Why are we sentimental? Does sentimental thinking serve a purpose?

Why are we sentimental? Does sentimental thinking serve a purpose?

Why do we get teary-eyed at that special song? What’s the link between smell and memory and emotions? What’s wrong with sentimentality? Think you know? Have an opinion? Chime in – I did!

Imagine you’re prowling around your attic.

You come across a box.

Inside, much to your surprise, is your childhood blanket, your “blankie.”

All of the sudden you’re back in your crib, or you’re laughing as you run through your backyard, your cape-blanket flying behind you. Or perhaps you feel the pain of a childhood you wish you’d forgotten. Your eyes fill up with tears (happy or sad) and you don’t know why.

If this has happened to you (discovering your own blankie, binky, or some other relic from your past), you might relate to the explosion of what I like to call “memory bombs,” or unsolicited floods of emotion and memory.

Such an experience is a great example of sentimental nostalgia – a rush of emotions resulting from our ideas about the past.

But why are we sentimental? Do sentimental thoughts serve some purpose, other than to get us a little teary-eyed in an attic, like Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation ?

What is sentimentality?

Let’s use the oft-ridiculed high school technique and lead with a definition. It’s important we’re on the same page in terms of terms.

Merriam-Webster describes sentimentality as:

resulting from feelings or emotions rather than reason or thought

Google’s definition compares sentimentality to nostalgia, and nostalgia is defined as:

a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations

Interesting how Merriam-Webster pits sentimentality against reason and thought. Who can argue against reason and thought, those formidable old pillars of logic? In such a comparison sentimentality immediately takes its place as the lesser (at least in our society). Look out world, there’s sentiment against sentimentality.

But why are we this way, and what do Messrs. Merriam and Webster have against teary-eyed recollections?

Let’s take a step back and talk about consciousness, and how our brains interpret our lives…

Consciousness (abridged)

As much as we like to think this crazy dream-called-life happens in chapters, like a book, our lives are actually one continual flow of experience. The moment of NOW never ends and the lines between one “experience” and the next are much blurrier than our rational brains would like to believe.

To make some sense of it all, we define; we place borders around these sensory experiences (the sounds, smells, tastes, touches, looks of life), we give them names, and we catalog these experiences as memories.

We paint the facts with judgement

But are our memories just a collection of facts? Hardly. We’re less objective than we like to think, especially in what we remember.

If a computer were to recount the facts of one of my own memories, it might go like this:

On June 14, 1992, I smelled the sulfurous steam of Old Faithful in Yellowstone.

But we humans, from a very young age, begin to paint these catalogued experiences with judgements.

My own brain, when telling the same story, might add a little here and there:

On June 14, 1992, I smelled the terribly sulfurous steam of Old Faithful in Yellowstone and it was gross like rotten eggs, but I handled it like the strong, curious kid I was. Fitting, considering I’m awesome now.

Egotistic jokes aside, we all paint our experiences with judgement, then we fit those experiences into our story about ourselves, a story that ends with us being us, in this moment of now.

Ask yourself:

How often do I judge what it is I’m experiencing right now?

I’ll let you answer that on your own, but I know I’m prone to judge ALL THE TIME.

What do I mean by judgment? Judgment is the act of assigning a conceptual value to any experience. You may think you’re above this, but the most basic of judgements is simply this:

Is this experience preferable or not?

From that first judgment of preferance arise all sorts of other judgments, judgments that shape your concepts of morality, of deserving, and of meaning.


Don’t you believe me?

Sit with your brain for a while.

I witness my own brain, as life unfolds, looking for patterns and reasons, for causes and effects, and trying to figure out why things happened the way they did. My brain is on a mission to get it, to understand, so that it can stop wondering, and make a better choice next time.

My brain looks for meaning, and so does yours.

But perhaps we’re overlooking something. Could it be that our incessant need to know why and our natural inclination to judge any experience lead to us creating meaning in the stories we tell ourselves?

