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Melancholy vs. Wistful: What's the Difference?

By Aimie Carlson || Updated on May 20, 2024
Melancholy denotes deep, persistent sadness, while wistful refers to a nostalgic longing or gentle yearning.

Key Differences

Melancholy is characterized by a profound, often enduring sense of sadness. This feeling can be pervasive and lingering, affecting a person's overall mood and outlook. Wistful, on the other hand, carries a sense of longing or gentle yearning, often tinged with nostalgia. It is more about looking back at the past with a mix of sadness and fondness. A person might feel wistful when reminiscing about happy times that are now gone, feeling a gentle sadness for what once was.
Melancholy often lacks the element of hope, focusing more on sorrow and despondency. It can be associated with a sense of resignation or an inability to move beyond the sadness. Conversely, wistful feelings are usually mixed with fond memories and a subtle desire for the past, retaining a lighter, more reflective nature.
In literature and art, melancholy is frequently depicted as a deep, brooding emotion, often accompanied by themes of isolation or despair. Wistful themes, however, are portrayed with a sense of tender reflection, capturing the beauty and sadness of fleeting moments.
Melancholy can be associated with a more profound psychological state, sometimes leading to or stemming from depression. Wistful is typically less intense, evoking a sense of gentle longing without the heavier emotional weight that characterizes melancholy.

Comparison Chart

Core Emotion

Deep, persistent sadness
Nostalgic longing


Often fleeting

Emotional Weight

Heavy, brooding
Light, gentle

Hope Element

Lacks hope
Contains subtle hope

Depiction in Art

Brooding, despairing themes
Reflective, nostalgic themes

Melancholy and Wistful Definitions


A feeling of pensive sadness.
She gazed out the window, lost in melancholy.


A gentle, nostalgic longing.
The old song brought a wistful feeling.


A mood characterized by gloomy thoughts.
The rainy day added to his melancholy.


Pensive and reflective, with a hint of longing.
He watched the sunset with a wistful expression.


A state of sorrow or despondency.
Her melancholy was evident in her somber poetry.


Yearning or longing, often with nostalgia.
She gave a wistful smile, remembering her childhood.


Causing or expressing sadness.
The melancholic tune evoked a sense of sorrow.


Expressing a mix of sadness and fondness.
There was a wistful tone in her voice as she spoke of the past.


Sadness or depression of the spirits; gloom.


Full of melancholy longing or wishful yearning
"She seemed wistful for the old days when I'd hung around her all the time" (David Huddle).


Pensive reflection or contemplation.


Expressing sadness or yearning
"She saw the wisftul eyes grow yet more wistful, the lips curve to a pleading smile" (Dorothy Parker).


Black bile.


Full of longing or yearning.
His eyes grew wistful as he recalled his university days.


An emotional state characterized by sullenness and outbreaks of violent anger, believed to arise from an excess of black bile.


Sad and thoughtful.


Feeling, showing, or expressing depression of the spirits; sad or dejected.


Longing; wishful; desirous.
Lifting up one of my sashes, I cast many a wistful, melancholy look towards the sea.


Causing or tending to cause sadness or gloom
A letter with some melancholy news.


Full of thought; eagerly attentive; meditative; musing; pensive; contemplative.
That he who there at such an hour hath been,Will wistful linger on that hallowed spot.


Pensive; thoughtful.


Full of longing or unfulfilled desire;
Those wistful little ads that the lovelorn place in the classifieds


(historical) Black bile, formerly thought to be one of the four "cardinal humours" of animal bodies.


Showing pensive sadness;
The sensitive and wistful response of a poet to the gentler phases of beauty


Great sadness or depression, especially of a thoughtful or introspective nature.


Reflecting on the past with a sense of gentle sadness.
His wistful gaze lingered on the old photographs.


(literary) Affected with great sadness or depression.
Melancholy people don't talk much.


Depression of spirits; a gloomy state continuing a considerable time; deep dejection; gloominess.


Great and continued depression of spirits, amounting to mental unsoundness; melancholia.


Pensive maditation; serious thoughtfulness.


Ill nature.


Depressed in spirits; dejected; gloomy dismal.


Producing great evil and grief; causing dejection; calamitous; afflictive; as, a melancholy event.


Somewhat deranged in mind; having the jugment impaired.


Favorable to meditation; somber.
A pretty, melancholy seat, well wooded and watered.


A feeling of thoughtful sadness


A constitutional tendency to be gloomy and depressed


A humor that was once believed to be secreted by the kidneys or spleen and to cause sadness and melancholy


Characterized by or causing or expressing sadness;
Growing more melancholy every hour
Her melancholic smile
We acquainted him with the melancholy truth


Deep, persistent sadness.
He felt a profound melancholy after the funeral.


Can melancholy be long-lasting?

Yes, melancholy often describes a long-lasting emotional state.

What does "melancholy" mean?

Melancholy refers to deep, persistent sadness or sorrow.

Can melancholy lead to depression?

Yes, prolonged melancholy can contribute to or stem from depression.

Is wistful associated with nostalgia?

Yes, wistful feelings are often linked to nostalgia and memories of the past.

How do you use "melancholy" in a sentence?

e.g., The melancholic melody made everyone in the room feel somber.

Can wistful feelings be positive?

Yes, wistful feelings can have a positive aspect due to fond memories.

How do you use "wistful" in a sentence?

e.g., She looked at the old house with a wistful expression.

Is melancholy always negative?

While primarily negative, melancholy can be a reflective and pensive emotion.

How is "wistful" different from "melancholy"?

Wistful involves a nostalgic longing or gentle yearning, while melancholy denotes a deeper, more persistent sadness.

Is wistful always sad?

Wistful feelings are gently sad but mixed with fondness or longing.

What kind of sadness does "wistful" describe?

Wistful describes a gentle, nostalgic sadness.

Can melancholy affect one’s mood overall?

Yes, melancholy can deeply affect a person's overall mood and outlook.

How is wistful depicted in literature?

Wistful is depicted with a sense of gentle reflection and nostalgic longing.

Can melancholy be temporary?

Melancholy can be temporary but is typically more enduring than transient sadness.

Does melancholy imply a lack of hope?

Yes, melancholy often lacks the element of hope and focuses on sorrow.

What are common themes in melancholic art?

Themes of isolation, despair, and deep sorrow are common in melancholic art.

What are common themes in wistful art?

Nostalgia, gentle longing, and reflection on the past are common in wistful art.

Does wistful longing imply a desire for the past?

Yes, wistful longing often includes a desire or nostalgia for the past.

How is melancholy depicted in literature?

Melancholy is often depicted through themes of brooding, deep sadness, and despondency.

Can wistful feelings be triggered by specific events?

Yes, wistful feelings are often triggered by events that evoke memories of the past.
About Author
Written by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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