Never look back. Regret nothing. Let go of the past. This is the kind of ‘tough love’ and pithy wisdom you often get from Instagram influencers, relationship advisors and sports psycho-babblers. The thinking goes that the past is holding you back and you need to don some blinkers and keep ‘moving forwards’.
But the changing of the seasons (and especially the Holiday Season) is a time for reflection and tradition. It’s when we get to indulge our cheesy, cosy sides with treats like Netflix’s Single All the Way or yet another rerun of Gavin and Stacey from 2007.
So why does looking backwards get such a bad rep? Clay Routledge is a leading expert in the psychology of nostalgia and author of Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource. Routledge notes that nostalgia was once viewed as a disease. Indeed, in a piece for TED-Ed, he explains:
“In the late 17th century, a medical student named Johannes Hofer noticed a strange illness affecting Swiss mercenaries serving abroad. Its symptoms, including fatigue, insomnia, irregular heartbeat, indigestion, and fever were so strong, the soldiers often had to be discharged. As Hofer discovered, the cause was not some physical disturbance, but an intense yearning for their mountain homeland. He dubbed the condition nostalgia, from the Greek "nostos" for homecoming and "algos" for pain or longing. At first, nostalgia was considered a particularly Swiss affliction. Some doctors proposed that the constant sound of cowbells in the Alps caused trauma to the ear drums and brain. Commanders even forbade their soldiers from singing traditional Swiss songs for fear that they'd lead to desertion or suicide.”
But today, lots of people are fans of this so-called ‘Swiss affliction’ - and for good reason. Studies have shown that when we engage in nostalgia, we experience a boost in positive psychological states, such as feelings of social connectedness, self-esteem, and perceptions of meaning in life. Indeed, when people experience negative states (like loneliness or meaninglessness), they use nostalgia to regulate distress.
In fact, people get such a buzz from being nostalgic that they often indulge in ‘fauxstalgia’ - longing for things and eras they never even experienced. Writer Carl Wilson once noted that popular culture goes through a “20-year cycle of resuscitation” - a generational revival of bygone styles and ideas. And the New Yorker has suggested that “by that calculation, we have reached the first wave of nostalgia for early digital life, a longing for our first digital worlds, onscreen spaces in which we could act, create, and communicate.”
We get all wistful over pixel art, Snake, Nintendo and Pokémon. The first iPod feels quaint and CDs seem charming. We favour lo-fi flat graphics over scarily rendered 3D metaverse avatars. Some even go so far to recreate sites like MySpace and redraw their favourite childhood games.
As tech and design get more and more immersive, personalised and slick, people get more and more nostalgic for messy and ‘basic’-feeling experiences, which are not simply charming, but also feel more innocent and less threatening than today’s data-hungry digital experiences.
Conversely, there’s also a trend for people getting sentimental over a ‘past’ that is barely a few months old. If you consider how many thousands of trending hashtags, hit shows and news stories there are in a year, it’s no surprise that people feel that a series like Tiger King (or even Squid Game) feels like ‘ancient history’. Even as we worry about future lockdowns, Vice have highlighted that people are already nostalgic for 2020, getting ‘in their feels’ listening to songs from lockdown and exploring TikTok subcultures that trigger bittersweet quarantine memories.
Nostalgia does come with a health warning though. It has become commonplace for movie producers to try and productise nostalgia, selling audiences the same childhood memories over and over again. The BBC recently explored the idea that Hollywood (for example with the new release of Ghostbusters Afterlife) is obsessed with sending audiences down memory lane. The challenge here is that filmmakers are aiming to generate some ‘automatic delight’ by resuscitating well-loved characters, but they end up reheating and rebooting them so many times that it becomes difficult to remember what was the ‘original’ and indeed what your original feelings for the likes of Batman, Bond, Spiderman and Ghostbusters really even were. What were once icons have morphed into strange relics.
So, as we look forward to looking back over the year, we should recognise the benefits that nostalgia offers - especially given that there’s an opportunity for our brains to seek meaning in all that’s happened in the last 12 months. But we should also remember that nostalgia is most powerful when we use it to release stress and connect to each other, rather than recycle a past that never really existed.