Where meaning comes from is another topic, but regardless, these judgement-painted memories can stick with us for a long time, only to rear their emotion-filled heads when we least expect them.

The triggers for memories

I’ve found that these stories can be held by my brain for years, activated when I have a sensory experience similar to the original.

The look and feel of blanket in the attic. Or my aunt’s perfume, for example. I catch a whiff of it on someone else and a flurry of fond memories from childhood arise: traveling to see my cousins, my first introduction to GI JOEs, etc. I can’t help but smiling in those moments because the memories are more than just collections of facts, they include very real emotions as well.

These unsolicited memory rushes happen to many of us, and smell is one of the strongest catalysts. (For a great book on why smell is so strongly associated to memories, click here: Odor Sensation and Memory)

What’s wrong with sentimentality? Why does our society dislike it?

I suspect it’s because this emotional response is unsolicited that we regard sentimentality as a kind of weakness. This out-of-control emotion must be lesser when compared to the strict solemnity and control of reason and logic.

At a very young age I remember my father gently chiding my mother for crying at a McDonald’s commercial that had craftily tugged at her heartstrings. A hit story at parties, the tale of my mom’s McTears made us all laugh.

Now, as the head of marketing for a company, my perspective has changed somewhat. I might applaud McDonald’s for an effective campaign that so ably tapped into human emotion.

The same could be said of the flood of “Remember When” style songs you’ll hear on the pop-country charts today, asking us to hearken back to the days when things were good, when we were young, when love was real, and when life made sense. While a big part of me can’t stand these emotional exploitations of the masses (maybe it’s because they’re songs, supposed works of art, and not commercials), they’re on the radio and my songs aren’t.

Who’s the fool?

Longing, the obstacle to contentedness

Ultimately, people are influenced by sentimental emotion in ways that lack reason, which is perfect if you want to sell hamburgers or more sappy songs. Most appeals to emotion bank on emotion’s ability to sidestep logic.

Where sentimentality falters, however, is in its basis in longing, a longing for the past or for some idealized concept. And, as we may often forget, longing is the opposite of contentedness, of thinking you have enough.

I would stipulate that sentimental longing, this wistful desire for days-gone-by, is usually based on one of two scenarios:

one’s desire that the contents of the memory still were

or, conversely

one’s desire that the contents of the memory had never happened (a wish to change the past)

Again, both scenarios involve longing which, when you dig to the core, is an experience contrary to being satisfied with the current moment.

And if living in the moment is your goal, then being sentimental (or objects that act as catalysts for sentimental feelings) can be quite an obstacle.

But hold on before you bury your GI JOEs or burn your picture albums (does anyone actually have physical versions of these anymore to burn?)

An unsolicited emotion I cherish

In moments of pure contentedness, of unbridled appreciation, I often find myself looking back on my life and realizing the continuity of it all, the connections of each experience and how each moment led to this CURRENT moment.

In those realizations, I experience my own unsolicited rush of a different emotion, a feeling of affection for life, a feeling of appreciation for the goods and the bads, and a sensation of peace.

Do I get teary-eyed in those moment.

Hell yes I do.

They’re overwhelming, poignant, and yet they most often bring laughter amidst the tears. It’s as if the only thing left to do is to laugh at the whole thing, at life, at its absurdity (and I mean that in the most endearing way).

In conclusion

What’s my conclusion?

Emotions are.

Sure, they lack logic and they can be manipulated.

But they’re also part of this experience called life and a rush to judge sentimentality (or any other emotion for that matter) is just part of your brain’s desire to make sense of it all.

Give yourself and your emotions a break.

Live. Laugh. Love. Cry. It’s ok.


PS. I just moved to Nashville to pursue songwriting professionally, and my band’s self-titled debut album, “The Pretty Unknown” was just released!

What kind of music is it?

It’s like if Taylor Swift was the surrogate mother for Michael Bublé and Sarah McLachlan’s love child. Then they raised the child listening The Beach Boys and The Beatles. That’s a technical critique.

