The Nostalgia Effect

You look out the window into the empty streets. No sounds of kids running around, no noise of busy streets littered with both cars and pedestrians. The city is silent, the pigeons don’t even group up anymore, because there’s no one to feed them.

Your alarm rings. It’s 9:00 am. Time to resume work at the office for the day. With a sad face you walk to your desk, open up your computer, and sigh, “I miss the old days,'' you say to yourself. 

This is nostalgia. It’s the burning desire to go back to the past, live the life we once had, or perhaps only a romanticized version of it. We want experiences, places, things, people, and even ourselves to go back to being what they once were. 

We remember our childhood memories without all the awkwardness, our first love without the reason we’re no longer with them, our first kiss without the terrible acne we had. We remember a romanticized version of our past. One without the flaws, one where we know what’s going to happen next, and one that we can tell what consequences our actions will have before we take them. 

It often happens when we see, hear, or even smell something that reminds us of the past and the life we once had. 

The best example of this is in relationships. People often leave relationships because it wasn’t a good experience for them. But a few months down the line, and they begin to start missing the connection. They feel like maybe it wasn’t as bad as they remember, their memories begin to filter out all the bad that happened, and they’re left with feelings of nostalgia about a romanticized version of what the relationship was. Oftentimes, they go back, only to get hurt all over again.

Nostalgia can be pleasant, but as we’ve seen, it can also often cause us a lot of emotional distress.

The 17th-century Swiss physician Johannes Hofer who came up with this name classified nostalgia as a mental disorder. No one could understand why anyone would want to dwell in the past without that being the case. And for a long long time, that’s what nostalgia was. Until one lunch in 1999 in Southampton, England. 

Constantine Sedikides had just recently moved to the University of Southampton and was having lunch with a colleague. He explained to this colleague that generally he was doing well, but a few times a week, he was hit with nostalgia of his former home at the University of North Carolina. He longed for the time with his friends, the fried okra, the basketball games, he longed for his old life. 

His colleague, who was a clinical psychologist, made an immediate diagnosis. Depression, he said. Just like the 17th Century Swiss physician, this psychologist couldn’t fathom why anyone would want a time that was already gone. A life that they’ve already lived. 

But he knew this wasn’t true. Constantine denied being depressed, explaining to his colleague that he didn’t feel any pain. He said: 

“I told him I did live my life forward, but sometimes I couldn’t help thinking about the past, and it was rewarding. Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.”

And this was the start of a drastic change. Everything we knew about nostalgia was about to take on a new form. Perhaps it wasn’t as bad as we thought, it might not even be bad at all. Through Constantine’s research, the word “nostalgia” has slowly lost its negative reputation, but not entirely. 

You see, nostalgia is a bitter-sweet emotion. On one hand, it brings us comfort and makes us feel loved and connected when we remember all the times our loved ones cared for us, or of a time in life where we felt everything was right. On the other hand, it makes us feel sad that those things are gone and scared that we might never experience it again. 

A great example of this is when Abraham Lincoln visited his childhood home after 20 years. He arrived and found the place in ruin, saddened by what he saw, he wrote this poem: 

“My childhood home I see again and saddened with the view, and still as memory clouds my brain, there’s pleasure in it too.”

Because although it saddened him to see that he would never be able to experience those emotions again, remembering the times he spent in the house and the happiness it brought him when he was younger, brought happy thoughts to his memory. 

Positive feelings of nostalgia make you thankful for what you’ve had and give you the desire to keep moving forward, perhaps, you might be able to recreate that amazing feeling or even experience something better in the future. Negative feelings of nostalgia, however, make you feel like your life was better in the past. You might even start to beat yourself up for choices you made in the past because you think whatever decisions you made are negatively affecting your life today. You get stuck in a cycle of thoughts about the past that basically leaves you frustrated, defeated, and stuck. 

When things like that happen, it’s often because you haven’t taken the time out to process that experience. It has happened, but you didn’t give your brain enough time to mourn it and move on from it. You put up a wall, you seal it away as many of us do. However, once you can truly process the experience and come to terms with what came from it, you’ll stop experiencing the negative nostalgic feeling that’s associated with that particular memory. 

One of the best things about the feeling of nostalgia is that it’s all about you, and people love themselves more than anyone else. Most human emotions we feel are felt as a result of external forces. We get sad when something doesn’t go our way, we get disappointed in people when they do something unexpected that we rather they didn’t, we get angry at people when they do something to agitate us, but nostalgia, nobody does anything to us. In fact, oftentimes, we can’t pinpoint the trigger for our nostalgia. All we know is that a few times a week, we remember our old life with friends, family, and times shared with loved ones, and as memories cloud our brain, there’s pleasure in it too.

