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  • Writer's pictureJessica Lee McMillan

by Jessica Lee McMillan

Image by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

To be anxious is to long.

Cultural expressions such as “angst” and “fear of missing out” are fascinating shortcuts explaining the connection of anxiety and longing. We are often drawn to the things that make us anxious. There is an innate connection between anxiety and longing and this is the reason for expressions such as bittersweet.

Soren Kierkegaard examined anxiety’s pull-push interplay of “sympathetic antipathy," where “an alien power … seizes the individual, and yet one cannot tear oneself free of it and one does not want to”. The Concept of Anxiety describes this tension through language, where “we speak of sweet anxiety, a sweet anxiousness“ or “a strange anxiety, a shy anxiety, etc.”.

Linguistic expressions distill obscure emotions, helping us navigate the nuance, depth and complexity of anxiety in our diverse experiences. This working “dictionary” is an attempt to capture this. I include associate songs with concept because music is a bridge to our emotions in ways that language cannot reach.

Let us journey through the various shades of anxiety and restless yearning.

Jan Alojzy Neuman’s Angst from Kamera Kunst Magazine, 1931. Wikimedia Commons


Song:“Disintegration” by the Cure

Borrowed primarily from German for fear or anxiety, “angst” was popularized as a philosophical and psychological term by Kierkegaard and Freud. A cross-section of dictionaries define it further as a persistent apprehension, insecurity, anguish, worry or even dread. It was strictly considered a foreign word until the 1940s. This is possibly why “angst” and “anxiety” are not always interchangeable. “Angst” retains the sense of philosophical brooding and a yearning for something more than nothingness and discontent. The APA defines existential angst as:

“a state of anguish or despair in which a person recognizes the fundamental uncertainty of existence and understands the significance of conscious choice and personal responsibility”.

The existentialists conceptualized that angst is the terror of our realization that we are separate entities and ultimately free. It is a generalized feeling (Freud) and what Kierkegaard scholar Alastair Hannay calls “life’s inescapable accompaniment, its constant undertow”. Kierkegaards famous definition is that:

“anxiety is the dizziness of freedom that emerges when spirit wants to posit the synthesis, and freedom now looks down into its own possibility and then grabs hold of finiteness to support itself.”

Rollo May’s The Meaning of Anxiety discusses further that anxiety comes from “the awareness of self as a subject related to objects in the external world” and the degree of our perceived separation “breaks down in relation to the severity of the anxiety experienced”. That is, if we do not feel anxiety, we have reduced consciousness.

Jusepe de Ribera, “The melancholic figure of a poet leaning on an inscribed block of stone”. 1620–21. Wikimedia Commons


Song: “Ball of Confusion” by the Temptations

Possibly simpler to define,“weltschmerz” denotes “world pain” and is the melancholic understanding of the world’s imperfection and inadequacy. The term was coined by German Romantic Poet Jean Paul and the attitude was shared by many artists and writers — particularly from the Romantic Era. At the time, it was sometimes used ironically to describe a person who was too sensitive. Ultimately, it is an abject dissatisfaction with the state of things. Encyclopedia Britannica explains that for the Romantics, world pain:

“arose from their refusal or inability to adjust to those realities of the world that they saw as destructive of their right to subjectivity and personal freedom — a phenomenon thought to typify Romanticism.”

Weltschmerz is arguably the gateway between angst and ennui. It is universal in that most people who have watched the news would feel world pain.

Weltschmerz has more potential for action, such as protest, and can also describe more of a collective feeling than the private, subject-bound notions of angst and ennui. For instance, weltschmerz spiked in usage during major world events such as the First and Second World Wars and the fall of the Berlin Wall, demonstrating the term has been a fitting expression epitomizing the zeitgeist of the moment.

Walter Sickert, Ennui, 1914. Wikimedia Commons


Song: “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones

Similar to weltschmerz, “ennui” also describes a feeling of weariness but with the passive inflections of boredom, tedium, mental fatigue, and listlessness. Borrowed from the French, ennui links to boredom and/or annoyance. Urban Dictionary defines it as:

“A sense of apathy and lassitude brought about by either societal or personal stagnation. Akin to languor, but more closely tied to existentialism and post-war Europe”.

It is no coincidence that ennui is inevitable among the privileged and upper class and blogger Jason Gillikin points out:

“ the impossibility of integrating individual human goals with a fragmented, materialistic culture that emphasizes ideals — rooted in the fantasy of advertising and the ‘beautiful people elite’ — that almost no actual, breathing human person can actually attain.”

Kierkegaard observes in The Concept of Anxiety that emotional boredom can be “a continuity of nothingness” — becoming nothing — paralyzed from living in the modern world and its infinite options.

Ennui is a cautionary tale for what Kierkegaard calls “re-intrenching” in the finite where there is a lack of possibilities and growth; “anyone not wanting to sink in the wretchedness of the finite is obliged in the most profound sense to struggle with the infinite”


The term FOMO has become ubiquitous and is mainly linked to social media. Fear Of Missing Out, however, is not really a new concept and is rather a “pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.”