So if you’ve found the above article at all entertaining, please considering listening to some of our songs. If you enjoy, we’d be eternally obliged if you supported our music by sharing with your friends or, better yet, buying an album. Take a listen!

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  1. I wanted to be the first to post a comment on your article that you haven’t written yet. Sentimentality serves no higher purpose / but for Hallmark cards I suppose it serves the highest purpose.

  2. Thanks Lynn! This was a topic at a philosophy club I have with some close friends. My post to come soon, but your comment is much appreciated!

  3. I live for sentimental feelings. A few years back I caught the scent of my grandpa’s cologne with no one else around on an especially lonely birthday. The unusual occurrence of this sentiment brought me happy tears and reminded me that he’s always going to be my guardian. I believe that it’s the sentimental as to how I’ve survived the past 8 years living 800 miles away from my family. I’m sure I’ll continue to live a sentimental life regardless of where my life takes me. I like to carry those sentimental emotions in my cognitive heart. After all “it is the only baggage you can bring- it’s all that you can’t leave behind.” If you can place that vague quote I’ll give you a gold star. 🙂

  4. Yesterday, I came across the essay on linear and non-linear thinking, which was exactly what I needed to read at that moment. I then read the essays about finding your significant other and sentimentality. So now I will try to put linear and non linear thinking together in an appreciative comment. I think you are barking up the right tree in all three essays. With regard to searching for your significant other, I think that would be a place where using both kinds of thinking is probably the only thing that would work reliably, although some people have been known to get lucky, like in fairy tales. It says in the first essay, as I understand it, that linear thinking requires that you know your starting place and systematically proceed from it. I think women whose biological clocks are loudly ticking and who really, really want children are a good example of this. The rest of us have a harder time knowing where to start. My conclusion this morning is that if we could get our linear and non linear thinking to work together we would be approaching that goal of self perfecting that I thought you were aiming at in your Valentine’s Day essay. You may not like that term, but I can’t think of a better one at the moment.

    Fancy Waffle is what I called myself when I was learning to talk. My mother called me that until the day she died. I hated it, but now, at the age of 72, the name “Fancy Waffle” is like the blankie you wrote about!

  5. Thanks Fancy – very happy my articles hit the spot. Love your feedback and insight. Honored you read so many!

  6. 2 me sentimentality proves how upside down the world is. It is far more important than logic/reason. It is like love in that respect. The world derides it.Strange. Similarly, I was listening to a German economic commentor not so long ago talking about Greece being a strange failed state in Europe. You see to me it is the Northern European,logical,reason led, cold, rationalised, processed, artificial, tail wagging the dog, economy is everything countries that are the failed states, with unreal inhumane people populating them.No love or sentiment. Southern Europe and Greece are far more human, and humane. I think the logical song by supertramp probably explains it all far better than me. Lastly, I was thinking sentimentaly about a failed, flawed person that was close to me. A tender and intelligent person, damaged by life but good. A flower trying to bloom in the middle of an industrial wasteland,where only the robots survive. I try and protect the person and help them where possible. Sentimentality is probably why. Thanks. Now to listen to that song about vincent van gough and the the other one about the streets of london. Im very sentimental.

  7. Judgment is easy. We all do it. Being aware of and recogonizing that is the key. And usually, doors require a key. And doors? Well…you know…… 😉

  8. Well Done, Chuck. You beautifully spun together many a thoughts I’ve been tastefully colluding now for quite the duration.

    Thank you.

  9. Your songs are actually pretty good. I liked them as much i liked your article. Thanks !

  10. Wow – thank you Tatta! If you have an interest in supporting the band, you can purchase our album at http://www.theprettyunknown.com or on iTunes / Amazon. Or just tell your friends about us too. Either way, thank you so much for the kind words and if you want to hear the solo project I’m working on in Nashville, you can follow at https://www.facebook.com/cecilcharlesmusic/ – thanks again!

  11. Thanks Matt!! Sentimentality is an interesting subject that I don’t think we talk too much about. Would love to hear more of your thoughts, and thanks for the comment!


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