I’ve found myself feeling nostalgic quite a bit lately.
I mean, sure, sure, sure, everybody’s feeling nostalgic about the “pre-corona” days, right? Just going to the bank recently was powerful - I actually noticed that I missed having errands to run. I didn’t even realize that apart from having things I loved to do at home, there’s also something to having that sense of purpose when you leave the house.
This all makes sense to me though.
We’re in the middle of being stuck in this particular thing so of course, we miss the days when we were pre-stuck.
But it’s not just the immediate pre-stuck days that I’ve been thinking more about.
It’s days even before that, days from what feels like other lives, days from times - quite frankly - that weren’t that great. It got me curious, so I went on a little quest to learn more about nostalgia.
And as with anything having to do with our brains, it turns out it’s a fascinating and complex thing.
First, a little history though.
Nostalgia comes from the Greek words nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain/longing) and as it was first observed in Swiss mercenaries, it was thought to be uniquely Swiss…like chocolate…or watches. Armies even banned the singing of Swiss songs so as not to induce the condition.
Initially, it was considered to be along the lines of something like melancholy or depression and had a negative connotation because it is often accompanied by feelings of loss or sadness. But with more modern approaches to psychology, a different picture emerged.
In fact, there are quite a few positives that come from nostalgia.
Like it has actually been shown to increase self-esteem and feelings of social belonging or connectedness. It can also be a coping mechanism for stress; nostalgia often comes up naturally as a way to reduce distress and restore well-being.
And far from insinuating we are “stuck in the past” and being a result of an inability to let go, some nostalgia can actually help us face the future and provide existential meaning.
Who couldn’t do with more of that right now?
But notice I say “some” nostalgia, because as it turns out there is helpful nostalgia and less helpful nostalgia. Reflective nostalgia (which is said to be heavier on the algos) is the kind when you look back fondly and are able to say to yourself, yeah, I’ve had a good life, I like who I am. Restorative nostalgia (leans toward nostos), however, is more about a desire to return to or recreate the past instead of leading to a contentment with the present.
One article explains the difference. One type of nostalgic trip leads you to pull out old photos, the other type leads you to pick up the phone and try to call the person you’re remembering.
I like how Dr. Hal McDonald, Ph.D. puts it:
“The difference between ‘good’ nostalgia and ‘bad’ nostalgia...has far less to do with the actual content of our remembered autobiographical past, than with our expectations about what those memories can do for us. It is not the past itself, but rather our attitude toward the past, that makes all the difference.”
And of course, there are lots of things that can trigger nostalgia.
Turns out smell and touch are the most powerful triggers because those are the things our brains process first. Music and even weather can also be quite potent, which, yes, totally! In the first days of spring, I am still transported back to hanging with friends in good ol’ St. Louis, cold beer in hand, watching a baseball game.
Guess what else can be powerful triggers?
Loneliness and threatened meaning.
Ummm, check and check. Am I right?
Oh, and have you found yourself thinking lately that we’ve apparently run out of new ideas for movies and TV because all they seem to do now is remake or reboot everything? And did anyone wonder why Cabbage Patch dolls seemed to make sort of a comeback?
Turns out this is an intentional marketing tool playing on our tendency toward nostalgia.
Anyway, the upshot is, that as we face the uncertainty of our time and the abrupt disruption of so many things that made up our normal lives, this increase in looking back is totally normal. And it can even be helpful as we navigate what’s to come.
So pull out the yearbooks or close your eyes and daydream about days gone by. Just remember to enjoy your nostalgia with an eye on good things yet to be.