Wednesday, November 10, 2021


compact cassette with unspooled tape

Remember that sepia-tinted class photo someone posted in your social media group? The flurry of comments, the almost-audible laughter, the warm fuzzy feeling, and the wistfulness that followed? You were indulging in a spot of nostalgia – that bittersweet feeling of pleasure mixed with sadness as you think of happy times in the past.

Nostalgia, literally meaning ‘ache for home’, was described in the 17th century and was considered an illness - a form of melancholy. While it’s true that we tend to indulge in nostalgia when we are unhappy, lonely or anxious; and during times of change and uncertainty; we also know that this yearning for the past is a universal human experience. Across cultures, we experience and indulge in nostalgia, and researchers now understand that it can serve many useful purposes.

  • It helps us overcome negative emotions. 
  • The positive emotions evoked by our nostalgic memories help us overcome feelings of sadness or anxiety we may be experiencing currently. 
  • It helps us connect to our past and unifies our sense of identity. 
  • We see our own journey through life - as we were, as we changed and adapted to circumstances, right through to who we are today. 
  • It connects us to others and strengthens social bonds. Even when we are alone, our memories include and involve others, making us feel connected to them. This helps to dispel loneliness, especially in these difficult pandemic times. 
  • Nostalgia is a good coping mechanism. The knowledge that we have overcome difficult situations in the past helps us cope with current situations; and gives us the perspective that the present, like the past, is temporary. 
  • Nostalgia encourages feelings of empathy with others, even when they may not concern our own personal memories. It may serve to build bonds across generations and connect us our roots. 

However, there is a flip side too. Our forays into nostalgia may cause us to dwell on negative aspects of our past - the times when we were lonely, cold, hungry or rejected. Nostalgia may worsen feelings of sadness if we are depressed or going through a difficult phase in life. 

Nostalgia can alienate, rather than connect. Idealizing a particular time can cause resentment among those whose experiences were sharply divergent. Not everyone has had a happy childhood, and no period in history has been free of pain, anguish or injustice. 

It is also sobering to realise that nostalgia is often fuelled by dissatisfaction with the present, be it in our personal lives or in the wider socio-political climate. We tend to revert to memories of a simple, uncomplicated childhood, or to an imagined golden era in history to escape the demands of the present and anxieties relating to the future. 

‘Monetizing’ nostalgia 

Nostalgia can be deliberately triggered; and an entire industry cashes in on this very human frailty. While most of it is harmless and enjoyable, we must guard against the tendency to idealize and romanticise the past excessively. Nor should we allow ourselves to be manipulated by canny politicians who promise us ‘the good ol’ days’, in a bid to detract attention from current realities. 
You can’t have a better tomorrow if you are thinking about yesterday all the time
(Charles Kettering)