This past year, I’ve found myself indulging in nostalgia, something I’ve never really done before. Throughout the lockdowns, I watched Gogglebox religiously each week – a show that reminds me of returning home for the weekend during my university days, when I’d arrive just in time to catch the show with my family. I listened almost exclusively to music that came out when I was a kid or teenager. Even my food behaviours changed – for example, when I caught covid all I wanted was dippy eggs and soldiers, something which I probably hadn’t eaten for at least a decade prior to that.
Since things have re-opened, I’ve still felt drawn to past comforts – I think perhaps due to the anxiety I’ve been feeling about the state of the world (floods, fires, the situation in Afghanistan). I began rewatching Friends, for the zillionth time, and Sex and the City. I noticed that this kind of behaviour isn’t unique to me – speak to any boomer and you’ll find out that the 1960s were categorically the best time to be alive, whereas the generation after are adamant that the 1970s and 80s were the pinnacle years for music. (They actually might have a point here.)
In true Carrie Bradshaw style, I couldn’t help but wonder why we find the past so comforting, and whether there is a purpose to nostalgia. I did a little research and came up with a list of 5 interesting facts about the phenomenon.
1. The first cases of nostalgia were recorded in the 17th century and affected Swiss soldiers who were posted abroad and missed home. Johannes Hofer, a Swiss doctor, coined the term in 1688, after the Greek “nostos” (homecoming) and “algos” (pain or longing). At the time, it was thought to be a neurological condition, perhaps due to the constant ringing of cowbells in the soldiers’ native land causing cerebral damage.
Over the centuries that followed, research showed that nostalgia was not specific to the Swiss – in fact, it seems people all over the world are nostalgic from time-to-time. Furthermore, nostalgia was distinguished from homesickness, though the two may occur in tandem. Nowadays, nostalgia is considered an emotion – though a much more complicated emotion than most, as it can be both a positive and negative experience.
2. Nostalgia can help improve our wellbeing; studies have shown that it can increase social belonging and self-esteem. Psychologically, it can be a useful way of coping with mental distress caused by things like loneliness or low moods. This is thought to be because nostalgia reminds us about what we find meaningful in life and demonstrates to us that our lives have value. For example, if you are feeling lonely but are reminiscing about a period where you felt loved and protected, nostalgia can help you to experience those emotions again. The downside? Nostalgia may also trigger a worry that you won’t experience those same joyful emotions again.
3. Perhaps surprisingly for some, we feel nostalgia for emotional states (feelings) rather than memories. When we are longing for a period in the past, we’re looking for the happiness / calm / excitement / satisfaction we once felt, rather than to replicate a specific situation.
In fact, nostalgia may even distort our memories. This is demonstrated in the rose-tinted view many of us have of the past; studies have shown that people of all ages think that films and TV shows that came out when they were in their late teens are better than anything produced since. This is even when they are reminded of shows they love today, as well as all the trash TV from the same period. What’s more, when Grandma tells you that things were better in her day, when you could trust your neighbours and when kids could play out safely in the street, she’s quite simply wrong. Violent crime, rape and murder rates have fallen since the 1960s in most western countries. Increases in media coverage may very well have contributed to people becoming more aware and fearful of crime, but so too has Granny’s nostalgia for a “better time” (i.e., a time when she herself felt less afraid).
4. You may be aware that smell is often the sense most likely to trigger nostalgia, but did you also know that as your sense of smell declines with age, so too does the probability that a smell will blast you back to the past? What’s more, the loss of the sense of smell in an individual is often an early indicator of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease – two conditions which often incur memory loss.
The close link between smell and nostalgia is due to the fact that our olfactory (smell) brain area is part of our limbic system just like the amygdala, where many of our emotional memories are stored. There are lots of connections and thus lots of communication between the two brain regions.
5. Finally, did you know that advertisers have been using nostalgia for years to get us to part with our hard-earned cash? It’s reported that adverts that invoke a sense of nostalgia can cause us to spend or even donate much more money than like-for-like ads that don’t. Scientists believe this effect is because nostalgia makes us feel more connected with others, which reduces the importance of money for many people.
This trend is particularly strong in times of hardship – many brands used nostalgia following 9/11 and the 2008-09 financial crash. We’ve seen the same thing recently, throughout the covid crisis.
So, there it is. Nostalgia isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s normal that so many of us have indulged in it over the past 18 months, at one of the most isolating times in modern history. That said, it’s worth being aware of the influence it may hold over your memories and financial decisions.
Alex Grunnill works for Stillpoint, and is based in London, UK. She is passionate about psychology, travelling, sustainability and linguistics. She hopes eventually to train as a psychotherapist. You can find her on Linked In.