The Appeal of Nostalgia

Updated on February 9, 2018
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The wistful yearning for the past affects us all. Our nostalgic moments are associated with people and places and usually revolve a notion that the past was better than the present.

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Origin of Nostalgia

We can reach all the way back to 1688 and the city of Basel, Switzerland. There, young Johannes Hofer is working on his dissertation Schweizerheimweh or “Swiss homesickness.”

He patched together a couple of Greek words nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain) to create the word nostalgia. He applied it specifically to Swiss mercenaries who were off fighting someone else’s war and who were pining for the mountains and valleys of their homeland.

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

Marcel Proust

John Tierney in The New York Times writes that “Military physicians speculated that its prevalence among Swiss mercenaries abroad was due to earlier damage to the soldiers’ ear drums and brain cells by the unremitting clanging of cowbells in the Alps.”

Some soldiers became incapacitated by the condition, dropping into lethargy, refusing to eat, and developing a form of dementia known as stupidity of the mind. They also developed physical symptoms such as heart palpitations and shortness of breath.

Of course, nostalgia existed long before this; it just didn’t have a name, although sometimes it was called hypochondria of the heart

Dr. Hofer urged that nostalgia be treated as a psychological disorder. If left untreated, people could die from the ailment.

Cathal Kelly (Globe and Mail) describes a harsher treatment “To prevent this debilitating and contagious homesickness, on a march into Germany, one 18th-century Russian general threatened to bury alive any man so afflicted. Then he did.” Three times. There were no more outbreaks of nostalgia.

A more compassionate approach was provided by Robert Hamilton who was treating an ill British soldier in 1787. The man seemed to be just wasting away from some mystery sickness until Dr. Hamilton told him he could go home. The soldier made a complete and sudden recovery.

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Nostalgia is Universal

Remember the good old days? We never had to lock our doors at night. Bread and milk was delivered to our home. The children could play in the park unsupervised without being troubled by molesters and drug dealers. The sun shone from dawn to dusk and it only rained during the night when we were asleep. And, tomatoes tasted like tomatoes and not like red tennis balls.

A song from our teens can take us back there in our imaginations. Or a smell will remind us of Mum’s wonderful roast chicken dinners.

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The yearning for the past occurs in all cultures, and most of us have a nostalgic moment a few times a week.

In 2016, the polling company Morning Consult quizzed Americans about nostalgia in the context of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. The pollster found that overwhelmingly people associated a better world with their youth.

So the time period when life was better moved forward as participants got older. For those born in the 1930s, the best world was the 1950s. For children of the 1940s it was the sixties, and so on.

The Positive Side of Nostalgia

For a long time, nostalgia was seen as a primary ingredient of depression, but that view is changing; Constantine Sedikides says “It’s not a sickness, despite its historical reputation.”

Professor Sedikides teaches Psychology at the University of Southampton, England, and is one of the world’s leading authorities on nostalgia.

Through his research, and that of colleague Dr. Tim Wildschut, of Utrecht in the Netherlands, some interesting discoveries have been made. As the American writer Peter De Vries once noted “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be."

“It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it …”

W. Somerset Maugham

Dr. Sedikides calls nostalgia the “perfect internal politician, connecting the past with the present, pointing optimistically to the future” and a mental state “absolutely central to human experience” (The Guardian, November 2014).

His colleague adds “Nostalgia compensates for uncomfortable states, for example, people with feelings of meaninglessness or a discontinuity between past and present. What we find in these cases is that nostalgia spontaneously rushes in and counteracts those things. It elevates meaningfulness, connectedness, and continuity in the past. It is like a vitamin and an antidote to those states.”

What the Southampton University research has found is that the positive effects of nostalgia heavily outweigh the negative ones.

“I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday.”

Kris Kristofferson

Southampton Nostalgia Scale

Constantine Sedikides has developed a way of measuring the frequency and meaning of nostalgia. Using this scale, researchers around the world have identified the helpful attributes of nostalgia.

Carrie Steckl is a psychologist who writes for the wellness organization Gracepoint, which is based in Tampa, Florida. She has summarized the positive findings of nostalgia researchers; it helps us:

  • “Reconnect us with our roots;
  • “Provide continuity in our lives;
  • “... Find meaning and identity;
  • “Counteract loneliness;
  • “Decrease boredom;
  • “Ease anxiety;
  • “Increase generosity and tolerance toward others;
  • “Increase intimacy;” and
  • “Act as a buffer to depression.”

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Bonus Factoids

In her 2011 book Homesickness: An American History historian Susan Matt found that American Civil War physicians were sympathetic towards soldiers enduring the misery of nostalgic homesickness. More than 5,000 soldiers were diagnosed as suffering from nostalgia and most were sent home, as this was the only known cure for the condition. Ms. Matt says that 74 Union soldiers died from nostalgia. However, Union Army assistant surgeon J. Theodore Calhoun, took a less understanding approach. He argued that nostalgic soldiers simply had to be made to man up and that a sufferer “can often be laughed out of it by his comrades.”

Researchers in China and elsewhere have found that if people are placed in a cool room they tend to develop more nostalgic feelings than those placed in a warmer environment. In addition, those experiencing nostalgia also feel physically warmer.

In the past, says the BBC program Quite Interesting, “Suspected causes of nostalgia included unfulfilled ambition, poor hygiene, [and] coming from farming stock ... Also constipation, heart problems, fever, and not laughing at jokes that are funny.”

Sources

  • “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows.” John Tierney, The New York Times, July 8, 2013.
  • “The New Age of Nostalgia.” Cathal Kelly, Globe and Mail, November 12, 2017.
  • “Look Back in Joy: the Power of Nostalgia.” Tim Adams, The Guardian, November 9, 2014.
  • “Nostalgia—a Valuable Tool for Life.” Elizabeth Wagele, Psychology Today, July 16, 2013.
  • “When Nostalgia is a Good Thing.” Carrie Steckl, Ph.D, Gracepoint, August 9, 2013.
  • “Home, Sweet Home.” Susan J. Matt, New York Times, April 19, 2012.

Questions & Answers

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      • punacoast profile image

        Viet Doan 

        8 months ago from Big Island, Hawaii

        Hi Rupert, I really enjoy reading your article. Well written, full of interesting facts, and hilarious! It's true, nostalgia is universal and we all get that warm and fuzzy feeling now and then.

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