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One day ambika mod leo woodall
(TV Still), Courtesy Netflix

In 2024, everyone is yearning – but what for?

From Netflix’s new One Day adaptation to viral complaints of ‘terminal, third degree yearns’, romantic longing is making a comeback

This weekend, in a kind of hormonal fugue state, I binged Netflix’s new One Day remake. The series, adapted from David Nicholls’ 2009 novel of the same name, follows two friends who meet at university and become entangled in an agonising 20-year love affair, marred by fear and poor timing. It’s been praised by critics for its portrayal of wistfulness and yearning, and fans on social media have reacted predictably since the show premiered last week (gifs, fancams, dramatic declarations of suicidal intent). In the words of one viewer, lead actors Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall “give the girls yearning onscreen like no one’s ever yearned onscreen before”. Aside from the wrenching love story, the show’s pre-smartphone era setting makes this ‘yearning’ feel more profound: it forces everyone to be confronted by both the merciless passing of time and the lost, unalloyed optimism of the early 1990s. Free university? Warm carefree bodies raving to N-Joi? Getting on the property ladder in Belsize Park, on barista wages? Even the misogyny of 90s TV (‘Britain’s ugliest girlfriend’) is presented as so laughably dumb and outrageous that you almost feel wistful about it.

One Day is the latest in a long line of ‘yearn bait’ media releases. Over the last few months, the films that have been gaining the most attention online seem to be the ones that examine our most private, enduring desires. There’s Saltburn, about the longing for wealth and status; Past Lives, about the longing for unrealised romantic love; All of Us Strangers, about the longing to make peace with the past; May, December, about the longing for the youth you never got to have. There’s a reason why Paul Mescal, who seems to exclusively play tortured male yearners, has become such an object of obsessive fascination. Social media is now filled with people “yearning on main”, being hauled to “the emergency room with third degree yearns” or sharing their “terminal” and “catastrophic” yearning diagnoses. On the more abstract end of the scale, there’s ‘yearnposting’, where people post text and image slideshows with a vague, mournful vibe (like ‘the sun is going to return’ over a picture of a sourdough loaf). Google Trends paints an even stranger picture: people searching for both ‘yearning’ and ‘longing’ have been climbing for the last two years, with a spike in the last month.

Obviously, yearning is nothing new: the term, which comes from the Germanic word for ‘eager’, has been in use for over 800 years. “Longing and yearning are deeply inherent to the human condition,” explains psychotherapist Patrycja Jackson, who says these feelings are just part of a “universal human quest for meaning and fulfilment”. The most common form of yearning is the romantic kind; for a connection so rare and intoxicating that it will lift you out of your everyday drudgery.

In the past, yearning has been seen as an intrinsic part of the queer experience, where love has been more likely to play out in secret or never reach its full potential (this is still true today – in fact, most queer people’s formative romantic experiences are defined by unrequited love). But there are other forms of yearning, too. “There’s a more abstract and intangible form of longing that is often elusive and challenging to define; Ancient Greeks called it the ‘nostalgic longing for the unknown’,” adds Jackson. Yearning has even been infused with radical political potential, particularly in conversations around Black liberation. Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Were Watching God, argued that it was vital for everyone – regardless of race or privilege – to live a life filled with dreams and longing (knowing what we want is the first step to empowerment). bell hooks also wrote about being “struck by the depths” of yearning in most people, which, for her, represented a “longed-for liberation – the freedom to control one’s destiny”.

So why are we yearning so much now? Anecdotally, there seems to be an unshakeable sense that something has been stolen from us. A lot of friends in their late twenties and thirties, worn down by 15 years of wage stagnation and rising cost of living, seem to be isolating themselves, growing more risk-averse and inclined to settle. Friends in their early twenties, after having two years of their youth stolen by the pandemic, complain about struggling to let their guard down and form meaningful connections. What unifies the two is a kind of deathly boredom and disillusionment with modern life – a yearning for something in the future to feel optimistic about. “Yearnposting uses the internet to mimic what we feel like we’re missing in real life,” explains Maia Wyman, video essayist and host of Rehash, a podcast about social media phenomenons. “We’ve begun to feel like these kinds of emotions aren’t available to us, so we’re almost trying to use the internet to recreate them: here, feel something with this video, because you’re probably not capable of it [in the real world] right now.”