Social media heightens the push-pull of anxiety where seeing others having fun makes us question our acceptance by peers, our productivity or success, and long to be fulfilled in the same way. Perhaps what haunts us about FOMO is not being left out, but missing out on possibility or opportunity. Kierkegaard explains:

“Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self… — one has anxiety. One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever.”

Comparing ourselves to others highlights our own unmet possibilitiessuch as being “happy,” having a perfect family, being the most liked, or completing a life path we abandoned. FOMO makes us more aware of our yearnings for buried desires, our possibilities, under the superlatives we impose on ourselves.

Heinrich Vogeler, “Sehnsucht” (Träumerei) c1900. Wikimedia Commons

Sehnsucht: Song: “Sehnsucht”, Richard Strauss, Performed by Louise Alder

Sehnsucht transitions us to a different inflection of longing. It describes a sickness from a combination of longing, yearning, and nostalgia for someone, such as a loved one, or something, such as one’s homeland.

Psychologists have undergone studies to understand sehnsucht in Germany and the US based on the conceptualization of the term as:

“(a) utopian conceptions of ideal development; (b) sense of incompleteness and imperfection of life; (c) conjoint time focus on the past, present, and future; (d) ambivalent (bittersweet) emotions; (e) reflection and evaluation of one’s life; and (f) symbolic richness”.

The utopian element suggests the function of sehnsucht is to give life direction and purpose, as does anxiety in Kierkegaard’s functional conceptualization of anxiety.

Almeida Júnior, “Saudade”, 1899. Wikimedia Commons


Song: “Chega de Saudade” by Joao Gilberto

The subject of countless songs and works of art worldwide, saudade is the Portuguese-Galician word for the bittersweet sense of nostalgia for the past, something yet to happen or something that will never happen again. It is a simultaneous apprehension of past, present and future. The Latin Times beautifully captures the sentiments of saudade, which:

“connotes deep impressions on the heart, overall sadness, emotional sickness, deep and bittersweet remorse, penetrating yearning, or a craving to reclaim memory, passion, fervor, love and closeness.”

Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo called it “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy” and the term has been likened to “the blues”.

Saudade so easily finds its home in music because:

the soulfulness that music offers makes it the most fitting platforms for saudade to be felt. The rhythm and the words are coordinated; in sync with that longing… the words soar, mirroring the spirit-stirring gist of the word.

Saudade has similar existential undertones of anxiety in the perceived divide between self and (desired) object:

“thus if saudade’s going-into-itself …implies the categorial determination of existence as saudade… in psychological life as a whole, its going-out-of-itself … implies the complex problem of the forms, nature, and ontological place of the objects that the person who feels saudade…would like to see actualized”. -Joaquim de Carvalho, “Problemática da saudade” [1950]

Philosophically, saudade is about humanity’s “ontological place” in its contemplation of the finite and infinite and the tension between self and object in the creation of consciousness is the same dynamic as Kierkegaard’s definition or anxiety.

The distinctly sad longing element of saudade compliments sehnsucht, both terms on the antipode of ennui and weltschmerz.

Mono no aware:

Song: “Mono no Aware” by Hammock

Mono no aware is a Japanese phrase that signifies a deep awareness of the pathos of life and its ephemeral and transient nature with the same characteristic of understanding out “ontological place” as saudade. It is melancholic and celebratory — embedded in Japanese symbolism such as the symbolic link of a fallen samurai to the sakura petal.

The sense of beauty, idealism, longing and loss echoes saudade and sehnsucht and highlights the awareness and apprehension of an unknown or missing element.

“Mono” translates to object, thing or matter, “no”=of, and the modern translation of “aware” means pathetic, grief, sorrow, pathos, pity, and sympathize. The word ‘aware’ was originally used:

“ to express a spontaneous and inarticulate feeling — as with the particles that we use like ‘ah’ or ‘oh’ or ‘wow’. Mono no aware has hence also been translated as ‘the “ah-ness” of things’. It is the way in which something affects us immediately and involuntarily, before we are able to put that feeling into words”.

Mono no aware calls for gracefully letting go of the ephemeral — a bittersweet grieving that acknowledges mortality. And like anxiety, the only way through grief, is through. Witnessing the transient world pass by is a painful but enriching experience. We would not experience the dazzling possibilities of life’s pathos without feeling sadness.

These expressions of anxiety and longing are not exhaustive or interchangeable but they illustrate the paradoxical pain and draw in experiencing them. Saudade speaks to the instance of separation from time — mono no aware, from permanence — weltschmerz, from the world — FOMO, from social possibility— sehnsucht, the perfect place or person — angst, from stability and contentment. These urgent feelings are all reality checks to keep us striving.

Anxious longing is the moment of grabbing that marks us with sadness and excitement in life’s past, present and future. Each cultural expression for this feeling taps into the awareness and separateness. Each painting and song show a spirit that is motionless on the outside but not at rest in their surroundings.

We can understand anxiety and longing as an inseparable key to self awareness. All these expressions reveal Kirekegaard’s sense of the “self-conscious spirit”. In his introduction to The Concept of Anxiety, Alastair Hannay contends the self-conscious spirit:

“apprehends a beyond that it knows though cannot possibly reach, but for which it nonetheless has a longing…. Anxiety is the ambiguous mood in which the spirit becomes self-conscious.”


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