Why nostalgia is on the rise
Source: Dmitry Demidov / Pexels
Recently I spent $ 30 on a 1983 Atari game console. I had no intention of buying it; he just happened to be sitting in a box at a local flea market. Stunned, I took it home, plugged it in and was delighted to find it still worked. In no time I was playing frog, defend the earth against Space invaders, and crush a malicious Centipede. As a child of the 80s and 90s, I was in nostalgia heaven.
It turns out that I am not alone. The nostalgia is there. The New York Times recently reported that old technology was selling at a rapid rate, with the prices of items considered junk only a few years ago rising sharply. People are once again take Polaroids and adopt Tamagotchi. Nostalgic films and series the shows also light up the screens. CBS Picard was a love letter to Star Trek: The Next Generation fans everywhere. Disney live action Mulan The film brought back the iconic and revolutionary warrior of the 90s. And Netflix is new Masters of the Universe the series continues where He-man interrupted in 1985. According to a person quoted in the New York Times article, “It’s Like Taking a Time Machine.”
But why all the nostalgia now? Research can help shed some light. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers asked people to describe under what circumstances they become homesick. The most frequently reported triggers were negative emotions and moodiness, especially loneliness. Investigators followed that first study with another, this time purposely putting some participants (college kids, in this case) in a bad mood by asking them to read a heartbreaking story. Other participants read more neutral or positive stories. The results were surprisingly simple: Those who read the negative stories were subsequently more likely to engage in nostalgia than those who read the neutral or positive stories.
In other words, longing is a way of dealing with distress by temporarily escaping the pain of the present. And it is undeniable that the past two years have been painful and painful. We have seen the fear, suffering and loss of the COVID-19 pandemic, a series of brutal killings and violent attacks that highlight the reality of racism in our country, and a series of fires and storms who destroyed both property and lives. We have experienced increased political division and intense political conflict. In the middle of it all surveys show that people feel more lonely and isolated, especially younger people. It’s easy to see why it would be heartwarming to escape the present.
What’s more, research supports the effectiveness of nostalgia as a coping mechanism. As a result of engaging in nostalgic memories, people often report experiencing a more positive mood, feeling more socially connected, and having a greater sense that their life has meaning. This led some to suggest that nostalgia might even be useful as a psychotherapeutic technique. Indeed, a period of six weeks nostalgia intervention has been shown to improve well-being in a sample of students. In short, nostalgia seems to be working.
But you shouldn’t fall in love with nostalgia too quickly. There are some significant pitfalls associated with unconditional longing for the past, especially from a social perspective. As Joshua Fields Millburn wrote in her blog, “There’s a problem with nostalgia: it only tells half-truths. We often remember the sweet things of a particular time, conveniently forgetting the bitter aspects. As historian Stephanie Coontz noted in a column 2013 in the New York Times, the past was not often such a happy place for certain groups in our society, especially those facing marginalization. “I have interviewed many whites who have fond memories of their lives in the 1950s and early 1960s,” she writes. “Those who never cross-examined these memories to understand their intricacies were the most hostile to civil rights and women’s movements. In other words, not everyone has equal access to things that are worth nostalgic for. For many, the past may not be a comforting place to take shelter. The future may be a more welcoming home.
One of the most provocative quotes I’ve come across about unbridled nostalgia came in 2008, perhaps unintentionally, from artist Mark Kennedy. Referring to the removal of his murals from Afflecks Palace in Manchester, England, he said: “Longing is the death of hope.” His statement was an attempt to explain that he refused to be brought down by what had happened. But I think it can also be interpreted as a warning not to use nostalgia as an excuse not to invest in the future.
Nostalgia is a thing of the past. Hope, on the other hand, is about the future. Hope’s central message — the future may be better — is a message we need now, perhaps more than ever. Moreover, according to research, hope is not just a passive feeling. When people have hope they tend to act, and even, in certain circumstances, help fuel social change. So I would say that in painful times like the ones we’ve experienced over the past two years, focusing on the future can be more productive than taking refuge in the past.
As useful as the aforementioned research shows that nostalgia can be for some people, a study shows that looking to the future might even be more effective as a coping mechanism. At the height of COVID quarantine orders in 2020, researchers randomly assigned young adults to one of three conditions: a nostalgia intervention asking them to remember a positive event from their past, a gratitude intervention asking them to count the blessings in their current life, or a forward-looking intervention asking them to imagine what life would be like after quarantine is lifted. The results are consistent with Kennedy’s sentiment: Those who participated in the forward-looking and gratitude interventions showed higher levels of positive emotions than those who participated in the nostalgia intervention. In other words, we don’t need to escape the present or neglect the future to cope.
Of course, enjoying the memories of our past and striving for a better future are not necessarily mutually exclusive. So even as I load 80s video games onto my now yellowing Atari console, I remember that while revisiting my past might be temporarily heartwarming, it’s not a place I can stay. Heck, ain’t even a little bit that I would want to to stay.
With sustained effort and a little hope, I would like to believe that maybe we can get through the pain of the present and move towards a better future.