Nostalgia & The Self
How is nostalgia a psychologically useful tool for building your desired future?
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
- L.P. Hartley, 'The Go-Between
Do you remember when...
Nostalgia is more than a wistful longing for autobiographical memories or bygone memorabilia; it is a future-thinking endeavor, grounding our present selves as we venture into uncharted experiential landscapes. Nostalgia is essential to our conception of our selves as subjects of the passage of time. It is an emotion universally contemplated, deeply rooted in storytelling, religion, myth, and—sometimes more nefariously—forms of political and economic control; it evokes the idea of an idyllic past that forms the basis for self-reflection, growth, and a return to stability. In fact, studies have shown that we can even be nostalgic for memories we have never experienced! This phenomenon, known as anemoia, can be just as useful. How does nostalgia figure in our conception of the world, when our access to reminiscence moves beyond the written and the oral? When instead of re-imagining the memory of watching Saved by the Bell in 1990, we can re-watch the EXACT SAME scene with our current (then-“future”) selves. Does this enhance what our brains were built to do with nostalgia, giving us unprecedented access to this fascinating natural ability, or does it diminish the potential psychological power and usefulness of the memories that we spend our lives accumulating? And is the face of a childhood acquaintance best left in the past, at the time our memories with them were built, or is it helpful to observe on social media that they, too, have grown up like us, read articles and have lunches like us, go out to bars and read to their children like us? I continue to explore the answers to these questions (I can’t say I have settled on any specific one), and I hope to encourage you to do so as well. A discussion of nostalgia in our present day must necessarily include the intervention of the internet. The internet can deliver triggers to nostalgia to us, the hungry and passive consumers of emotion. The mention of a Tamagotchi (or better yet, an image of one) might remind you of that fateful emergence from your World History final only to realize that you had forgotten to feed this beloved virtual pet, or a meme might remind you of a time when reading the back of a cereal box passed for scintillating breakfast entertainment. The internet can send us into streams of content that it doesn’t have to create but of which it simply has to remind us. I don't believe we should be entirely upset that we live in a culture steeped with nostalgia, however. Both cultural nostalgia and personal nostalgia have been suggested as significant psychological tools for overcoming trauma and coping with the future. According to studies, nostalgia can help us in reinterpreting “marginal, fugitive, and eccentric facets of earlier selves; establishing benchmarks of [our] biograph[ies].” The following are some of the benefits of nostalgia propounded by social scientists:
It grounds us during times of upheaval by reminding us of what we value.
It is rooted in a deep sense of self-continuity (personal memories).
People are often nostalgic about shared social experiences, giving them a basis for exploring new social relationships and motivating them to form more social bonds.
In its offering of a foundation, it may encourage creativity and exploration into uncharted areas of thought.
Negative judgments made by others can be softened by retreating, in the moment of self-doubt or abuse, to a positive self-affirming memory of a time when you experienced success.
In the sections below, I suggest a few exercises that may help you capitalize on these benefits.
YOUR TASK FOR THIS MONTH (...should you choose to accept it)
ACTIVITY #1: Nostalgia (Re)Vision Board
Make a physical or digital version of a vision board. Use images that will distinctly remind you of another time. Moments of particular significance are useful to you, as are items that were once mundane but now conjure positive, comforting memories. If you need something to jog your memory of the '80s or '90s, consult the internet!
ACTIVITY #2: Build Memories of Safe Spaces
Make a list of safe places to retreat in your mind when you feel moments of trauma. “That’s one of the techniques I’ve been using with many of my clients — let’s go to our ‘safe place’ right now,” psychiatrist Dr. Saint-Jean states. “Right now, we may not necessarily feel safe, but we can take our minds to a safe place, which will create a chain reaction in our body.”
ACTIVITY #3: Channel Past Communications
Reach out to an old friend; write a letter to an old teacher; read an old e-mail (either from or to you). You might learn something about yourself and how far you have come, whether you end up sending it or not. Or, barring that, perhaps plug an audio tape into a cassette player and experience the very tactile and familiar sensation of having to turn it over when “you have reached the end of side 1.” You may find that this exercise gives you the strength and the motivation to form healthier future relationships.
THE CLANGING OF THE BELLS
Did you know that people tend to feel nostalgia more readily in the cold? Indeed, one study has shown that rooms at lower temperatures induce more nostalgia-fueled thoughts. It is posited that this is because, in moments of physical (and, by extension, mental) distress, the brain seeks refuge in memories that sweetly soothe the mind. This theory may operate on a cultural level as well: re-boots of television shows, for example, tend to peak in years of cultural distress. Nostalgia evokes warm feelings. This is used to great effects in consumer behavior: Studies suggest that playing nostalgic music (music first heard by people from the ages ideally of 16-22) in waiting rooms makes clients/customers significantly more patient.
The history of a formal understanding of nostalgia is more recent than it might seem. Nostalgia, now a well-known phenomenon, does not strike us with the same foreignness as it did a group of scientists in the 1600s who were just beginning to consciously quantify aspects of this universal emotion. A tendency observed in Swiss mercenary soldiers by physician Johannes Hofer (1669–1752), nostalgia gave rise to some interesting stories of its own origin within the body.
Of the more eccentric theories is one advanced by physicians in the 18th century who blamed nostalgic tendencies on the ceaseless symphony of cowbells in the Alps that caused some brand of trauma to the ear and to the brain; debunked as this theory might now be, it is hard to escape the observation that on television shows and movies, the tinkling of soft bells and bell-like music seem to accompany nostalgic reminiscence.
Physician J.J. Scheuchzer (1732), on the other hand, characterized the emotion as a product of an imbalance in atmospheric pressure (tracing it to evidence that Swiss soldiers fighting wars in foreign low-lying lands seemed especially afflicted with reminiscence). We now characterize such a feeling with an unsurprisingly common name, given the modern era’s ability and penchant for travel—that is, homesickness.
The chasm between daily life and even one year ago sometimes feels as vast as the chasm between now and our childhood. How does this affect our experience of time? Do we perceive time as greater frequency of explosions of change than was experienced in the past, and so is it more fruitful in the contemporary era for us to reflect on more recent experiences? Or is the perception of time as constant as it was to our ancestors, as the human body ages just as it always has?
As of yet, the research on nostalgia is sparse, its evolutionary bases understudied. The collective pool of nostalgia that is capitalized upon by so many aspects of our society and of our psychologies, however, is everywhere apparent.
"How the Internet Uses Nostalgia" by Megan Garber (The Atlantic)
This article discusses consumer behavior and technological uses of nostalgia: how Spotify, Netflix, and advertisers use nostalgia to motivate consumers.
Cavafy evokes a dreamlike atmosphere in this philosophical poem on the discovery of the self through a journey. You may choose to pair it with this dramatic reading of the poem by Sean Connery.
"Anemoia: Nostalgia for a time you've never known" (The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows)
This fascinating two-minute video, offered by the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (a compendium of words for universal but generally uncontemplated emotions), gives an account of this strange phenomenon characterized by nostalgia for imaginary times.
"The bittersweet madeleine" by Elizabeth Svoboda (Aeon)
In this long-form article, Svoboda combines relatable personal experience with a comprehensive summary of academic research on nostalgia.
"The Unexpected Benefits (and Risks) of Nostalgia" (SciShow)
This short and spirited video gives a very basic review of the lesser known aspects of nostalgia.
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