Looking forward to nostalgia

I like nostalgia.  I really do.
I like it so much I get nostalgic for nostalgia.  I long for the good old days in the 90s, that I spent reminiscing about the good old days in the 80s.  I spend precious moments imagining my future self, looking fondly back on the moment I’m currently experiencing.  Such is my love for dreaming about the past, that I often make important life decisions based not on logic or aspiration, but rather on the opportunity for future nostalgia.  I went backpacking for a year in Asia, not simply because I wanted to go backpacking for a year in Asia, but because I wanted to have gone backpacking for a year in Asia.  I couldn’t wait to come home and reflect nostalgically on my year abroad.

And then there are the eras I’ve never even lived through!  The roaring 20s.  The swinging 60s.  You name it, I’ve probably highly idealized it.
In a recent fit of 80s nostalgia (a decade that finished when I was merely eight, but no matter, I remember it like it was yesterday), I watched The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.  Within five minutes I was longing to live in the 80s again, but this time as a teenager, and ideally, as Molly Ringwald herself.   Then I did what anyone in my present day position would have done: I googled her to see where she had ended up.

What did I really expect?   That she would still be driving around in a pink car, sewing her own prom dresses, and applying lipstick from her cleavage?
(Yes, I did).

To my profound disappointment, I found that she was now…in 2012.  Or rather, she was no longer living in the 80s.   We were living in the same time, at the same time.  She looked normal.  She seemed to have thoroughly adapted to the new millennium.  There was not a visible trace of 80s nostalgia in her.

It made me stop and wonder: where was all my nostalgia really coming from, and why?  Was it a problem I needed to fix, or just a natural and healthy way of cherishing the past?

When I looked a little deeper, I found that up until a few centuries ago, nostalgia – that warm, bittersweet feeling we all know so well – was actually considered a form of melancholy.  It was considered a precursor to suicide, and a diagnosis for soldiers that deserted their posts.
The word “nostalgia,” based on the greek words nóstos (“homecoming”) and álgos (“ache”), was originally coined in 1688, by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss doctor working with mercenaries longing for their homeland.  At that time nostalgia was a medical condition, linked to illness, and even death.[1]

But (thankfully) more recent studies have found nostalgia to actually have psychological benefits.  Nostalgia expert Dr Krystine Bacho says that nostalgia can improve mood, increase self-esteem, and infuse our lives with a sense of meaning.
“Nostalgic reminiscence helps a person maintain a sense of continuity despite the constant flow of change over time,” she says.  It can also help us cope with loneliness, and strengthen our sense of social connectedness.[2]

So, perhaps my highly idealized view of the past is not such a concern after all.  Perhaps it actually displays how sickeningly well adjusted I am.  But can that explain my intense nostalgia for eras I’ve never even experienced?

Dr Batcho distinguishes this as a different form of nostalgia; what she calls “historical or social nostalgia.”  She says that  “individuals who feel nostalgia for a past era are more likely to feel dissatisfied with the present and/or perceive a past time period as better than the present.”  (Which, I would infer, is bad.)

Bugger.  It is true that I spent the days following my 80s movie marathon strangely longing for shoulder pads, and resenting the presence of smart phones and non- synthesised music in my life.

If I had lived back in the days when nostalgia was a medical condition, doctors might have prescribed me a variety of remedies, including purging (no thanks), leeches (no thanks) or opium (hmm..).  In 1733, a nostalgic Russian soldier was allegedly buried alive by his army officer [3] (I think I’ll stick with the nostalgia, if you don’t mind).

These days it’s a little trickier.  How do you cure something that’s no longer considered a medical ailment?  Svetlana Boym, author of The Future of Nostalgia, calls modern day nostalgia “the incurable modern condition.”
“The twentieth century began with a futuristic utopia,” Boym writes, “and ended with nostalgia.”  She hypothesizes that globalization and the accelerated pace of modern life have deepened nostalgic longings.
“Nostalgia tries to slow down time,” she says. [4]

Hmm.   Could my nostalgia be in some way connected to the recurrent impulses I feel to hurl cellphones, computers, photocopiers, and other technological paraphernalia off of tall buildings?  Could my longing for the 80s be not simply due to the outrageously fabulous fashion, music, and dance montage scenes; but also due to the fact they were so gloriously free of technology?
Pac Man was the pinnacle of computerised fun.  Cellphones were so outlandishly huge nobody could fit them in their handbags.  Life was simpler.

But hey, you can’t fight progress.  So I guess I’ll just cash in my nostalgic psychological benefits and console myself with the fact that in twenty years, I’ll look back on this decade as the prime of my life.   These will be the good old days.

Ahh, future nostalgia.  There’s so much to look forward to.

 



[1] Nostalgia (2012).  Retrieved February 9, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nostalgia

[2] ‘Tis the Season for Nostalgia: Holiday Reminiscing Can Have Psychological Benefits (2011). Retrieved February 9, 2012, from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2011/12/nostalgia.aspx

[3] Nostalgia (2012).  Retrieved February 9, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nostalgia

[4] The Future of Nostalgia (2002, Basic Books), as cited by Lambert, Craig; Hypochondria of the Heart (2001).  Retrieved February 9, 2012, from http://harvardmagazine.com/2001/09/hypochondria-of-the-hear.html