The value of nostalgia in a pandemic

It can be tempting to think of nostalgia as a set of rose-coloured glasses that idealize the past, but there’s so much more to it than that. Nostalgia can counteract things like loneliness, boredom, anxiety and uncertainty by giving us something familiar to hold onto. When revisiting our past, we can regain a sense of […]
Photo: Madalyn Howitt

It can be tempting to think of nostalgia as a set of rose-coloured glasses that idealize the past, but there’s so much more to it than that.

Nostalgia can counteract things like loneliness, boredom, anxiety and uncertainty by giving us something familiar to hold onto.

When revisiting our past, we can regain a sense of control and direction that calms our fears about the present.

When I’ve thought back on all the confusion, uncertainty and loneliness I’ve felt because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve noticed that revisiting better memories has helped me feel at ease.

It may sound like I’m just trying to ignore the current reality of the world, but I don’t see it that way. Instead of dwelling upon all the things I can’t control or the things I can’t do anymore, I’ve found comfort in the past.

Instead of feeling trapped in a present that I have little control over, I’ve listened to music or watched movies I used to love. I’ve adventured through Hyrule and wandered through Westeros by revisiting some of my favourite franchises.

I’ve let myself reminisce and feel like a kid again and afterward, I don’t feel as lost. In fact, I feel more confident that things will turn out well.

“It’s okay to go back there, as long as you don’t get stuck there,” said Cheyne Gallarde in his TED Talk, The Power of Nostalgia. “The trick is to let it ground you but not let it weigh you down.”

Amidst all the uncertainty, anxiety, loneliness and boredom caused by COVID-19, I ask you this: Why not let yourself take a break and be a little nostalgic?

When the term nostalgia was first used in 1688, Dr. Johannes Hoffer described it as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.” Since then, it’s had a rather negative connotation, to say the least.

It’s been thought of as something to be used and abused by corporations through advertisements or something that makes old movies seem much better than they actually were. But there’s more to nostalgia than your grandfather giving you the old ‘back in my day’ spiel.

It can be easy to feel negatively about nostalgia, but it’s not necessarily right. Looking back with fondness at the past doesn’t mean you’re trapped in it, it just means you’re taking a break from the present so you can come back stronger.

“Nostalgia can give our lives texture,” said Gallarde. “It reminds us that we are valuable people, that we have meaningful lives.”

In more recent years, studies into the effects and different types of nostalgia have shown that rarely are we trapping ourselves in the past, but instead, are finding ourselves in it.

Research by the University of Southampton shows that nostalgia “elevates mood, self-esteem, and a sense of social connectedness; it fosters perceptions of continuity between past and present; it increases meaning in life; and it ‘fights off’ death cognitions.”

An article by National Geographic suggests that people turn to nostalgia in times of loss, anxiety, isolation and uncertainty. I struggle to think of many things in recent memory that have brought about as much isolation, anxiety and uncertainty as COVID-19.

And it’s not all peachy. Nostalgia is after all a ‘bittersweet emotion.’ When we allow ourselves to reminisce on the pleasantness of the past, we force ourselves to face the inevitable shock of returning to the present.

But that shock isn’t that bad. And it shows us that there is more to life than the current situation.

When we get caught up with all the problems in the world, nostalgia can give us a much needed break. It can contextualize a situation and remind us that things weren’t always how they are now, and that things won’t always be like this.

So the next time you feel a yearning to watch a familiar movie from childhood or remember something you haven’t thought about in years, don’t feel bad about it. Instead, let yourself find comfort in it and trust that things will be alright.

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