Anemoia: Nostalgia for a Time Beyond Your Own

Jared Barlament
5 min readJul 30, 2019

Anemoia is a new and nearly unheard-of word. Its meaning is just as the title would suggest; a nostalgic sense of longing for a past you yourself have never lived. It is nostalgia for the “good ol’ days”; more specifically, the good ol’ days you are too young to have known. It is a sense that something was intrinsically better in the distant past than it is in the present; that we’ve lost something crucial in our ceaseless march of progress. Few haven’t felt it. Fewer still have contemplated if it really has a meaning behind senseless longing.

Nostalgia has long been known to not represent the actual past, but rather, the past as we imagine it. It is a fantasy; plain and simple. Its yearnings are not for times we really experienced, but for times we’d like to think we experienced. This makes sense when taken into a personal context; we tend to see our own early years as more idyllic than they really were. It puts at ease the worries and conflicts of those days and replaces them with reassurances that everything was alright. It dismisses our past failures and shortcomings so they cannot distract us from the present. When taken into a historical context, however, this explanation falls embarrassingly short. Nostalgia for your own past makes sense. Nostalgia for a past not your own — anemoia — is utterly bewildering. Why, then, does it occur?

History is infamous for its inaccuracies. The historical record is but the tip of an endless iceberg we may never fully uncover, and this makes it ripe for the prying eyes of nostalgia. In olden days, when oral traditions and individual scholars dictated our histories, it was easy for elders to pass down embellished stories to their descendants. Even now, some people plainly reject reality to continue living in more comfortable fantasies. Thus, it may be stated that anemoia is the product of a buildup of normal nostalgia. People remember the past inaccurately and pass those inaccuracies down. Later people hear those stories and embellish them even further. Thus, the further one goes back into the past, the more embellished and idyllic that past becomes. Nostalgia has a tendency to paint our own pasts as better than they really were. Anemoia does the same, but on a far larger scale.

Still, despite this seemingly reasonable explanation, there are those who maintain that the past had something that the present lacks. We could simply dismiss their claims as unsubstantiated, but it would do us all a disservice. Thus, we must look…

Jared Barlament

Author and essayist from Wisconsin studying anthropology and philosophy at Columbia University.