Nostalgia is a bitter-sweet contradiction, a longing for a past place, time, or person that is both painful and comforting. It is the desire to return to an idealized past, and the concurrent feeling that arises upon the conscious realization of the impossibility of returning to this time. Though nearly everyone will already understand what nostalgia is, what is lesser known are the psychological functions it serves. As is often the case with psychological questions, the answer lies primarily with the primitive nature of the human psyche linked to survival and social behaviour (Batcho, 1995).
The purpose of this essay is to examine the feeling of nostalgia, and, through a detailed illustration of the outstanding academic literature, explain how such feeling operates, analyzing both the positive and negative functions that it serves. Additionally, implications will be drawn regarding the effects of nostalgia in today’s modern age.
The Origins of Nostalgia
Initially, nostalgia was viewed as a form of homesickness. Originally derived from the Greek words nostos (return) and algos (pain), the term was first used in Homer’s epic The Odyssey to describe Oddysseus’ profound homesickness for Greece during his 10-year journey home from the Battle of Troy (Sedikides et al., 2008). In modern times, the term was first used in the 17th century by a Swiss physician to describe the homesickness experienced by Swiss mercenaries as they fought abroad under various European monarchs (Sedikides et al., 2008). Pursuant study of nostalgia would first categorize it as a medical disease, later as a psychiatric disorder, and finally as a minor form of depression (Sedikides et al., 2008).
It was only in the latter half of the 20th century that the term nostalgia began to diverge from homesickness and take on its contemporary meaning of sentimentality for the past. The distinction was primarily made as a result of the observation that, whereas homesickness refers to a longing for one’s place of origin, nostalgia could have various objects, including a longing for past people, places, or events (Wildschut et al., 2006). This distinction between nostalgia and homesickness would lead to a reappraisal of what actually constituted the former, and to a further search for its causes and significance.
Positive Functions of Nostalgia
Most of the modern literature on nostalgia agrees that it is an overwhelmingly positive emotion (Wildschut et al., 2006; Sedikides et al., 2008; Batcho, 1995). Most of this body of work focuses on nostalgia as a social emotion which connects oneself to other people and increases perceptions of social support. One of the most fascinating illustrations of nostalgia's social power was discovered by Xinyue Zhou, who claims that it is a powerful tool for counteracting loneliness (Zhou et al., 2008). The researcher's study found that loneliness was associated with a perceived sense of lack of social support, yet at the same time it also triggered increased feelings of nostalgia, which actually enhanced perceptions of social support (Ibid.). As such, it was determined that nostalgia can serve an important social function by reminding individuals of those people in their lives who they care for deeply, and who they perceive as caring for them equally deeply. Furthermore, through the remembrance of nostalgic events when the subject was surrounded by close others (family, friends, partners), nostalgia increases feelings of social support by reminding individuals of their deepest social ties (Ibid.).
Another positive function of nostalgia is its comforting aspect, primarily regarding its function as a coping mechanism for existential fear and difficult experiences in the present. In the first sense, it has been found that nostalgia increases one’s self-esteem and perceived meaning in life, primarily through increased feelings of social connectedness (Routledge et al., 2011). Interestingly, just as Zhou determined that nostalgia acts as a defence mechanism against loneliness, Routledge found that it also acts as a defence mechanism against feelings of threatened meaning (Routledge et al., 2011). In other words, when one is faced with the thought that life is meaningless, nostalgia counteracts this by reminding the individual of meaningful social connections and events in their life, thereby warding off feelings which might threaten one's own survival. In this sense, the bitter-sweet aspect of nostalgia acts as an incredible tool to peacefully reconcile oneself with the hard realities of life from which meaninglessness arises, namely the unstoppable passing of time and all things (impermanence), and its final logical conclusion, mortality.
Nostalgia also acts as a coping mechanism to allow an individual to overcome difficult experiences in the present moment. This mechanism functions by allowing the individual to take refuge in an idealized and nostalgic past in order to avoid discomfort and suffering in the present moment (Batcho, 1995). This is oftentimes the case in times of profound change or difficulty, which leads one to an idyllic contemplation of ‘the good old days’ or ‘simpler times’, from which they can obtain an easily attainable and retroactive sense of meaning and identity. In other words, amid the discomfort and uncertainty of the present and future, nostalgia grounds one’s identity in a past that is known and certain. In this sense, it is evident once again how nostalgic contemplation acts as a coping mechanism in order to moderate deeply uncomfortable feelings of loneliness, existential dread, and fear of change, all of which align themselves as threats to one's own psychological and even physical wellbeing.
The Negative Implications of Nostalgia
Though given less emphasis in contemporary academic literature, nostalgia also has negative elements. These primarily relate to its function as a form of escapism and aversion to reality, as well as to its tendency to distort the objective reality of the past.
Escapism, as defined by the American Psychology Association, is the tendency to escape from the real world to the safety and comfort of a fantasy (Vandenbos, 2015). Nostalgia, viewed as the longing for an idealized past and an escape mechanism from the difficulties of reality, clearly fits this paradigm. Though not entirely a negative phenomenon, escapism carries a negative connotation, as it is often used as a temporary means of avoiding persistent negative feelings (Longeway, 1990). In this vein, nostalgia also has the tendency to become an unhealthy behaviour which leads to a recurring inability to confront the difficulties of the present, let go of the past, and move towards self-actualization in the present (Batchko, 2020). Batchko defines this as excessive nostalgia; excessive yearning for the past which leads to a lesser focus on the present and feelings of depression which decrease interest in relationship forming and personal growth in the present (Ibid.). In other words, the constant escape into the past to avoid the present moment can lead to unhealthy behaviour, and one should remain mindful of this thought pattern.
Another darker aspect is a feeling labelled as historical nostalgia. Contrary to personal nostalgia, or the longing for an individual’s lived past, historical nostalgia is defined as the desire to escape into an idealized world of a prior era (Batchko, 2020). The issue with such thinking is that it is often associated with a deep dissatisfaction with the current state of the world, and a preference for the way things used to be in ‘the good old days’ (Batchko, 2020). Of course, as is the case with nostalgia, these ‘good old days’ were often not as perfect as one imagines, and instead the thought patterns based on historical nostalgia are only yet another form of escapism to avoid the discomfort and changing nature of the present.
Lastly, nostalgia often involves an incorrect recollection of the past. This is due to the fact that memory recollection is a complex mental process which is prone to manipulation and error (Bower, 2000), and which is both selective and distortive (Batcho, 1995). The result is that nostalgic reflections are often idealized and romanticized, leading to an incorrect interpretation of the past which can have implications for the future, including laying the groundwork for escapism into an idealized and distorted past.
Overall, nostalgia serves as an important coping mechanism and social emotion which allows one to cope with feelings of loneliness, existential dread, and lack of social support, while improving perceptions of social connectedness and meaningfulness of life.
To understand this directly, one only needs to reflect on a nostalgic time or person from their past. At this point, the bitter-sweet feeling will appear, which is the desire for that beautiful time or person and the conscious realization of the impossibility of returning to this time. This realization leads one to the direct experience of understanding the vastness of life, and is the result of one consciously running up against the supreme laws of reality: impermanence and mortality. It is the experience of coming into direct contact with the truth of the infinitely complex and incomprehensible nature of life. Here perhaps lies the most important lesson of nostalgia: it bonds us to one another, and through this bond, it helps us to come to terms with the deepest fears and mysteries of human existence that we all face.
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