The sun rises hazy, painting pastel pink and blue hues along the horizon. You sit with your feet in the sand, feeling a warm breeze in your hair. It’s the picture of serenity and you’re eagerly soaking up the moment. That’s because tomorrow you know it will be gone. Tomorrow, you’ll rise to the crazy sounds of city sirens and street cleaners. And then, much like the incoming tide on your toes, a great sadness washes over you.
That feeling is anticipatory nostalgia. A sense that a beautiful scene or moment will soon be over, knowing full well it’s something you will look back on with fondness and longing. Researchers often use the phrase ‘missing the present before it’s gone’ to neatly describe the sensation. It’s something many of us probably experience when travelling or during a particular season we enjoy, but can also apply to our relationships or particular stages of our lives. We fear that we’ll lose something or someone with the passing of time.
There are only a handful of researchers exploring the field of anticipatory nostalgia and personal nostalgia – a sense of longing for your own remembered past. On these studies, Batcho and Shikh summarise in the journal Personality and Individual Differences that ‘personal nostalgia was related to remembering the past, favourable affect and reactions, whereas anticipatory nostalgia was aligned with thinking of the future, emotional distancing, difficulty enjoying the present, and a greater tendency to sadness and worry’.
Our smartphones and today’s ease of instant photography arguably fuels the anticipatory nostalgia fire. There’s an urgency to document the present to help prolong it in the future, to capture it forever in an image. How many of the snaps on your camera roll do you really look back on? Sometimes, the best memories are those that are just that – memories. They aren’t evoked by hastily taken photographs, rather they are etched into our minds, unaided by our phones.
When faced with the prospect of the return flight from holiday, or the final moments of a significant life milestone slipping away, or the last summer blooms fading, it’s easy to start imagining how you will feel when the present is no longer your reality. Yet, fight the urge to photograph every angle of the scene for the future. Engage deeply with those around you without trying to note every sentence of the conversation in your mind’s journal. Find gratitude for today, without designing memories for the future.
This article is part of A Year of Living Slower – 12 monthly experiments in living better, not faster. December’s theme is Slow Christmas.