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Why (And How) Do We Long For Utopia?

The bittersweet seductions of Sehnsucht.

Ben Brooksbank (creative commons - adapted)
Source: Ben Brooksbank (creative commons - adapted)

Wellbeing is commonly associated solely with positive, subjectively pleasant emotions. However, scholars are beginning to appreciate that it might also involve more complex, ambivalent feelings1. These are ambivalent in the literal sense, mixing positively and negatively valenced qualia in a complicated blend of light and dark. In that respect, one might view wellbeing as a dialectical process (with dialectics in this context referring to a dynamic relationship between opposites).

A paradigmatic example is longing. Indeed, this could be regarded as the very definition of ambivalence, being ‘a blend of the primary emotions of happiness and sadness’2. More poetically, it has been called ‘an emotional state suffused with a melancholic sweetness’3. In longing we’re set apart from whoever or whatever we yearn for, which brings sorrow. Yet there remains the possibility, however small, that our dream might come true. Moreover, longing is imbued with a tantalising kind of sweetness, since its focus is yet present, in a way, shining in our memory and imagination.

Second wave positive psychology

Recently, scholars have begun to delve into this notion of wellbeing as a dialectical phenomenon. My colleagues and I refer to this work under the label second wave positive psychology4. That is, the field of positive psychology initially defined itself by a concern with ‘positive’ qualities and experiences. However, this new wave of scholarship looks critically at the very notions of positive and negative, hence the label. This includes the counterintuitive possibility that ostensibly dysphoric feelings, such as sadness or boredom, may at times actually be conducive to wellbeing5.

Several dialectical principles can be identified at the heart of wellbeing. First, it can be difficult to categorically define a phenomenon as wholly positive or negative, since such appraisals generally context dependent. For instance, crying at the departure of a loved one is an expression of sorrow, yet tears of joy upon being reunited signals a peak of happiness.

Furthermore, many emotional states are positive and negative simultaneously. Consider the supreme example of love. In any such emotional connection, sweet feelings of intimacy and affection are likely co-mingled with anxieties and fears (e.g., with respect to the wellbeing of your loved one, and of the relationship itself).

Finally, these light and dark elements are often deeply connected, or even co-dependent. For instance, the very fact that you love someone is what makes you care and fret so deeply about them. Conversely, it is this same worry which makes you so joyful when they are thriving and happy. These are two sides of the same coin. As Sir Francis Bacon reportedly said, ‘In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.’

Appreciating dialectics

Thus, well-being does not only involve feelings that are warm and sunny, but also more complex and ambivalent ones. However, such feelings can be difficult to appreciate. This may particularly be the case for people in Western cultures, which historically have been less attuned to the significance of dialectical phenomena (compared to Eastern cultures)6. Accordingly, we have much to learn from the way other cultures have understood issues of dialectics.

This includes studying their ‘untranslatable’ words (i.e., those without an exact equivalent in our own language). Such words reveal phenomena which have been overlooked or underappreciated in one’s own culture. As such, I’ve been creating a positive lexicography of such words–focusing on wellbeing specifically–as I explore in two new books (see bio for details).

My project corroborates the idea that Eastern cultures do have a refined understanding of dialectics, as exemplified by notions such as yin yang. However, Western languages can also express subtle forms of dialectical appreciation–including in relation to longing, our archetypal ambivalent emotion.

A lexicon of longing

Thus, the lexicography features a host of terms expressing varieties of longing, many of which hail from Western languages. A case in point is German, with a wealth of relevant terms. There’s the well-known Wanderlust, for a start. Although literally describing a desire to hike or roam, it has come to denote a longing to wander the world, untethered to specific places7. Relatedly, the term Fernweh combines ‘pain’ (Weh) with ‘distance’ (Fern) to allude to the evocative ‘call of faraway places’8. This may mean a longing for home or an even more allusive yearning for places to which one has never been.

A particularly interesting item is Sehnsucht. Often translated as ‘life longings,’ its etymology is revealing, implying a craving or addiction to longing. Not pining for a specific person or place per se, but rather a predisposition towards yearning generally, a trait-like utopian dreaminess. The concept is also notable in that–unlike many others in my lexicography–it has been explored through factor analysis9. And it was found to comprise six components: a utopian notion of personal development; a sense of life’s imperfection; a blended focus on past, present, and future; ambivalent, bittersweet emotions; a tendency towards deep reflectiveness; and a mental life imbued with symbolic richness.

Such is the character, it seems, of a diffuse, generalized longing, a ‘sweet-bitter’ dreaming cast of mind. I’m sure that many of us may be familiar with that state, even if we previously lacked the word to articulate it.


[1] Lomas, T. (2018). The value of ambivalent emotions: A cross-cultural lexical analysis. Qualitative Research in Psychology. doi: 10.1080/14780887.2017.1400143

[2] O. Holm, E. Greaker, and A. Strömberg, "Experiences of Longing in Norwegian and Swedish 4- and 5-year-old Children." The Journal of Psychology 136, no. 6 (2002): 608-612, 608

[3] B. Feldman, "Saudade: Longing and Desire in the Brazilian Soul." The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal 20, no. 2 (2001): 51-56, 51.

[4] Lomas, T., & Ivtzan, I. (2016). Second wave positive psychology: Exploring the positive-negative dialectics of wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17(4), 1753-1768.

[5] Lomas, T. (2016). The Positive Power of Negative Emotions: How to harness your darker feelings to help you see a brighter dawn. London: Piatkus.

[6] Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., & Norenzayan, A. (2001). Culture and systems of thought: Holistic versus analytic cognition. Psychological Review, 108(2), 291-310.

[7] T. Sager, ‘Freedom as mobility: implications of the distinction between actual and potential travelling’. Mobilities 1, no. 3 (2006): 465–488.

[8] B. Gabriel, ‘The unbearable strangeness of being: Edgar Reitz’s Heimat and the ethics of the Unheimlich’, in Postmodernism and the Ethical Subject, ed. B. Gabriel and S. Ilcan (New York: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), 149–202, at 155.

[9] S. Scheibe, A.M. Freund, and P.B. Baltes, "Toward a Developmental Psychology of Sehnsucht (Life Longings): The Optimal (Utopian) Life." Developmental Psychology 43, no. 3 (2007): 778-795, 779.

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