Disillusionment is also not a new phenomenon, but it has felt more potent in the last few years. It almost feels too obvious to mention social media and smartphone dependency, but they have both had an undeniable effect on the human personality. Aside from being terrible for our mental health, we know they can create a false sense of connection: four-fifths of Gen Z now report feeling lonely, having swapped IRL social contact – with all its nonverbal cues and intimate physicality – for an illusion of closeness and belonging. Lockdown made this even worse. “During the pandemic, we were yearning for our old lives and yearning for each other,” says Wyman. “I also think it brought about these innovations that encouraged us to be OK with being alone. It created this self-sustaining, cultural psychology, where now we are just fine with being home all day.” It also brought in a more general “lack of consummation” – we’re now having sex far less, and voluntary celibacy is on the rise. A dwindling economy, forcing nearly half of 18 to 29-year-olds to move back into their parent’s homes, or to sacrifice communal living spaces for cheaper rent, isn’t helping either. “Physical touch, basic love, all those things feel unconsummated because of the pandemic,” Wyman adds. “So now all we want to do is, like, yearn.”

“We’re just in this really passive time. We’re like the palliative generation; there’s so many things that are out of our control, and we’re just kind of ‘hands up’ about it” – Maia Wyman

Luke Burgis, author of the book Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life, uses the analogy of “thick” and “thin” desires: the former being deep, enduring and fulfilling, the latter being fleeting and ephemeral. The fight between the two is “an age-old battle” of the human heart, but the thin is becoming more of a distraction. “We live in a thin and hollowed-out world, and its shallowness is ever-present to us on social media,” he says. “It’s a world that has become almost completely ‘disenchanted’, to use a term from the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. But people want to be re-enchanted. People still have thick desires. Sometimes, something happens to us that reminds us of them, wakes us up to those desires, and that stirs a yearning in us. Sometimes that yearning is for a particular thing, and sometimes it’s for nothing in particular at all – just some part of us that we sense we have lost, or that we feel we have not fully embraced.”

There’s also the state of the world: One Day’s poignancy comes from its 90s setting, which from our perspective today, seems like the last time the future felt hopeful. In 2024, it seems to have become something we’re forcibly turning away from – which is probably why most of our cultural output is obsessed with cashing in on nostalgia. Now, the future is spoken about with either great fear or alarmism: we’re hurtling towards planetary destruction, an anarcho-capitalist hellscape, we may never be able to stop working. The present – where secure housing is becoming increasingly scarce, violent right-wing governments act with impunity, and people get third-degree burns just from stepping onto the pavement – does little to convince you otherwise. “We’re just in this really passive time,” Wyman says. “We’re like the palliative generation; there’s so many things that are out of our control, and we’re just kind of ‘hands up’ about it.”

In her essay “Why We Yearn”, writer Mary Retta explores some of the things that we may be yearning for in the face of all this. Rather than romance, it’s about a desire to luxuriate and “spend our time freely”, away from the relentless pressure of work; of posting; of self-branding; of documenting every part of our lives.Though yearning was once a sensation, it has today evolved into a framework: one that is pro-pleasure, anti-work, and striving towards envisioning a gentler and more fulfilling future,” she writes. It was a similar sentiment that was pushed by the late Mark Fisher, who would write about a yearning for a world beyond work, a rediscovery of collective enjoyment, a longing for “fugitive time, lost afternoons, conversations that dilate and drift like smoke, walks that have no particularly direction and go on for hours, free parties in old industrial spaces, still reverberating days later.”

While it’s still unclear whether or not ‘yearning’ is just another irony-laden, throwaway internet trend, both Wyman and Jarvis seem optimistic about the term’s growing use. “I think it’s a sign of hope, even though it’s regurgitated through this weird internet format,” says Wyman. After all, it‘s when everyone gives up yearning altogether that you know things are bad. “I think people have these thick desires very much alive inside of themselves, and they yearn because they know that what they are being exposed to on a daily basis is not great enough to fulfil the deep longings of the human heart,” adds Jarvis. “They want more. That, to me, is a very good sign.”

The next step, though, is trying to move it out of the digital world. It may be fun to wallow and yearn just for the sake of it, but, as bell hooks says, “true resistance begins with people confronting pain and wanting to do something to change it”. Yearning can be powerful – but if left to fester, it can lead to a kind of stasis, which blocks you from enjoying the time you have. You will just keep longing, under the icy glow of your screen, for the better job, the lost lover, the glamorous life in a different city. To unleash its transformative potential, we can‘t just endlessly dwell in yearning – we have to find the romance in acting on it, too.