The Differences Between Melancholy and Nostalgia

Do you know the differences between melancholy and nostalgia? Although both emotions reflect a state of longing, they're not exactly the same. Find out why.
The Differences Between Melancholy and Nostalgia

Last update: 18 October, 2022

Have you ever heard the word saudade? The Portuguese writer, Francisco Manuel de Melo (1608-1666) defined it as “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy”. This Portuguese concept, although it doesn’t have a literal translation, would have two comparable words in English: melancholy and nostalgia.

However, what differences are there between melancholy and nostalgia? Can we even claim that they’re not one and the same?

“No nostalgia is felt as keenly as the nostalgia for things that never existed.”

-Rabih Alameddine-

Melancholy and nostalgia: two intense emotions

Emotions are part of life. They act as your guide when you make decisions. They’re defined in the APA as ” a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral, and physiological elements, by which an individual attempts to deal with a personally significant matter or event”. Some emotions are basic and primary, while others are more complex and intense. Among the latter, are two that have a special relationship: melancholy and nostalgia. Let’s look at them in more depth.

The differences between melancholy and nostalgia

To learn the differences between melancholy and nostalgia, let’s start with a generic definition of each emotion.

Melancholy: pensive sadness

Melancholy is defined as “a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause” (Oxford Dictionaries). In Portuguese, it’s roughly translated as saudade, as we mentioned earlier. However, in Portuguese, it’s said that “saudade is not explained, it is felt”.

“Melancholy: a romantic way to be sad.”

-Mario Quintana-

Nostalgia: longing for something that made us happy

Nostalgia is defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past” (Oxford Dictionaries). Cecelio Paniagua, in an article published in Humanities Magazine, proposes that nostalgia is the evocation of fond memories.

Indeed, when we get nostalgic it’s usually because we’re thinking about something from the past that we experienced in an intense way, or when we recall a happy memory.

“Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.”

-Doug Larson-

Why melancholy and nostalgia aren’t the same

Nostalgia and melancholy may seem similar concepts, as they both imply an emotion that leads us to look at the past, to miss, and to yearn. However, they’re not really the same.

To start with, melancholy is usually experienced as something unpleasant or sad. It isn’t the same with nostalgia, which can be experienced in a far pleasanter way. Let’s look at the most important differences between both concepts.

1. The existence of a loss

When you experience melancholy, you haven’t necessarily experienced a loss (although it may be the case). For instance, you can feel melancholy about something that you’d like to have but don’t. Or, you might miss something that’s still there but far away, as in the case of migratory grief.

On the other hand, when you feel nostalgic, it’s because you think of something from the past that you no longer have, although you don’t experience it as a loss. You feel nostalgia for a past memory or for someone who’s no longer around. It usually involves events or people that made you happy.

2. The presence of grief

Faced with the feeling of melancholy, you experience a certain sorrow and restlessness. It’s not a pleasant emotion. On the other hand, with nostalgia, this sorrow doesn’t exist. In a way, it’s a more pleasant emotion. When you experience it, you might yearn for something, but it’s rather a beautiful feeling, which leads you to respect and be thankful for your past.

3. Low mood

Melancholy leaves you feeling low because it’s accompanied by a deep sadness. On the other hand, when you feel nostalgic, your mood may remain the same or even improve, as you think of beautiful things that you’ve experienced in the past. Therefore, with nostalgia, you can feel happy and cheerful, while with melancholy, the opposite happens.

4. Wanting to go back to the past

Although it depends on the individual, as a rule, melancholy is an emotion that leads you to want to return to the past and stay there. It saddens you to think that you’re not there. For this reason, it’s an emotion where sorrow and misfortune are the protagonists.

On the contrary, nostalgia isn’t so much the desire to want to return to the past, but rather the desire to want to remember it. It’s an ode to the past, a small tribute, like a flashback that makes you smile.

Melancholy and nostalgia: everyone experiences them in their own way

We’ve spoken here of some of the differences between melancholy and nostalgia. However, logically, each person will experience these emotions in a different and unique way. As a matter of fact, there are as many types of melancholy and nostalgia as there are people in the world. In this article, we’ve tried to break down the parts of each concept that can be differentiated. That said, it’s really difficult to pigeonhole these two emotions.

Nevertheless, both emotions are proof that you’ve lived, felt, and also loved intensely. In fact, feeling both melancholy and nostalgia is the price of being alive. If you feel these emotions, although sometimes they cause you pain and sadness (more in the case of melancholy than nostalgia), don’t repress them, express them. Try to find out the message they’re bringing and what they’re trying to tell you. Their message will be a gift for your soul.

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  • Burton, R., & Manguel, A. (2002). Anatomía de la melancolía. Asociación Española de Neuropsiquiatría.
  • Paniagua, C. (2010). Psicología de la nostalgia. Dendra Médica. Revista de Humanidades, 9(1), 39-48.