Sehnsucht (German pronunciation: [ˈzeːnzʊxt]) is a German noun translated as "longing", "yearning", or "craving", or in a wider sense a type of "intensely missing". However, Sehnsucht is difficult to translate adequately and describes a deep emotional state. Its meaning is somewhat similar to the Portuguese word, saudade. Sehnsucht is a compound word, originating from an ardent longing or yearning (das Sehnen) and disease (das Siechen). However, these words do not adequately encapsulate the full meaning of their resulting compound, even when considered together.
Sehnsucht represents thoughts and feelings about all facets of life that are unfinished or imperfect, paired with a yearning for ideal alternative experiences. It has been referred to as “life’s longings”; or an individual’s search for happiness while coping with the reality of unattainable wishes. Such feelings are usually profound, and tend to be accompanied by both positive and negative feelings. This produces what has often been described as an ambiguous emotional occurrence.
It is sometimes felt as a longing for a far-off country, but not a particular earthly land which we can identify. Furthermore there is something in the experience which suggests this far-off country is very familiar and indicative of what we might otherwise call "home". In this sense it is a type of nostalgia, in the original sense of that word. At other times it may seem as a longing for a someone or even a something. But the majority of people who experience it are not conscious of what or who the longed for object may be, and the longing is of such profundity and intensity that the subject may immediately be only aware of the emotion itself and not cognizant that there is a something longed for. The experience is one of such significance that ordinary reality may pale in comparison, as in Walt Whitman's closing lines to "Song of the Universal":
Is it a dream?
Nay but the lack of it the dream,
And failing it life's lore and wealth a dream
And all the world a dream.
Sehnsucht took on a particular significance in the work of author C. S. Lewis. Lewis described Sehnsucht as the "inconsolable longing" in the human heart for "we know not what." In the afterword to the third edition of The Pilgrim's Regress he provided examples of what sparked this desire in him particularly:
That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of "Kubla Khan", the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.
Because the concept of Sehnsucht is so important in Lewis' writing, the Arizona C. S. Lewis Society titled their annual journal Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal.
The German poet Siegfried August Mahlmann published a poem titled Sehnsucht in 1802.
Psychologists have worked to capture the essence of Sehnsucht by identifying its six core characteristics: “(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.”
In a cross-cultural study conducted to determine whether the German concept of Sehnsucht could be generalized to the United States, four samples of American and German participants “rated their 2 most important life longings and completed measures of subjective well-being and health.” German and American participants did not differ in their ability to identify life longings or the intensity of their Sehnsucht. However, German participants associated it more with unattainable, utopian states while Americans reported the concept as not as important to everyday life.
Some researchers posit that Sehnsucht has a developmental function that involves life management. By imagining overarching and possibly unachievable goals, individuals may be able to create direction in their life by developing more tangible goals, or “stepping stones” that will aide them on their path toward their ideal self. "[Sehnsucht has] important developmental functions, including giving directionality for life planning and helping to cope with loss and important, yet unattainable wishes by pursuing them in one's imagination." It can also operate as a self-regulatory mechanism.
However, in a study that attempted to discover whether Sehnsucht played an active role in one’s ability to influence their own development, psychologists asked 81 participants to report “their most important personal goals and life longings, and [evaluate] these with respect to their cognitive, emotional, and action-related characteristics.” Results showed that goals were perceived as more closely linked to everyday actions, and as such more controllable. Sehnsucht, on the other hand, was reported as more related to the past and future, and therefore more emotionally and developmentally ambiguous.
Also, in a study conducted in 2009, 168 middle-aged childless women were asked to rate their wish for children according to intensity and attainability. If the women rated their wish as intense and long-standing, their wish was considered a life-longing. If they rated their wish as intense and attainable, it was simply a goal. “The pursuit of the wish for children as a life longing was positively related to well-being only when participants had high control over the experience of this life longing and when other self-regulation strategies (goal adjustment) failed.”
- "LEO Results for "sehnsucht"".
- "When Sehnsucht (desire) leads you up the garden path".
- Kotter-Grühn, D.; Wiest, M., Zurek, P., & Scheibe, S. (2009). "What is it we are longing for? Psychological and demographic factors influencing the contents of Sehnsucht (life longings)". Journal of Research in Personality (43): 428–437.
- "Calvin College - Faith - Resources".
- "A Play Entitled Sehnsucht".
- 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.
- Scheibe, S.; Blanchard-Fields, F., Wiest, M., & Freund, A. M. (2011). "Is longing only for Germans? A cross-cultural comparison of sehnsucht in Germany and the United States.". Developmental Psychology.
- Scheibe, S.; Freund, A. M. (2008). "Approaching Sehnsucht (life longings) from a life-span perspective: The role of personal utopias in development.". Research In Human Development: 121–133.
- Mayser, S.; Scheibe, S., & Riediger, M. (2008). "(Un)reachable? An empirical differentiation of goals and life longings.". European Psychologist (13): 126–140.
- Kotter-Grühn, 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.
- Bruner, Kurt; Ware, Jim (2005), Finding God in the Land of Narnia, Tyndale House, ISBN 0-8423-8104-X
- C. S. Lewis on Joy, Sehnsucht, Longing and True Myth
- Joy and Sehnsucht
- Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal
- An English description of the word by a German native speaker