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Missing the Present Before It's Gone

Trying to avoid the pain of future loss can detract from present joy.

Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

Twenty-seven-year-old musician Lukas Graham reminisced in his hit song 7 Years, “Once I was eleven years old. I always had that dream like my daddy before me. So I started writing songs.” His success prompted him to consider how he might one day look back nostalgically on his present: “Soon we’ll be 30 years old, our songs have been sold, we’ve traveled around the world.” As you’re enjoying a pleasant experience, have you ever had the sudden insight that there might come a time when this is no longer possible? Perhaps you realize that your child will one day be grown, your college friends will have moved away, or a loved one might have passed on. Such recognition can evoke anticipatory nostalgia for the moment you’re in now, as you feel the longing you’ll one day experience as you look back on this present. In a way, you’re prematurely missing what you still have but fear you’ll lose with the passage of time. As captured by the cliché, time marches on inexorably. Folk musician Phil Ochs described how green leaves of summer fade, and “then they have to die, trapped within the circle time parade of changes.” Ochs expressed a melancholy fatalism when he sang, “We’re puppets to the silver strings of souls of changes.” Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson voiced a similar sentiment: “The winds of change are always blowing; and every time I tried to stay, the winds of change continued blowing, and they just carried me away.” But we have choices. We have the power to travel mentally backward and forward through time. To some extent we know where we’ve been. Though the future is uncertain, it is not completely unknowable. We can’t know what type of adult our toddler will become, but we know he or she won’t remain a toddler.

As you contemplate how time will change or erase some of the present, do you feel mainly the sadness of losing what you love or do you feel a richer appreciation for what you still have? Writer Nathaniel Hawthorne observed that in every crisis the greatest consolation, derived from the transitoriness of all things, is the realization that “this, too, will pass away.” When dealing with challenge, does looking ahead comfort and strengthen you with the knowledge that there will be a change or an end to your struggle? Or do you feel sad in the midst of difficulties, understanding that one day you might no longer have the purpose that gives your present efforts meaning?

Popular culture suggests that anticipating future nostalgia can be comforting. Country singer Trace Adkins addressed the stress of raising young children, predicting, “you’re gonna wish these days hadn’t gone by so fast,” and advised, “so take a good look around. You may not know it now, but you’re gonna miss this.” Caring for a new baby inspired Darius Rucker to sing, “it won’t be like this for long. One day we’ll look back laughin’ at the week we brought her home.” However, Rucker admitted that looking ahead brings the sad realization that the good of the present also will be gone: “It breaks his heart ‘cause he already knows it won’t be like this for long. One day soon that little girl is gonna be all grown up and gone.” What, then, is the overall impact of anticipating future change?

Recent research suggests that people who have a greater need to belong and less assurance of social acceptance are more prone to anticipatory nostalgia. It isn’t clear whether a tendency to consider the future can mentally distance a person from ongoing social interactions or whether feeling less integrated encourages one to consider the future. According to current research, anticipatory nostalgia is neither dissatisfaction with the present nor a gloomy view of the future, but a reluctance to let go of the present.

Paradoxically, the desire to hold on to the present might jeopardize full engagement in it. Envisioning the future can bring the sadness of missing the present prematurely and anxiety about what will come next. People prone to anticipatory nostalgia have reported a greater tendency for people and events to cause them worry and sadness. In general, people are more likely to imagine the present as no longer possible when faced with an adverse than a pleasant situation. However, research has shown that people prone to anticipatory nostalgia find it harder to enjoy the present and are more likely to distance themselves mentally or emotionally to avoid future hurt when it ends in both challenging and happy circumstances. Such defensive distancing can deprive a person of full enjoyment in the present.

The empirical research on anticipatory nostalgia is just beginning. What we have learned already encourages us to use nostalgia wisely. Just as nostalgia for the past reminds us to treasure the best of life—innocence, idealism, imagination, unconditional love—nostalgia for the present as imagined from a future perspective can direct us to appreciate and seek the best of what is possible. Feeling the sad longing for our present before it’s gone can encourage us to make good choices now. Inspired by his father who died at age 61, young Lukas Graham anticipated, “soon I’ll be 60 years old; will I think the world is cold, or will I have a lot of children who can warm me?” Appraisal of what we will someday miss about our present can deepen our love for the people in our life and enrich our understanding of what they mean to us, and what we mean to them. Anticipatory nostalgia led songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman to a change of heart when he was feeling stressed by his daughter wanting to dance to postpone bedtime: “So I will dance with Cinderella. I don’t want to miss even one song, ‘cause all too soon the clock will strike midnight and she’ll be gone.”

Further reading

Batcho, K. I. (2013). Nostalgia: Retreat or support in difficult times? The American Journal of Psychology, 126, 355-367.

Batcho, K. I. (2016). Are you afraid to be happy? Psychology Today.

Batcho, K. I., & Shikh, S. (2016). Anticipatory nostalgia: Missing the present before it’s gone. Personality and Individual Differences, 98, 75-84.

Chapman, S. C. (2007). Cinderella. [CD Single]. US: Sparrow Records.

David, H., & Hammond, A. (1984). To all the girls I’ve loved before [Recorded by J. Iglesias & W. Nelson]. On 1100 Bel Air Place [CD]. New York, NY: Columbia Records.

DuBois, C., Gorley, A., & Rucher, D. (2008). It won’t be like this for long [Recorded by D. Rucker]. [CD Single]. Nashville, TN: Capitol Nashville.

Gorley, A., & Miller, L. T. (2008). You’re gonna miss this [Recorded by T. Adkins]. On American Man: Greatest Hits Volume II [CD]. Nashville, TN: Capitol Nashville.

Graham, L. (2015). 7 years. On Lukas Graham. Copenhagen, Denmark: Warner Bros.

Ochs, P. (1966). Changes. On In Concert. Los Angeles, CA: Elektra.

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