Missing the Present Moment: How Nostalgia Helps Us Remember

We explore why we feel sad when we’re doing something enjoyable, and why those feelings are beneficial.

Have you ever been having a truly beautiful time – walking at sunset, enjoying a delicious meal or a holiday – and suddenly you start to miss what’s right there in front of you? This feeling of grieving for what is still present has been called ‘anticipated nostalgia’ and is a relatively new field of psychological study.

It might seem silly (and even downright ungrateful) not to be enjoying the wonderful moments in life to their full potential. Grieving for the present certainly doesn’t seem very mindful either, as those who are appreciating the here and now surely wouldn’t let thoughts of the future interrupt their enjoyment.

However, research suggests that the brain is actually doing something quite clever when you experience those feelings. Since anticipated nostalgia only occurs during especially enjoyable moments, it’s your brain’s way of capturing the moment as accurately as possible. A sense of sadness reminds you to slow down and savour the experience – which can only be possible while you are still experiencing it. You might even be compelled to create a memento of the event; by taking a photo, perhaps, or picking up a physical reminder of your surroundings, such as a seashell, a leaf, or a coaster from a restaurant. This is all driven by anticipated nostalgia.

Why should we remember things in so much detail? Though each of us has different ways of dealing with sadness, recalling good memories is a quick method our brains use to help us to feel better. In times of despair, pleasant memories remind us that better times exist, and are therefore likely to come around again. Similarly, the feelings can help us pinpoint exactly which experiences we most enjoy, allowing us to replicate those moments – like getting up early to see the sunrise – when we need a mental boost.

Anticipated nostalgia also reminds us that the most wonderful things in life don’t last indefinitely. Of course, there will be more beautiful moments in store, but no two are ever exactly the same. Being reminded of how precarious life can be prevents us from taking it for granted. It encourages us to make the best of the time we have, because positive experiences aren’t guaranteed to last forever.

The sense of loss is felt the most strongly when experiencing something that you’re not likely to do again or soon, such as a holiday or a one-off event. Next time you feel anticipated nostalgia, remember why it’s there and embrace your enjoyable moments.