It is common that the concepts that arise in the world of research pass our daily language, in the field of popular culture (that is, outside the field of science), undergoing changes that we are often unaware of. . This happens, for example, with melancholy and nostalgia, two terms that are often confused and which, although they have similarities in the way they make us feel, are not the same.
So in this article let’s see what are the differences between melancholy and nostalgiabriefly explaining its characteristics as a psychological phenomenon.
What are melancholy and nostalgia?
Psychological processes are always complicated phenomena to apprehend, especially when they occur mainly “inward doors”, that is, without translating into actions that we carry out through movements and that d others can observe. When we add to this that we are dealing with very abstract thoughts or feelings full of nuances, the degree of complexity increases even more, and therefore it is easy to fall into inaccuracies and confusing terms referring to similar concepts. . But that does not mean that it is impossible to know this part of human reality, to research it, and to outline the keys to distinguishing concepts widely used in Psychology.
As I said before, melancholy and nostalgia are often confused or directly treated as if these words were synonymous. This is no coincidence, since some of its characteristics overlap; that’s why it’s not always easy to tell the difference between the two things when we feel a certain way or when we see that someone in our environment might be going through that. What do they have in common? First of all, four things:
- They are experiences that go beyond cognition (they are not limited to giving shape to ideas or beliefs that we can express with words).
- Although these are emotional experiences, they are not universal emotions (which are easier to identify and understand).
- Both cause us to remember the past.
- Both have the capacity to keep us involved in this emotional experience, giving it wings, but they do not bring us well-being or pleasure in a clear way.
From what we have seen so far, it is clear that nostalgia and melancholy are processes that involve very abstract thoughts, that is, that do not directly depend on a specific type of stimulus, but rather result from a combination of psychological processes. varied; therefore, it is compiled to draw the dividing line between one and the other, given that there is no one way to feel melancholic or nostalgic, and even these experiences can change over time. in the same person. Therefore, the definitions of these words that you will find here are only an approximate way of understanding what it is about.
nostalgia is a feeling based on a fleeting desire to experience some aspect of our past that we associate with well-being or happiness. It is characterized by generating a bittersweet sensation, since, on the one hand, we would like to return to this past and feel that we cannot, but on the other hand, recalling it by memory can be satisfying.
For its part, melancholy is a state of mind linked to a feeling of sadness that can go as far as a depressive-type symptom, and which is associated with the experience of loss in general and very abstract terms. Generally speaking, this concept has always been part of the field of mental health, and although in the past it has been part of the category of psychotic-like disorders, in particular delusions (having beliefs that are totally irrational or devoid of meaning), from the 20th century it is written about as a mood disorder closely related to major depression.
How to tell the difference between nostalgia and melancholy?
Now that we’ve already seen some brief explanations of what melancholy and nostalgia are, let’s see how they differ in more detail.
1. Its degree of specificity is different
Nostalgia gets used direct our attention to fairly specific elements of our past: for example, the beauty of our body during youth, or the groups of friends and those we had years ago, etc. On the other hand, melancholy is less precise when it delimits what one has the impression of having lost, and tends to generate a feeling of loss that is more existential, more detached from material aspects.
2. In nostalgia, you miss something, and in melancholy, not always
This difference is an extension of the previous one. Whereas in melancholy there is always a desire to recover something from the pastin melancholy this does not always happen.
Indeed, it can happen that the melancholic person has the impression that what he no longer has is something to aspire to, a meaning to give to his life, which can lead him to suppose that he does not have any more. never really had that. This experience of not being able to see meaning in life is a way to question what we have felt in the past and to stop valuing past happiness, and it means we are not missing out on that previous stage of life. . Also, many people who suffer from melancholy blame their past “self” for being too deceived or innocent.
3. Melancholy has a more direct relationship with discomfort
As we have seen previously, both melancholy and nostalgia lead us to “participate” in their existence by deepening again and again the type of sensations and thoughts they generate. But that doesn’t mean we like it.
In the case of nostalgia, it can produce in us an experience in which satisfaction and sadness seem to mix, which is hard to understand and contributes to our being unclear about what is going through our minds. Precisely because of this, when we feel nostalgic, we can feel a certain comfort at the same time that we long for something, because, in a way, we feel well-being when we carry these memories in our present (for example, by playing a type of music that we associate with our teenage years, we can enjoy ourselves while we miss those years).
In place, in melancholy there is rarely room for well-being, and in fact, it is part of the set of psychological phenomena linked to the symptoms of major depression. This is why, although melancholy is also an experience based on abstract thoughts, it does not have this mixture of positive and negative affects, but that does not prevent it from “catching” our attention, bringing us to constantly reinforce these kinds of feelings. and emotionally painful images, as if we want to self-sabotage or punish ourselves (this is very typical of all mood disorders in general).
4. Nostalgia doesn’t always lead us to a gloomy mood.
As we have seen, the way in which nostalgia and melancholy lead us to focus on the past is different. Therefore, another of the main differences between the two is that nostalgia can even become a motivating factor carry out complex activities or long-term projects (for example, collecting antiques, repairing and restoring old cars…), while melancholy leads us to a state of passivity and disinterest in our surroundings , leaving us in a state of introspection and little activity in general.
5. Its duration is different
While homesickness tends to be a fleeting experience, melancholy has a greater ability to persist over time; it is therefore one of the symptoms of major depression, a psychopathology characterized by its persistence.
- Burton, R., & Manguel, A. (2002). Anatomy of melancholy. Spanish Association of Neuropsychiatry.
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- Kendler, KS (2020). The origin of our modern concept of depression – the history of melancholy from 1780 to 1880: a review. JAMA Psychiatry, 77(8): p. 863-868.
- Sedikides, C.; Wildschut, T.; Arndt, J.; Routledge, C. (2008). Nostalgia: past, present and future. Current Directions in Psychological Sciences, 17(5): pp. 304 – 307.