Is nostalgia overrated?

nostalgia illustration
Ameena Golding/Staff

“A wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.”

That’s nostalgia, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. For me, it’s manifested in this innate urge to scroll through hundreds of old photos on my phone, waste hours binge-watching old shows and movies from childhood (my personal favorites are “Hey Arnold!” and “Halloweentown”) and plunge into a rabbit hole of Facebook posts and tweets from years ago. I long for the sentimental, ‘90s culture, the childish thrill of trick-or-treating, getting ready for high school dances, the exhilarating stream of freshman firsts in college.

Each time I give in to these small indulgences, I wonder if I am longing for something I have lost, something irretrievable. Nostalgia, to me, feels like grief.

But according to Constantine Sedikides and Jochen Gebauer — social psychologists at the University of Southampton in England and Humboldt University of Berlin — nostalgia, in fact, nourishes our psychological wellness.

For one, nostalgia strengthens our social bonds. As we recall significant times with loved ones or think of old relationships, we are reminded of our “social integration,” according to studies on sentimentalism. Going through memories of Christmases with our families, intimate moments with partners and old friends from college, we remember that we were and are loved — that we have a support system during lonely periods.

These same studies also reveal that nostalgia can boost our self esteem. When we remember times we achieved a goal or experienced confidence — the exams we aced, the Little League games we won, the low points we crawled out of — we further validate ourselves.

But what about nostalgia’s negative connotations? Swiss physician Johannes Hofer defined nostalgia to literally be “the suffering that results from a desire for return — to a place, to a time, to a way of life.” It’s easy to agree with this belief, especially when we think of all the people we know who seem to be trapped in the past. Maybe nostalgia is some kind of natural ailment — one that compels us to not only ache to return to something from before, but to long for something we have twisted and romanticized.

Studies have claimed that nostalgia is a type of “autobiographical memory.”

I know the past is imperfect; my unspoiled, idealized memories gloss over the shortcomings and messiness of the past. Studies have claimed that nostalgia is a type of “autobiographical memory,” through which we can redeem our past selves and revise history.

And we often do try to revise history; our modern society is commonly undergoing cultural nostalgia. We obsess over typewriters, record players and Polaroid cameras. We attempt to style ourselves like they did in the ‘50s, ‘70s or ‘90s. We prefer the retro-looking Instagram filters, wanting to appear from a bygone era. We enjoy the old-fashioned sentiments, ones that seemed more simple, more moral, anything more than what we have now.

However, we know that history wasn’t better than now. Famed author Zadie Smith has expressed that despite how she — like many of us — tends to yearn for departed eras, historical nostalgia is exclusive to a small minority of people. Undoubtedly, most of history was defined by oppression and division. Only a minority of people today (those who are white males with wealth) would be able to enjoy the past, making the past impossible for many of us to return to.

But Smith is not quick to fully dismiss historical nostalgia, either. Rather than pining for the past to reoccur, Smith acknowledges that we can determine exactly what we deem as valuable in the past, and “restate them in a way that people can live, in a way that’s livable in this contemporary moment.” It is possible to reproduce remnants from before — but only if they fit the modern world’s progress and values.

Still, it is easy — even natural — to believe that the best times of history and our own lives are behind and that we must settle for less and enter the bland, real world.

However studies analyzing Nielsen data have revealed that people feel happiest in their 80s. People in their 80s tend to be more certain of themselves, feel most financially secure and simply embrace their lives. The studies also reported that despite a common, low level of happiness amongst people in their 50s — the famed midlife crisis — people do, overall, grow happier as they age.

If we consider these notions, perhaps nostalgia is overrated. Or, to be more precise, the indulgence in yearning to return to the irrecoverable past.

Fearing that we’re not only going to lose something, but that we’re going to forget the people, places, lives and who we were, is inevitable.

As many of us here are pushed closer to the end of college and towards the beginning of the cold, real world, nostalgia becomes the default, and that’s OK. Fearing that we’re not only going to lose something, but that we’re going to forget the people, places, lives and who we were, is inevitable.

Yet, if we think of the endless stream of opportunities that are waiting for us to take and experience — weddings, births, graduations, job promotions, travels — it’s easier to not be deterred by nostalgia. The future cannot replace what we had, but it will certainly be better.

Considering these facts, I find nostalgia to be a tool, but one we cannot constantly depend on in order to feel good about our present lives. Nostalgia is necessary to our mental well-being, but if we wallow in it, we overestimate the past and neglect our present and future.

Through nostalgia, we are granted an opportunity to track our lives; how much we endured, how we have learned and bettered ourselves — reminders on how we can still keep going onwards. Ironically then, nostalgia helps us to progress and grow, so that by looking to the past, we can move forward.

Contact Katrina Fadrilan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @katfadrilanDC.