Now, this does not mean that outside forces can’t trigger nostalgia. As we all know, advertisers have discovered the power of nostalgia, and they use it to their advantage all the time. That’s why you have Disney remaking all their best cartoons. They’re trying to make people nostalgic so they flock to the cinemas, trying to recapture a moment of their previous lives. 

But unlike trying to make someone feel sad or happy for a character in a movie, trying to make someone feel nostalgic is very tricky and can often backfire. Just look at the Lion King live-action movie, the first Sonic the Hedgehog trailer, and more recently, Tom and Jerry. All three of these movies tried to make people nostalgic, but failed completely in their goal. 

Why? Because nostalgia is a very complex emotion. 

The question “Who am I?” has plagued humanity for millenia. Every 5 years, every single atom in your body will have been replaced by a different atom. Your thoughts, opinions, and feelings about things will have also changed. Sometimes, where you live and your friends may have even changed. 

So, who are you? 

Is there one true aspect to your being that stamps you as being 1 of 1? What part of us acts as the random seed hash that is tied to our existence? The best philosophers, scientists, and psychologists have had a go at the question, but all to no avail. And while nostalgia certainly doesn’t answer the question, it helps us calm the anxiety it causes. We can say that what makes you “you” are your specific memories about the past, all of which tell you how you’ve changed and become the person that you are today. They tell you that you are a continuous being, one whose existence grows linearly with time.

When we’re feeling like a failure, like we don’t have any purpose in life, like we have no value or meaning, we can often tap into our nostalgic memories for comfort. To calm our worrying minds and remind us that we do have intrinsic value, that we are not failures with no purpose. We have friends, family, and healthy experiences we can cling on to. 

Nostalgia often happens when there’s a major life transition. Like when you’re going off to college, moving to a new city, travelling across the world, or getting married. It’s like our brains are trying to grab hold of who we were even as we’re still learning who we are and discovering who we want to be. 

Right now, people are feeling nostalgic more than ever before. And honestly, that’s exactly what a year in lockdown will do to you. We begin to feel nostalgic when we watch live performances we went to in the past, large family gatherings we used to detest, and even little things like the noise of a busy grocery store or kids screaming on airplanes… maybe not that last one. Because we’re limited in our ability to go out and create new experiences, our brain is rerunning the old ones again and again and again to give us that sense of warmth and connection that many of us are missing in our daily lives right now.

The internet has modified everything we used to do as a society. Mobs have morphed into cancel culture, we no longer have to be physically present at work or school, and we now even have a dedicated day to feel nostalgic. Social media calls it #tbt or “Throwback Thursday.” Every Thursday, people post nostalgic pictures both of themselves and of a time-period to sit back and reflect on what once was. 

We also have things like Snapchat, Facebook, and Google photos, bringing us memories of pictures we’ve taken from a few years ago. Having all of these memories flood not just our minds but also our phone screens, without having the ability to make new ones, and you can see why people are feeling nostalgic now more than ever before. 

We also see nostalgia in sports. For years, there’s been the very heated debate of “Who’s the GOAT?” Who is the greatest athlete of all time?

In the NBA, you often hear of LeBron vs Jordan. But in reality, even if LeBron James ends his career with more titles than Michael Jordan, MJ will still always have the nostalgia factor on his side. He’s many people's childhood and no one will ever argue that their sports idol, the one who they watched while growing up, isn’t the GOAT. However, with enough time, the modern day GOAT’s turn into old legends, and slowly but surely, get outshined by new and rising talent. The arguments we have today will be the same arguments we have in the future, only with different people and different nostalgic factors.

Nostalgia is a very interesting emotion, because we all in some way want to feel it, even if it brings us both happiness and pain. Oftentimes, the best memories are the ones we remember with both happiness and sadness.

On days when we feel our worst, it makes us feel sad, angry, and even scared that we might never get those things, those feelings again. But even on those same days, nostalgia has the power to bring us hope and make us realize that we all have a story that is still being written. 
Why do we remember the past and not the future? Do we exist in time, or does time exist in us?

What does it really mean to say time “passes?”

Wonder is the source of our desire for knowledge, and nostalgia helps us remember how far our curiosity can take us. 

From where we were, to where we are, to where we will be, nostalgia will be there all along the way.