Why nostalgia can be addictive

27th April 2018

As concepts go, nostalgia is a fairly tricky one to pin down. In one sense, we think of it as that warm cuddly feeling inside that accompanies memories of summers passed and happy times. On another, a twisted kind of nostalgia seems to be a considerable driver in the resurgence of conservative and nationalist politics all over the world, as people respond to the chaos all around by demanding a return to how things used to be.

Nostalgia has existed throughout human history, though our understanding of and attitudes toward it have changed a great deal over the millennia. People only started describing the feeling as nostalgia in the late 17th century, after the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer slung together the Greek words nostros and algos – meaning return to the native land and pain – and came up with nostalgia.

Nostalgia was thought of as being a severe case of homesickness, which was considered a serious, even fatal, medical condition

He was trying to define what was thought of at the time as being a severe case of homesickness, which was considered a serious, even fatal, medical condition. Over time, this view softened – let’s not forget that ye olde doctors liked to label lots of things “serious medical conditions” that today we understand to be perfectly normal behaviours – to mean something like “a bittersweet longing for the past” as psychologist and nostalgia expert Krystine Batcho, of De Moyne College,  puts it to me over email.

“Today the term is used to refer to different types or dimensions of feelings about the past. My research suggests that there are different types of nostalgia.  The two that have received the most attention are personal and historical nostalgia.

“Personal nostalgia is missing someone or something from one’s own lived past.  Historical nostalgia is a preference for a time period that can even predate one’s birth. The essential characteristic of either type of nostalgia is the longing for something that is no longer present or possible.”

Fond memories can keep us going during bad times but dwelling on them is unhealthy

It’s these two types of nostalgia and the differences between them, that we need to get better at understanding.

Personal nostalgia is — to put it simply — the better nostalgia. What we’re talking about here are those aforementioned lovely feelings toward our personal experiences of the past. Because personal nostalgia isn’t so much about comparing a whole period of time to the present and longing for it, it isn’t generally problematic, because we don’t base our worldview or politics around it. In fact, this type of nostalgia has even been noted to have some pretty substantial positive effects, and serves an important purpose.

“By motivating reminiscence, nostalgia helps an individual feel connected to the person he or she has been in the past. Maintaining continuity is important to the sense of stability over the constant change that happens around us and to us. Nostalgic memories remind us that we are still the person we once were, before the successes and failures, joys and disappointments, gains and losses of our life.  They also help us understand how we have changed in response to all we’ve been through”

Highly-nostalgia-prone people value their social connections

That’s not all though, because as with most things, some of us are more prone to feelings of nostalgia than others; some of us absolutely love revelling in past memories — and recounting that time, with that guy, and the thing, and then the other thing… you had to be there — and we feel really strong emotional reactions to these reminiscences. Others couldn’t care less. This tendency toward nostalgia tends to indicate some other traits, too.

Nostalgia can be a coping mechanism, like a drug

“Highly-nostalgia-prone people value their social connections. During difficult times, memories of having been loved unconditionally during childhood remind us that we deserve to be loved and encourage us to devote time and energy to romantic, family, and friendship relationships.

“Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness and to encourage us to seek social support when coping with difficulties and loss. People who are more nostalgia-prone are more optimistic and are less likely to rely on unhealthy ways of coping, such as substance abuse or escapism.”

People prone to historical nostalgia exhibit stronger feelings of pessimism and cynicism

And then there’s historical nostalgia, under which category would likely fall your garden variety Daily Mail and Express readers, salivating at the prospect of a return to all blue passports and all white faces. Though not by any stretch an entirely negative feeling — this can just as often refer to those harmless folks who still do their hair like Paul Weller or top up to northern soul nights every week despite being born decades after Wigan Casino closed its doors — experts do tend to associate proneness to historical nostalgia with more negative traits.

“People prone to historical nostalgia exhibit stronger feelings of pessimism and cynicism.  They tend to be more dissatisfied with the present.  They might feel unhappy with the values, beliefs, or behaviours of their current society and long for those of a prior historical period.”

It would be over-simplistic to describe one type of nostalgia as wholly positive and the other negative, especially considering the complexity of human emotion and the different ways we all cope with it. In a collection of studies compiled by the American Psychological Association, a number of researchers attempted to demonstrate that nostalgia can function as an existential resource, something that can give life meaning.

Becoming trapped in an unending recycling of nostalgic memories could prevent a person from moving forward

In this sense, and in that some people can come to rely on nostalgia as an emotional crutch to deal with difficult issues, it’s not much of a stretch to compare nostalgia to a drug. It can certainly be addictive, as you might have noticed when you last found yourself skipping back through old tagged photos on social media, unable to tear yourself away. There’s this danger that we enjoy the feeling of reliving past memories so much, we opt to just do it over and over again, instead of creating new memories.

“Becoming trapped in an unending recycling of nostalgic memories and desperately wishing to return to the past could prevent a person from moving forward and building new or reenergizing old relationships.  Such a pathological type of nostalgia would be associated with depression and would constitute a different form of nostalgia than personal.

“Normally, nostalgia is not associated with depression,” she says.

There’s no way of quantifying nostalgia, obviously, so it’s impossible to say for sure whether we’re going through a particularly nostalgic period, but it would make sense.

It is comforting to feel grounded with nostalgic roots in the past during a time of division, conflict, and uncertainty

For a start, it’s easier than ever for us to document our lives, making it even easier to then reminisce about them later. Timehop got there first, but now Facebook and other social networks have clearly caught on that many of us like to indulge in nostalgia occasionally, and have introduced features which show us snippets from our online past.

The internet in general is probably a greater facilitator of nostalgia — both personal and historical — than has ever existed in the history of mankind. It’s easier to get lost in ideas of the past when they are just a click away.

As well as this, there’s good reason to believe that many of us would be more prone to nostalgia right now than usual: “Nostalgia is especially powerful during times of change or instability. It is comforting to feel grounded with nostalgic roots in the past during a time of division, conflict, and uncertainty.

“When the present feels a bit like quicksand, it’s good to have a lifeline to clutch, as we trudge forward toward an ever brighter future”.

27th April 2018