The psychology behind nostalgia

Nostalgia is a universal experience that happens to everyone throughout various points in their lives. Generally, nostalgia is a sentimental reflection of the past or a yearning for a previous time in someone’s life that holds meaningful memories.

In a medical newsletter, Dr. Cahut writes that memory is inaccurate. Our memory can only hold generalized reconstructions of the past that we have fixated on. With nostalgia, we tend to keep only the good parts that often colour the past with a rosy hue despite negative experiences.  

Brooke Lydbrooke is a retired teacher, writer and activist. When reflecting on her youth, Lydbrooke fondly remembers a time of great change and experimentation. She travelled the world, had odd jobs and even picked up a guitar to join a band back in the 1980s when she first came to Canada in her 30s.

“It was not necessarily a better time on a systematic level,” Lydbrooke says. “In my experience, university degrees were not always needed for job security so having fun was different to how young people have fun now.”

According to a study, as people grow older they tend to be more nostalgic. This is because of impactful events that occur over time and an increase in isolation that typically happens as one ages. But due to being stuck at home during the pandemic, current youth have been experiencing nostalgic mania.

Recently, there has been an increase in nostalgic-targeted products easily consumed at home. For millennials and Gen Z, there has been a return to 90s entertainment in streaming services such as Disney Plus. In 2020, there was an increase of over 60 million subscribers when lockdown measures were placed.

Krystine Batcho, a psychology professor with a focus on nostalgia at Le Moyne College, explains in an interview with the American Psychological Association that a yearning for the past during an age of great change, usually the 20s, is a natural response from the brain. Nostalgia is a comforting feeling that helps prevent people from becoming too overwhelmed in the face of major events.

Batcho says that young adults are experiencing loneliness and distress more than before. The culture of fast-paced living and the rise of consumerism in technology has created an era in which youth must always look towards the uncertain future. While older generations can reminisce about a time before the internet, today’s young adults are currently in a socially-isolated age of cyberspace communication where they crave more connected time.

As a 22-year-old, Hyunsun Park says that nostalgia is marketed everywhere. On social media anything from vintage fashion to video games have been strategically reviving the retro flavours of the 80s, 90s and 2000s, and luring in young adults at a time where mental distress is high.

Park says the return of the decades-old video game Animal Crossing brings up the feeling of nostalgia for her childhood. The calming, slow-life game also helps ease the anxieties of present-day obstacles. “I think in some situations, [Gen Z] are more likely to use nostalgia to escape or cope with current life,” Park says. “Animal Crossing has especially helped me cope with the pandemic.”

Bittersweet memories 

According to Merriam Webster, nostalgia has not always been a good phenomenon for theorists—it used to be considered a negative event that halted progression or invited mental illness. The word was coined in the 17th century by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer and originates from the ancient Greek words nostos (return home) and algos (pain), referring to homesickness.

Now, the word takes on a more positive meaning that is beneficial for mental development. As a society, Batcho says that confronting the past and reflecting on lessons learned helps people to adapt and prepare for a more optimistic future. Studies have also shown that nostalgia helps motivate people to pursue personal goals.

Now that Lydbrooke is older, she refers to her memories as bittersweet. She appreciates all the experiences in her life, good and bad, and says she wouldn’t want to change anything because these adventures made her who she is today.   

“There’s no way I would ever want to be young again,” she says. “I was totally different, but I think those experiences are important to grow as a person.”

Park agrees, and says that nostalgia is very different from a desire to revert to the past. “I think nostalgia over-romanticizes the idea of our past while filtering the bad times,” Park says. “We enjoy a comeback of trends because it reminds us of who we were and how it has shaped our passion. For example, animation films like Coraline are one of my favourite movies because it started my passion for art.”

In Batcho’s interview she explains that historically nostalgia has been a useful tool for socialization, as it allows varying generations to bond and pass down lessons of the past.

A lesson Lydbrooke wants to pass down for youth is to always have a backup plan, but at the same time to be content with knowing that major change can occur at any point in time.

“The phrase: ‘today is the future you feared yesterday’ is really important,” she says. “The only thing that is permanent about life is change.”

Ultimately, nostalgia is fundamental to human growth. It can be a tool that protects people from the harm of present life or heals them from the mistakes of the past. It motivates individuals to become stronger, more resilient versions of themselves in the future. 

If people want to treasure the memories of their past by jamming to old music or going through old photos, it’s healthy to take some time to revel in the bittersweetness.

About the author

Reporter at Youth Mind

Rebecca Benitez-Berona is a reporter at Youth Mind. She is passionate about social justice, creative writing, reading poetry and youth mental health. When she is not writing, she is exploring nature or trying out yet another new bubble tea shop.

Rebecca Benitez-Berona

Rebecca Benitez-Berona is a reporter at Youth Mind. She is passionate about social justice, creative writing, reading poetry and youth mental health. When she is not writing, she is exploring nature or trying out yet another new bubble tea shop.

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