in our current lives.

Nostalgia can be a tool for both connection and disconnection. It can be an imaginary refuge from a world we don’t understand and a dog whistle used to resist important growth in families, organizations, and the broader culture and to protect power, including white supremacy.

Rumination = involuntary focus on negative and pessimistic thoughts, focuses on the past or on things about ourselves that we’re stuck on. So not the same as worry, which is about the future.

Reflection = highly adaptive and psychologically healthy

It’s important to reality-check our nostalgic ideas by uncovering and examining the tradeoffs and contradictions that are often deeply buried in all of our memories:

Were the comfort and safety of that past existence real? If so, were they at someone else’s expense?


Bittersweet is a mixed feeling of happiness and sadness.

Not the same as ambivalence (when we’re unsure whether we’re happy or sad), it’s feeling both at the same time.

Feeling bittersweet may be more frequently experienced or recognized by people who have a more nuanced ability to interpret their emotional states.


Amusement is pleasurable, relaxed excitation.

Amusement differs from happiness in that happiness is a general sense of pleasure, whereas amusement appeals specifically to one’s sense of humor.

Distinguish amusement from other positive emotions, like contentment, gratitude, interest, joy, love, or pride:

  1. An awareness of incongruity (there’s something unexpected about what causes us to be amused—we weren’t expecting that punch line or that behavior or that timing);

  2. When we feel amusement, we feel playful with those around us.