Longing for More
How the German concept of Sehnsucht sheds light on the human quest.
Posted September 19, 2017 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
What do you really want in life?
It’s a difficult question, but it may be the essential question.
Maybe you would answer with a concrete response, such as “I want sleep,” “I want a new phone,” or “I want to play more golf.”
Or maybe you would reflect more broadly. Some people even go beyond everyday desires to imagine deep yearnings for something more.
“Sehnsucht” is a popular German word with no simple English translation (click here for pronunciation). C. S. Lewis often relied on this concept in his writings, defining it as “inconsolable longing” for “we know not what.” Instead of “wishful thinking,” Lewis suggested how Sehnsucht involves “thoughtful wishing.” In my words, Sehnsucht has to do with an intense desire for something beyond our human capacity to fulfill. It is a sense that something is missing—something that, if fulfilled, would make everything complete.
To better understand, let’s consider some of the ways Lewis reflected on the concept.
In his Chronicles of Narnia series, Lewis states:
“Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning … a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and always are wishing you could get into that dream again.”
In The Problem of Pain, he notes:
“You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words … Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction? ... Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some longing … of that something you were born desiring, and which beneath the flux of other desires… you are looking for, watching for, listening for?”
Finally—and I think most compellingly—Lewis writes in “Mere Christianity”:
“The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that really excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of that which would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, at that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.”
In his book, Surprised by Joy, Lewis discusses his recollection of where his focus on Sehnsucht came from. Raised in a home without much aesthetic focus, he remembered a time in his early life where his brother "brought into the nursery the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers so as to make it a toy garden or a toy forest." He later recalls having a memory of that day:
"As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton's 'enormous bliss' of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to 'enormous') comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? Not, certainly, for a biscuit-tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past ... Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had happened to me was insignificant in comparison."
A contemporary of Lewis, Freud also wrote about this topic. As discussed by Armand Nicholi, Jr. in his book, The Question of God, where the two great thinkers are compared and contrasted, Freud used the word Sehnsucht in his writing to refer to a feeling he was haunted by throughout his life. Wishing to walk in the woods with his father like he did as a child, Freud notes:
“I believe now that I was never free from a longing for the beautiful woods near our home, in which… I used to run off from my father, almost before I had learnt to walk.”
Nicholi further reflects:
"When sixty-six years old, Freud continued to speak of 'strange, secret longings,' now thinking these might be 'perhaps... for a life of quite another kind.' Lewis described these experiences of longing as 'the central story' of his life... [realizing] they were valuable 'only as a pointer to something other and outer,' as 'signposts' pointing to the Creator. Perhaps we all experience such longings and, like Freud, remain confused by them; or, like Lewis, recognize them as signposts."
In the last decade or so, psychological scientists—mostly in Europe—have started to systematically study Sehnsucht, which they translate into English as “life longing.” In discussing this idea, these researchers discuss how major meta-motives such as love, power, achievement, identity, and social connectedness can all be sources of Sehnsucht, depending on the person. For example, some individuals may express homesickness, wanderlust, lovesickness, or the longing for the child they were never able to have.
One of the tasks these researchers have undertaken is to create a personality test assessing the extent to which individuals experience Sehnsucht. One example item that individuals rate in this test is: “I am longing for something that is too perfect to be true.” In analyses of this scale, results reveal two main factors along which individuals differ. These concern: (1) the intensity of longings and (2) the extent to which longings are non-realizable.
In later research, Sehnsucht has been distinguished from personal goals. Whereas goals appear to be more action-oriented and controllable, longings seem to provide direction and help for individuals when they experience loss, dissatisfaction, or non-resolution of difficulties. For instance, if a loved one dies, a person may cope by wishing they could re-experience some of their best moments with them. Someone dissatisfied in a job or marriage may fantasize about their ideal career or partner. An individual with a terminal disease may imagine what it would be like to be healed.
As I have come to better understand Sehnsucht, I have reflected on its role in my life as well.
In many ways, I feel like my life has been dominated by Sehnsucht. As one example, ever since watching the film “A River Runs Through It,” I have yearned to fly fish. It took a while for me to find a location near enough to my house, but this year I've focused on taking lessons in the stunning Kinnickinnic River Valley to learn the craft.
