feeling happy-sad about moments while they’re still happening

cinque terre

Cinque Terre, Italy | My idea of a kind of sentiment provoking image

Venice, Italy, around 9pm. There is a row of picturesque yet somewhat decomposed houses, illuminated by a half-moon. The moonlight also reveals a canal in the background with a light layer of filth floating on the surface. Despite this, it is charming. Carlos and Trey sit on a sunken wood bench outside their apartment in Dorsoduro, discussing a variety of topics. The occasional dog wanders by, unconcerned with the two.

Carlos: I realized something earlier today.

Trey: What, that time is simply a construct of human perception?

Carlos: Actually, I’ve been thinking about the subjectivity of time for a while now.

Trey: Same, that’s my excuse for why I’m always late.

Carlos: Whatever you need to tell yourself. But no, not that.

Trey: Ok, what?

Carlos: I realized that nostalgia doesn’t exist exclusively in the past. I felt nostalgic in the present, as if I pictured my future-self being nostalgic about this moment later in time, and as a result I experienced the same feeling as nostalgia.

Trey. Hmm. Nostalgia in the present.

Carlos: Right. Like a pre-nostalgia.

Trey: Pre-nostalgia.

Carlos. But there’s probably a better word.

Trey: There alway is. Let’s make one up.

(Important note: This is a fictionalized dialogue based off of a real conversation between Carlos, one of my best-friends and roommate at the time, and myself. Be advised that I, in all my writerly imperfection, cannot fully capture the way in which he conveyed this concept. Also, the idea of pre-nostalgia is originally his own, and the following is merely my interpretation of this idea.)

At this point, anyone watching this scene can fast-forward approximately 30 minutes, since the following conversation revolved around finding a better name for pre-nostalgia—that is, feeling nostalgic about an experience while it’s happening—but no such name was found. That is partially why we’re here today.


But before we go exploring pre-nostalgia and the wonderful world of nomenclature1, a quick refresher on ordinary nostalgia. I describe it as one of those happy-sad feelings2: the word nostalgia is applicable when you are reminded (usually by some external force) of a truly wonderful memory and, for whatever horrible, awful, potentially evil reason, our brain decides to make what was, in it’s original form, a beautiful moment into a stomach-dropping-tear-inducing pit of sadness.

Nostalgia was originally coined to give name to what was considered a disease of extreme homesickness, applicable to individuals who were removed from their roots or hometown by both time and geography. We may now scoff at the idea of considering nostalgia as anything more than a period of emotional susceptibility, but it was considered (especially in times of war) as a serious, life-threatening condition3. Back then, it was definitely evil.

Now we recognize that it’s [probably] not evil—bittersweet is a better word. A nice way of rationalizing nostalgia is to think of it as a yearning for a past emotional state. It’s like remembering all of the warm, pine-scented memories of a childhood Christmas—the food, the smells, the presents, the lights—and wishing you could relive that moment and therefore re-experience the same emotional state-of-mind. Sweet, right? The bitter, then, comes from the fact that this memory was triggered when your roommate lit a “Sweater Weather” scented candle from Bed, Bath & Body Works & Beyond in order to mask the distinct dirty-laundry smell that otherwise permeates your apartment.

Screen Memories

Another part of the bitterness comes from the fact that these wonderful pine-scented memories comes from a rather aggressive statement I apologize for in advance: your memories didn’t happen.

At least, not the way you think they did. Psychoanalysis4 calls these screen memories: a combination of several seemingly blissful childhood moments squashed and squeezed together into a single memory with all the bad parts filtered out.

The thing is, nostalgia isn’t the only way in which screen memories make us feel less-than-excellent. As the name suggests, screen memories literally screen, or block out the negative aspects and emotions of a specific moment, leaving your brain with a not-wholly truthful version of an event. As a result, things we thought were super-awesome as a kid aren’t always quite as super-awesome when we grow up.

We’ve all been victims of screen memories. Maybe you returned to a restaurant you used to frequent when you were younger, thinking it would be as glorious as before, only to realize that the service is poor, the food is meh, the setting is loud, the decorations are cheesy, and you, while maybe not crushed, are disappointed. It’s not that you didn’t notice any of these bad qualities when you were younger, it’s just more likely you remembered all the fun you had whenever you visited, giving your memory of it a “rose-colored lens”, filtering out the bad and holding on to the good.

From my personal experience, I found this to be true of one of my favorite candies when I was young: jellybeans. I enjoyed them everywhere: on cupcakes, in Easter-eggs, by the fistful, glued in between my teeth. This remained true until I stopped eating them regularly (when my sweet tooth was no longer at the heaping-pounds-of-pure-sugar level5), and, after a hiatus of a year or so, discovered upon re-eating the bean-shaped sugar lumps that 999,999 of the 1,000,000 available flavors are nearly inedible.


So, back to pre-nostalgia. How can you feel nostalgic about a time in your life that’s still happening? After all, we relate nostalgia to a past emotional state from past memories, so how can we feel this in the present?

