The feeling when you want something that you cannot have (now). You keep thinking how good it would be if you had it.

There are a lot of things people desire to have in life – a fulfilling job, a loving relationship, beautiful things, and so on. These desires are generally useful, because they push us towards the things in life that are good or pleasant for us. The downside is that it is not always possible for someone to get all the things they want, leaving them longing. People long for things they desire, but cannot have – at least not at this moment1. The ‘things’ that people long for are diverse: these can be objects (e.g., an expensive car), people2 (e.g., being romantically involved with someone who is not interested in you; or being friends with a celebrity), situations (e.g., longing for peace in wartime; longing to go to the finals of the world cup), or even times (e.g., longing for the past – also known as nostalgia).

When people desire something, they want to be close to it and interact with it. Since that is not possible with an object of longing, people instead think or fantasize about it. These mental activities can be supported with physical activities. For instance, someone who longs to have a holiday home may collect inspiring pictures, look online for information, or go to a holiday exhibition.

Because the object of longing is something positive, the emotion does not have to be entirely negative. People who occasionally yearn for something that is out of reach, may not experience it as a very negative emotion. However, if the desired thing is of crucial importance for their happiness and there seems virtually no chance that they will ever attain it, the experience will likely be very negative. Thus, important factors in the emotion are how strong the desire for the object is, and how much it is (or seems) out of reach. An additional factor is the frequency of encountering the object of desire. For instance, if a person has an intense, but unanswered crush on someone, it is much harder to get over this if they see the person every day.
In the comic, Murphy is not having the best time at work. He keeps a calendar that marks how many days he has left until his next holiday. Unfortunately for him, that still seems far off.

Movie clips


Typical expressions

*Sigh* “I wish she would notice me.”

“If only I had the money to buy that new laptop.”

Murphy's bad day

Comparisons with other emotions

Longing & Loneliness

Loneliness and longing are both painful desires for something that they are not currently having. The emotions can go hand in hand: if someone experiences loneliness because she misses a specific person or group of people, she is lonely and longing for companionship. However, there are a few important differences. First of all, longing does not have to be about social interaction, someone can also long to be promoted or to own a yacht. Secondly, the experience of longing focuses on a specific desirable object, whereas someone who is lonely is more concerned with their current situation, how he got there, and how he can get out of it.

Longing & Envy

Longing and envy are both about desiring something that you don’t have. The difference is that someone experiencing longing focuses on the desired object, while an envious person is mostly unhappy because he is worse off than someone else. For example, someone can be happy with his current salary, but become envious when he learns that his colleague is making more. He was not longing for the object (the higher salary) as such, but feels envy because he does not want to be doing worse than his colleague. Secondly, in longing, there does not have to be another person – someone may long for something without caring whether someone else has it or doesn't have it.

Longing & Desperation

Both longing and desperation involve a strong desire for an object or situation that is currently not present. An important difference is that for a desperate person the object or situation is not just desired but seen as crucial for her current wellbeing. A person can long for a delicious meal when she has little money, but if someone is hungry and has no money at all, she will more likely be desperate for food. Therefore, desperation usually leads to very active behavior, whereas longing is more often associated with passive activities like fantasizing.

Sources and further reading