What is it that makes us sad when we reminisce?
September 25, 2018 7:20 AM   Subscribe

Even though many events in my past were happy, sometimes when I think about them I get a sadness. I'm not sure where this comes from. Have you had this experience? What would be some ways to process that sadness? Can joy be recovered from nostalgic sadness?

(just to be clear, this is sadness and not something associated with clinical depression)
posted by storybored to Human Relations (17 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
When I reflect on this for me what comes up is the bittersweetness of the remembering because those specific happy times are in the past. I have changed, my life circumstances have changed, I can't actually go back to that place and time in my life.

I try to savor the good memories and feelings and reframe the sadness. I can acknowledge that parts of university were really good for me (the sense of freedom, time to learn and read, time to walk and bike, time with friends), and I ask how I can bring some of those elements into my current life. Planning and engaging in experiences I enjoy and find meaningful is really helpful too. What would future me wish I had taken advantage of? Does future me want me to have more adventures? More time with loved ones?
posted by lafemma at 7:28 AM on September 25, 2018 [5 favorites]

The wikipedia description of saudade seems to describe similar territory, and attest to its commonality:

Saudade is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places, or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again. It can be described as an emptiness, like someone (e.g., one's children, parents, sibling, grandparents, friends, pets) or something (e.g., places, things one used to do in childhood, or other activities performed in the past) that should be there in a particular moment is missing, and the individual feels this absence. It brings sad and happy feelings altogether, sadness for missing and happiness for having experienced the feeling.

Not sure mortality allows for the removal of the sadness.
posted by robself at 7:36 AM on September 25, 2018 [19 favorites]

The definition of wistful seems to capture this well: "sad and thinking about something that is impossible or in the past"
I think the sadness comes from knowing the positive thing is now just a memory. I personally try to be always moving forwards and improving on things so even though I can look with fondness on past happy moments, I don't want to go back generally as overall things are better now.
posted by JonB at 7:38 AM on September 25, 2018

Sadness is a part of life and I think we feel sad when thinking of past times because they're now gone, and there's a sense of loss involved. Losing something means that you once had something meaningful and important, which is a good thing. I don't think sadness is to be feared and unless you are constantly sad or it is interfering with your life, maybe try to embrace it instead of avoiding it?
posted by bearette at 7:47 AM on September 25, 2018

You can't step in the same river twice.

Looking back there is the knowledge not just of how much things have changed but that you can't go back - the way you see the world is different, the friendships you have are changed even if they are with the same people, and however wide-open the possibilities were back then you've now picked a road to travel and the others are gone, lost to whatever parallel dimension where different choices were made.

And this is just if no one is dead, no one has turned out to be a horrible person, you haven't had a major falling out.
posted by bile and syntax at 8:01 AM on September 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

If we're doing quotes that capture this, Dante said "“There is no greater sorrow than to recall in misery the time when we were happy.” That has always been true in my experience.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:02 AM on September 25, 2018 [8 favorites]

and there's a sense of loss involved

yes to this. it's natural grief at the loss of something you valued. with some things i can push through that and just enjoy reflecting on past events or reminiscing with the people who were there at the time, but for others there's only the feeling of loss, and i try not to touch those mental places too often.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:28 AM on September 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Agree with what has been said already. To me it's similar to why gratitude journals make me feel depressed. It didn't make sense to me that after a while of writing down the things I was grateful for I would get bummed out. Then I realized it was because somewhere hidden underneath the thoughts of all these great things was the knowledge that they wouldn't last forever. In addition, if I had two days in a row of repeating things to be grateful for I'd get bummed out that my life was apparently stagnant. Which doesn't really make any sense. If you're grateful for your family 5 days in a row that should be a good thing- but my reaction would end up being- Oh great, today I'm glad for my family JUST LIKE YESTERDAY AND THE DAY BEFORE THAT. My life's not going anywhere and nothing ever gets better, but it might get worse.

I stopped keeping a gratitude journal. Instead now I'm just grateful in general every now and then when it comes naturally.

Likewise It doesn't make sense that when we look back on happy times we get sad... unless we realize it's because somewhere hidden behind the memories is the present understanding of it's ending. But just like lots of people can keep a gratitude journal and it makes them happy because they're too busy immersing themselves in gratitude to have other thoughts get in the way, I think it's possible to learn to look back and immerse yourself in happy memories in the same way.
posted by fantasticness at 8:41 AM on September 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

There's a concept in Japanese literature, originating I think from the Heian period (when The Tale of Genji was written) of mono no aware, which refers to an awareness of the beauty and transience of things, and the resulting melancholy or resignation. I don't know if this sort of melancholy or wistfulness can be dispelled; maybe by hardcore Buddhists (or related philosophies/religions) who have really accepted the concept of Maya, that the perceived world is an illusion, constantly being remade, and thus not to be clung to. To be honest, I don't know how they do it. I find the thought quite sad myself.

