Why Nostalgia Is on the Rise
By David Feldman
Recently, I spent $30 on an Atari game system from 1983. I wasn’t planning to buy it; it just happened to be sitting in a box at a local flea market. Giddily, I brought it home, plugged it in, and was delighted to find that it still worked. Within no time, I was playing Frogger, defending the earth against Space Invaders, and squashing a malevolent Centipede. As a child of the '80s and '90s, I was in nostalgia heaven.
It turns out I’m not alone. Nostalgia is on the rise. The New York Times last year reported that old tech is selling at a rapid clip, with prices of objects considered junk only a few years ago sharply increasing. People are once again snapping Polaroids and adopting Tamagotchis. Nostalgia-driven movies and TV shows are also lighting up screens. CBS’s Picard was a love letter to Star Trek: The Next Generation fans everywhere. Disney’s live-action Mulan film brought back the iconic and groundbreaking warrior from the '90s. And Netflix’s new Masters of the Universe series continues right where He-Man left off in 1985. According to one person quoted in the Times article, “It’s like taking a time machine.”
But why all the nostalgia now? Research may help shed some light. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers asked people to describe under what circumstances they become nostalgic. The most frequently reported triggers were negative emotions and mood states, particularly loneliness. The investigators followed this initial study with another one, this time purposely putting some participants (college students, in this case) in a negative mood by asking them to read a distressing news story. Other participants read more neutral or positive stories.
The results were surprisingly straightforward: Those who read the negative stories were subsequently more likely to engage in nostalgia than those who read the neutral or positive ones.
In other words, nostalgia is a way of coping with distress by temporarily escaping the pain of the present. And there’s no denying that the past two years have been painful and distressing. We’ve seen the fear, suffering, and loss of the COVID-19 pandemic, a string of brutal killings and violent attacks that highlight the reality of racism in our country, and a series of fires and storms that have destroyed both property and life. We’ve experienced increased political division and intense political strife. In the midst of it all, surveys show that people have been feeling more lonely and isolated, particularly younger people. It’s easy to see why it would be comforting to escape the present.
Moreover, research supports the efficacy of nostalgia as a coping mechanism. As a result of engaging in nostalgic recollections, people often report experiencing a more positive mood, feeling more socially connected, and having a greater sense that their lives are meaningful. This has led some to suggest that nostalgia might even be useful as a psychotherapeutic technique. Indeed, a six-week nostalgia intervention was shown to improve well-being in a sample of college students. In short, nostalgia seems to work.
But we shouldn’t fall in love with nostalgia too quickly. There are some important pitfalls associated with being unquestioningly nostalgic for bygone days, particularly from a social standpoint. As Joshua Fields Millburn wrote in his blog, “There’s a problem with nostalgia: it tells only half-truths.” We often remember the sweet things about a particular era, conveniently forgetting the bitter aspects. As historian Stephanie Coontz noted in a 2013 column in the New York Times, the past wasn't often such a happy place for some groups in our society, particularly those facing marginalization. “I have interviewed many white people who have fond memories of their lives in the 1950s and early 1960s,” she writes. “The ones who never cross-examined those memories to get at the complexities were the ones most hostile to the civil rights and the women’s movements.” In other words, not everyone has equal access to things worth being nostalgic about. For many, the past may not be a comforting place to take shelter. The future may be a more inviting abode.
One of the most thought-provoking quotes I’ve encountered about unbridled nostalgia came in 2008, perhaps unintendedly, from artist Mark Kennedy. Referring to the removal of his murals from Affleck's Palace in Manchester, England, he said, “Nostalgia is the death of hope.” His statement was an attempt to explain that he refused to let what had happened get him down. But I think it can also be interpreted as a warning not to use nostalgia as an excuse not to invest in the future.
Nostalgia is all about the past. Hope, in contrast, is about the future. Hope’s central message—the future can be better—is one we need now perhaps more than ever. Moreover, according to research, hope isn’t just a passive feeling. When people have hope, they actually tend to take action, and even, under some circumstances, help fuel social change. So I would argue that, in painful times like those we’ve experienced over the past two years, focusing on the future may be more productive than taking shelter in the past.
As helpful as the aforementioned research shows that nostalgia might be for some people, one study shows that looking to the future might even be more effective as a coping mechanism. At the height of COVID quarantine orders in 2020, researchers randomly assigned young adults to one of three conditions: a nostalgia intervention asking them to recall a positive event from their past, a gratitude intervention asking them to count the blessings in their current life, or a future-focused intervention asking them to imagine what life would be like once quarantine had lifted. The results are consistent with Kennedy’s sentiment: Those who participated in the future-focused and gratitude interventions showed greater levels of positive emotions than those who took part in the nostalgia intervention. In other words, we don't need to escape the present or overlook the future in order to cope.
Of course, enjoying memories from our past and reaching for a better future aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. So, even as I load up '80s video games on my now-yellowing Atari console, I remind myself that, while revisiting my past may be temporarily comforting, it’s not somewhere I can stay. Heck, it’s not even somewhere I’d want to stay.
With sustained effort and a little hope, I'd like to believe we just might be able to get through the pain of the present and move into a better future.
This article was originally published on September 29, 2021, in Psychology Today.
David Feldman is also host of the “Psychology in 10 Minutes” podcast, which can be accessed through any podcast app or at davidfeldmanphd.com.