‘Anticipatory nostalgia’—that sense of sadness we feel about having to leave a beautiful place while we’re still there or stop doing something wonderful before it actually ends. Journalist Hedwig Wiebes learns more about it.
There I was, at a deserted beach so vast that it seems endless, surrounded by rocky cliffs. As I descended the wooden stairs and looked around, I realized I was the only one there. Me and my two dogs, that is. Undoubtedly, this beach is jam-packed with colorful parasols and beach towels in the summer, and you’d have to squint to see the ocean through crowds of people slathered in suntan oil. But it was winter, and we had this Portuguese kingdom all to ourselves.
The dogs ran ahead in leaps and bounds as dogs do on beaches, and I looked at the happily meandering trail of paw prints that they left behind. ‘I am such a lucky person,’ I thought. I am currently leading a traveling life, living in a camper van, which I can combine well with my work as a writer. Thanks to this way of living, I end up in the most fabulous places at the most unexpected moments.
And then I thought: ‘I have to really enjoy this a little bit more than usual as we leave tomorrow’. I’d almost forgotten about that. In fact, we were leaving this area, with its gorgeous rugged beaches, altogether. Boom, my happy feeling evaporated, and gave way to a premature sense of loss for this place that I love so much. Feeling kind of sad, I walked on—preoccupied with the imminent departure.
Grieving for what is not there while you still have it: it feels crazy and even ungrateful. Why would you do that? And it’s not very mindful either, because if you were really living ‘in the moment’, surely there’d be no thoughts about later or tomorrow. But the feeling can be so strong sometimes.
I remember it from my childhood, too: on Saturdays I would feel free as a bird, but Sundays were filled with gloom because I was thinking about school the next day. And later I felt it again at a fantastic Florence and the Machine concert and also when I ate a most heavenly chocolate mousse with black truffles. These are all moments when I was enjoying something intensely and then suddenly stopped enjoying it, because I realized that the moment at some point would end.
However melancholy this might make one feel, it’s nothing to worry about, says Tim Wildschut. He is a professor of psychology, and one of around ten people worldwide who have recently started researching this phenomenon. They call what I experienced on the beach (and so many other times) ‘anticipatory nostalgia’—that is, experiencing a nostalgic feeling while the object of your nostalgia is still present.
“That early sense of loss is in fact the recognition of the fact that what you are experiencing is very special and unique,” Wildschut says. “Your brain thinks ahead at such a moment and knows that this is something that you will recall with great pleasure later on. It gives you the opportunity, for example, to take a picture, or do something else that will let you capture the moment so that you can remember it better later.”
- The complete story ‘Anticipatory nostalgia’ can be found in Issue 27.
Text Hedwig Wiebes Photography ©Alicia Bock/Stocksy United