Part of this phenomenon is explained by the naturally fleeting nature of moments, memories, and time itself. Imagine you’re sitting on a highly cliché but undeniably beautiful beach: the sun is setting, you and all of your friends are sitting on the sand, talking and laughing like you’re in a cliché beer commercial. To the great pleasure of the group, one of your friends makes a particularly funny quip. Everyone laughs, you especially, and you experience the joy associated with laughing so hard that your stomach hurts. It’s a beautiful moment.


Cliché Beer Commercial

But let’s add some drama. Picture the same scenario, but the same friend who evokes your belly-deep laughter is about to go on a trip for a very long time. Let’s say several years, even, and this is the last chance you have to spend time before this person leaves. After you finish laughing, there’s a brief moment of silence, filled with a sadness caused by the fact that you know your friend is leaving.

Sure, you were just feeling happy a millisecond ago, but time moves quickly, and that moment of ecstasy is gone and for a second all your brain thinks you have left is the memory of an emotional state that you’re no longer in. By this logic, pre-nostalgia appears to be no more than an accelerated version of regular nostalgia. The distinction, however, lies in the fact that you’re not fully removed from the memory you feel nostalgic about.

Let’s return to the beer commercial beach scene, and draw out a series of events: you feel 1. joyful in the moment of belly-deep laughter caused by your friend’s joke, then 2. sad and nostalgic about the loss of that joy since your friend is leaving, but you realize 3. you’re still there, with your friend, and can begin to alleviate your nostalgia by resuming conversation. Unfortunately, since our brains work rapidly, in any given event we might 4. shift from that pre-nostalgic feeling to joy then back again multiple times over, ultimately making the whole pre-nostalgia experience a real buzzkill.

So, we can still call this phenomenon nostalgia (or, at least nostalgia-related) since that gut-wrenching feeling is caused by a longing for the past emotional state of a memory, not the memory itself. Since these emotional states are automatically linked to the setting in which they occurred, the sights, smells, sounds, or tastes of a memory can trigger nostalgia and cause us to long for a past feeling. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that nostalgia can be prompted in the present about the present, since these same sights, smells, sounds, and tastes surround us, ready to send us into nostalgia mode at any given moment.

But wait: if the present sights, smells, sounds, and tastes can trigger nostalgia, then why don’t we feel nostalgic about the present anytime we experience joy? Following the logic laid out above, anytime we feel joyful and then lose some of that joy we should immediately become nostalgic about it, right?

Thankfully not. While I have no scientific answer for why this might be, I can say that the pre-nostalgia phenomenon is, from mine and Carlos’ own experiences, usually available only to those who are hyper-aware in a given moment. It’s not likely you will become pre-nostalgic every time you and a friend laugh-til-it-hurts, but you are more susceptible if you and the friend were first talking about childhood memories, or if that friend is about to go on a long trip, and therefore you are already in a kind of sentimental mood.

A Better Name

Alright, now that we [sort of] understand what’s happening when we experience pre-nostalgia, the initial question remains: is there a better name for it?

The answer is yes (but I’ll let you be the judge). After some more-difficult-than-expected etymological6 research, I came up with a new word. A better word. This word: altaffectia.

If you love words or are familiar with Latin, you might see the roots I used to create the word—alternare, from Latin, meaning “to alternate; to waver,” and affectus, also from Latin, meaning “a state of mind or body; disposition.” Therefore, when combined, altaffectia literally means “the alternation between multiple states of mind or body.”

With a little warping, we can apply altaffectia to replace pre-nostalgia, and give it a new definition: “the alternation from joy to an emptiness of joy within a short period; a yearning for a circumstance immediately after it’s passing.”

Another important note: just because I’ve attempted to explain the concept of pre-nostalgia/altaffectia and even gone so far as to give it a new name (which I probably should have asked Carlos to do since he is more etymologically inclined than myself) does not mean I fully understand what’s going on. The brain is a complicated place, and as more research and brain-mapping is conducted, the same conclusion is inevitably drawn: we have no idea what’s going on up there. An article from The New York Times puts it nicely:

Yet the growing body of data — maps, atlases and so-called connectomes that show linkages between cells and regions of the brain — represents a paradox of progress, with the advances also highlighting great gaps in understanding.

The paradox of progress: the more we know, the less we understand. Sometimes (or, if we break down any topic far enough, every time) that’s just the way it is in life: nobody really knows what’s going on. Classic.


The Dread Pirate Trey


1. Nomenclature: a system of names or terms. I call it “the art of word creation.”

2. You know, one of those “sad it’s over but happy it happened” kind of moments.

3. During the American Civil War, the North claimed to have nearly 2,600 cases of extreme nostalgia, which resulted in 13 fatalities.

4. Sigmund Freud’s brain child.

5. As of late, my sweet tooth lies at the superfluous-piles-of-pastries level.’

6. Etymology: the derivation, or make-up, of words. Essentially, it’s the study of where a word comes from, with possible sources including Latin, Greek, French, and so on.

Sources | Inspiration

1. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=nostalgia

2. http://www.acrwebsite.org/search/view-conference-proceedings.aspx?Id=7326

3. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/11/science/learning-how-little-we-know-about-the-brain.html?_r=0

4. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/