(I'm not an expert in these fields, just have done a little light reading, so take that with a grain of salt.)
posted by praemunire at 9:03 AM on September 25, 2018 [5 favorites]


In the hotel room in Lisbon where I went near the bitter end of the LTR that was never ever going to work out, the hotel with the incredible tub and the excellent coffee and the great windows through which the fresh betwitching breeze blew day and night, the hotel with the insanely awesome breakfast bar with sardines and a different little exquisite eyes-roll-up-in-your-skull delicious little sweet treat every morning, saudade was needlepointed on the throw pillows. The bellhop explained, gently and carefully, that you couldn't really know what it meant unless you'd been raised in the language, it was untranslatable, something ephemeral that you felt rather than knew. They tell the tourists that deliberately in the hope that they'll bridle and insist to themselves that they DO understand; they CAN feel; they ARE capable of nuance. Then when they're checking out, possibly never to return, they discover that throw pillows needlepointed with saudade are available in the gift shop between the sardine shelf and the rack of fado CDs.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:41 AM on September 25, 2018 [9 favorites]

This is an emotion that's very much described and beautifully rendered in the Pixar movie Inside Out which is depicted by the Sad emotion touching and forever changing the Joyful Memories. It's nostalgia and missing those beautiful moments of the past that can't be recaptured. Here, it's young Riley learning to process the sadness of moving away from her hometown and how even her happiest memories of her childhood home make her sad now.
posted by acidnova at 11:01 AM on September 25, 2018

What would be some ways to process that sadness?

This might sound a little convoluted but I learned to deal with this sort of feeling from my dad. I used to even feel something I called "nostalgia for the present", like a sort of sadness about how happy I was and how fleeting things are.

Anyway, I live in the US, and my dad lives in another country. Once in a while, my dad comes to visit. He happily moves from activity to activity with delight. He enjoys every single moment. Museums, shops, restaurants, staying at home and making traditional food. As time passes, he still visits but he is able to do less. We have to plan fewer activities that allow for more sitting and more resting. He still has a whale of a time, though. Then we take him to the airport and he happily waves and hugs and kisses and goes home. He's like a little tornado of happiness that brightens our lives for 10 days and then is gone.

The last time he visited, it hit me. This is a fantastic allegory for a life well lived. We get here. We milk every moment. Do we sometimes wish it was the first day of our visit and we were still at the airport with the whole trip ahead of us? Sure, BUT we're having cocktails right now. The cocktails were so good. Maybe now we wish we were still having cocktails, we can write about them so we don't forget, or we can plan to recreate the experience and mix mock versions later. Ugh, hiking tour. It's tough, but we feel badass. Yay, now we visit the art museum and sit down for coffee with friends. Wow, now is time to go home. We had a good time. The trip comes to an end. We did so many things and some of them were a little challenging (like the hiking) and some of them were nope (maybe we tried some adventurous food we didn't like), but we saw new places and met people and we visited the world. We leave with a smile because we made people happy and they made us happy, too. Now we are gone, and the places we visited are not the same, because we were there and we changed them in many tiny ways.
posted by Tarumba at 1:07 PM on September 25, 2018 [10 favorites]

I used to even feel something I called "nostalgia for the present"
Ditto! I remember being 19 at Mardi Gras surrounded by loving friends and suddenly among us was the boy who would become my boyfriend a year later. There he was suddenly, swinging on a lamppost. None of us knew he was in town. For a fleeting moment, I thought, "Now everyone is here! Now I am perfectly happy! PERFECTLY!" Then my next thought was of course, "Oh, no, I've realized it. Poof, it is gone. All of life from this moment will be gray." (Not the case, but this is how you think when you're 19.)
posted by Don Pepino at 2:28 PM on September 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

For me there's also often an element of regret that I didn't fully appreciate the joy of the situation in the moment. I have a long history of off-and-on depression, and many times that in retrospect should have been happy were difficult or painful. I look back and wish I could have been there in the way I would be now if I could travel time.
posted by potrzebie at 12:18 AM on September 26, 2018

I think sadness comes from regret and that is often regret of things we havn't done rather than things we have done.
posted by gypsyfighter at 3:18 PM on September 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Internally, I give it a kiss and a wave goodbye. If I remembered it, it exists, and that's all I need to know. I have a lot of life to experience and I am so blessed to have such great experiences in the past too. The sadness makes me happy too, because I know it was a great fucking time, and who wouldn't wanna go back?
posted by yueliang at 3:27 AM on October 5, 2018

I feel this way constantly about the present, past and future. Awareness of impermanence casts a gloom over everything. I've found no way to overcome it and all the conventional suggestions about stoic philosophy or whatever seem like intellectual insulation from the reality of the thing, totally unconvincing.

You're not alone in feeling it though. Human condition.
posted by ead at 8:07 PM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

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