polaroids photos on a table

Nostalgia; a Phenomenon for Well-being

The Age webpage says there are 24,861 new cases of Coronavirus in Victoria today, the 8th of January. I sink back into the couch letting the cushion swallow the full extent of my body. In the corner of the screen is a digital Post-It-Note full of errands I am yet to embark on. The list also belongs to the reality of the world out there, and so, I put it off a little longer. Instead, I open a new browser and somehow end up browsing old holidays I’ve booked with Airbnb. From Bologna to Maraquesh to Belgrave over to Hanoi then Osaka, I move around the world by way of mental time travel. Forty-five minutes passes this way.

It is when my partner arrives home to ask me if I would like some lunch, that I am pulled out of the many memories occurring inside me. As I stand up, return to the room, I recognise I feel a little less low and a little less anxious than before I browsed my Airbnb history. According to researchers, this is the working of nostalgia. Nostalgia is a powerful paradoxical emotional state in which we cast our minds back to ‘happier’ or ‘more meaningful’ times to cope with present uncertainties.

Experts believe nostalgia is a powerful coping mechanism.

Nostalgia is a combination of the Greek words ‘nostos’ (homecoming) and ‘alga’ (pain). The phenomenon was first established by Swiss medical student Jonannes Hofer in the late 1600’s. Hofer observed a pattern emerge among his patients of predominately swiss mercenaries who were living at great temporal and geographical distances from home. The mercenaries longed intensely for their estranged locations, sometimes to the point where they were fatally ill.  Hofer determined it as a disease of the mind, describing it as the product of an ‘afflicted imagination’¹. According to a paper published by the University of Southampton, some of the symptoms that accompanied this affliction included ‘persistent thinking of home, bouts of weeping, anxiety, irregular heartbeat, anorexia, insomnia, and even smothering sensations’. Hofer’s definition of nostalgia has since undergone significant scrutiny. Today, researchers and practitioners offer different explanations of nostalgia and determine that Hofer’s understanding is what we would today regard as depression. These days, experts reject nostalgia as a product of an internal imbalance of the mind, instead recognising nostalgia as a powerful coping mechanism influenced by external factors in our environment.

The psychological potential for wellbeing is in its dissociative quality.

Amusingly, one episode in the iconic TV series Mad Men reignited interest in nostalgia among psychologists. The episode features rugged adman Don Draper pitching to Kodak about their new photo slide projector. The content and delivery of this pitch conjures the unique emotion associated with the phenomena of nostalgia. While clicking through happy moments of his past on a projector, Draper describes the power of the photograph and thus the projector as a catalyst for nostalgia. He describes it as ‘a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone’, that this device ‘isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine’ pivoting between the here-now and the places we ache to go again. The emotional state of nostalgia is bittersweet as it is made up of two oppositional conditions we don’t naturally place together. Though, when mixed, the product is this unique experience in which one is immensely happy and sad at the same time.

Further, the psychological potential for wellbeing is in its visceral and dissociative quality where we are allowed to leave the present moment and its stressors and enter a moment from the past. In the same way music can colour our interpretation of our environment and the way film can remove us from it altogether, nostalgia has the capacity to shift our perspective on the present moment by dissociating from it. It is for this reason researchers believe it is not symptomatic of a person’s inability to adapt to the realities of the constantly changing world, but it plays an important positive role in the human psyche.

 Twenty years old is a particularly significant time in our lives – it represents when you ushered your adult self in.

There are two points chapters in my life I am particularly nostalgic towards. The first is primary school as it represents a time in which I was indifferent to the expectations of the female body, both as an aesthetic object and its functional, reproductive purpose. It had not yet been sexualised, become an object of desire or a means of measuring my own self-worth and I often find myself longing for this simplicity. The second is rather common and lends an explanation as to why I find the Airbnb trips so impaling: They concern a year I spent abroad when I was nineteen going on twenty.

Researchers point out that for most of the human population, twenty is a particularly significant time in our lives for it represents when you ushered your adult self in. Twenty is a precipice brimming with hope and possibility (tertiary studies, career options, travel opportunities, new postcodes, first romantic experiences). Twenty is not only a moment post-childhood where one is granted independence, freedom, choice, but it is also a moment pre- commitment as one carries no emotional baggage, responsibilities, or major disappointments. I often look back at this naïve, ambitious young woman who was indifferent to many of the wounds and injustices I know today.

Nostalgia anchors us to a place that is normal, familiar, palatable. In this reverie, fear briefly subsides.

If nostalgia is a product of loss and loss is a product of change, it is no wonder nostalgia is a state of mind symptomatic of the pandemic. Having navigated the many lockdowns solo, I have often caught myself browsing iPhone memories of Easter’s, Christmas’ and birthday’s before COVID-19 was even a rumour in an international newspaper. It seems, amidst the chaos of tens of thousands of cases, GP’s pleading for help, and people trespassing and raiding warehouses for rapid antigen tests, nostalgia has served as a therapeutic tool capable in counteracting the loneliness as well as soothing the incomprehensible reality unfolding outside. It seems to anchor us to a place that is normal, familiar, palatable. In this reverie, the fear briefly subsides. Many individuals across the world have reported a retreat to music, media, literature, entertainment, and artefacts belonging to a time before COVID-19. The intensity of the nostalgia one may feel during a global pandemic can be likened to unapologetic yearning. Rationally we know the past is irreversible, that we cannot recapture it, only revisit it, and revisit it we should.

Regular nostalgic exercise correlates with optimism and planning for one’s future.

It may sound counterintuitive to look back to help us move forward. However, researchers have found regular nostalgic exercise correlates with optimism and planning for one’s future. For example, one might look back and possess regrets about what they could have or should have done. This awareness may then be applied to the present moment as well – “I’m going to make use of all this around me today, now”. Researcher’s state those who draw on nostalgia as a coping mechanism in times of adversity will experience greater and healthier outcomes than those who do not. Those who do not, may instead turn to avoidance or distraction by way of harmful behaviours and substances in effort to mediate the uncertainty, fear, or loss.

Therefore, we might begin to understand nostalgia as a skill worthy of our investment, as it assists us in forming a constructive narrative for ourselves in these tumultuous times. Researchers are confident that conscious indulgence in nostalgia helps to re-establish psychological equilibrium. It improves our mood, attitude, social connectedness, and self-esteem by nurturing continuity between our past and present. Ultimately, it works to lend our lives meaning. So, when you find yourself dipping into memories past, it could be worth sitting in the bittersweetness and letting them permeate the here and now.