One particular fishing memory stands out from this past summer. I woke up early to hike to a new location. I made my way downstream until I found the most lovely spot where trout were rising all around! I was all alone—surrounded by lush hills—as I tried to apply all I had learned from a summer of practice. After catching a few fish, the sunshine broke through the clouds and landed on my shoulders. The combination of the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the meandering river on my legs made me pause. I looked up and saw a bald eagle fly overhead. My heart filled with gratitude.
Eventually—and unfortunately—I needed to leave. As I walked upstream, I twisted my knee on a rock and tore my meniscus. I have often imagined being back in that scene—feeling the sun on my shoulders as I felt the river move around me - but I have not been able to return yet. Even when my knee heals, I'm not sure this same experience can be recaptured.
As I reflect on this story, I wonder why fly fishing captivated my interest for so long, why that particular day in the sunlight resonated with me so much, and what it is exactly I yearn for now. What I have concluded is that there is a part of me that longs for a connection with awe-inspiring beauty, and that this is a core aspect of my personality, for good and for bad.
What can you learn from your experiences of Sehnsucht? Below are some possibilities.
- Follow your longing. It is helpful to realize that Sehnsucht may lead you in the direction of what you most deeply desire in life. So, reflect on your most significant dreams and what they may point you toward. Think about the common threads of the books you love. Consider what it is that attracts you to the hobbies you’ve most enjoyed or wished you would explore. Identify what has bonded you and your closest friends. Think about what pulls you toward a dream travel location. Remember when you were most thrilled to be learning something new. Reconnect with times in which you felt truly at “home.” What do these experiences tell you about what to spend more (or less) time on in your life?
- Accept some dissatisfaction and do not be led astray by it. At the same time, an understanding of Sehnsucht can help you understand that you may have some desires that can’t be always realized. For instance, you may have unrealistic or unattainable expectations for your relationships, lifestyle, career, or health. Understanding this may help you to appreciate that there may always be some dissatisfaction in your life or one of your major life roles, even if they are generally good. Of course, sometimes dissatisfaction can be a signal of problems to resolve, but other times it may reflect a limitation of being human. Related to this, it may be helpful to think critically about whether that next (idealized) relationship, purchase, or career will be the one that will finally and fully satisfy. It may be instructive to consider how you engage in addictive behaviors as unhealthy replacements for optimal experience. If a problem is really rooted in Sehnsucht, perhaps you need to feel your dissatisfaction—and even to grieve your limited ability to have everything you want—before ultimately working to accept. Instead of focusing on what you don’t have, you might benefit from practicing gratitude and contentment for what you do.
- Look beyond. Finally, consider what Sehnsucht may be ultimately pointing you toward. What is it that these experiences teach you about what you most ache for at the deepest level? There may be several possibilities, one of which may be spiritual in nature. Although modern psychologists have not related Sehnsucht with spirituality, Lewis often did, and there are many connections that could be made between the two. Intrinisic forms of religiousness and spirituality do predict greater well-being - particularly when personal control is low - and one reason may be that they help individuals deal with the limits of being human found in Sehnsucht.
Andy Tix, Ph.D., also blogs regularly at The Quest for a Good Life. You can sign up to receive e-mail notifications of new posts at this site.
For another popular introduction to Sehnsucht, see: Toward a Life of Longing?
The following scholarly articles provided source material for this post:
Kotter-Gruhn, D., Scheibe, S., Blanchard-Fields, F., & Baltes, P. B. (2009). Developmental emergence and functionality of Sehnsucht (life longings): The sample case of involuntary childlessness in middle-aged women. Psychology and Aging, 24, 634-644.
Mayser, S., Scheibe, S., & Riediger, M. (2008). (Un)reachable? An empirical differentiation of goals and life longings. European Psychologist, 13, 126-140.
Scheibe, S., Blanchard-Fields, F., Wiest, J., & Freund, A. M. (2011). Is longing only for Germans? A cross-cultural comparison of Sehnsuct in Germany and the United States. Developmental Psychology, 47, 603-618.
Scheibe, S., Freund, A. M., & Baltes, P. B. (2007). Toward a developmental psychology of Sehnsucht (life longings): The optimal (utopian) life. Developmental Psychology, 43, 778-795.