On Nostalgia

Why do we get nostalgic?

The other day, I played some games on a re-released SNES classic (super Nintendo). It was my first console, and I have so many fond memories playing Super Mario RPG, Super Mario, and Megaman, and Street Fighter 2 (Turbo).

I was super excited to play, and remembered all these nostalgic feelings of the past. Then, after 5 minutes of playing, I realized:

This isn’t as fun as I remembered it.

Which made me ponder: why do we feel nostalgic of things from the past, from our childhood, and in which contexts us nostalgia a bad thing or a good thing?

I think nostalgia is bad/dangerous when we look at the past and think, “Man, things used to be so much better back then. Now things aren’t so good.” The reason why this line of thinking is dangerous is because it makes us pessimistic about the present and the future. And I believe in order to live the most fulfilling and epic life, we must always see life with hope and optimism for today, tomorrow, and far into the future (until we die).

I think nostalgia is good when we use it as an opportunity to appreciate the past. To appreciate how far we’ve come. To appreciate the friendships of the past, our past experiences, and how much we have grown since then.

Practical ramifications of this realization:

  1. Psychologically, most humans look at their past with rose-tinted glasses, and generally tend to look at the past positively. I believe this to be a great cognitive ability for humans to erase past negative emotions and experiences, in order to move on, and live our future lives more fully. However, we must also remind ourselves how much better today is than the past. For example, being grateful for all the great new modern advances in technology, the internet, health and social progress. And we must always continue to seek to improve. To improve ourselves, and to improve society.
  2. When you are experiencing negative things today, remind yourself, “I will probably look at this situation that I’m seeing right now as being negative, in a positive way in the future.” For example, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” (Nietzsche). Our muscles only grow after we damage our micro fibers at the gym, and similarly as human beings, we only develop psychologically from (minor) trauma.

Why do we get nostalgic?

A question we also might ask ourselves,

Why do we get nostalgic?

Meaning, what are the psychological or evolutionary purpose that humans have the ability to feel nostalgic? Or is nostalgia something which is simply socialized into us?

I don’t have the answer, but here are some of my theories:

  1. Memory recording devices (cameras) are a relatively new invention. So perhaps we feel more nostalgic when we look at old photos of our past selves. Perhaps in the 1800s or in the past before the average person had photographs of their past selves, they might have felt less nostalgic, or perhaps didn’t feel nostalgia at all.
  2. “Romanticism” is a cultural concept/meme which existed in the 1800s onwards starting from France, which perhaps idealizes (or “romanticizes”) the past, and sees the past as being more interesting, more “cultured” or “better” than the present. Whereas “futurism” (happened a lot in America in the era of Bucky and NASA-space exploration), Americans were extremely optimistic about the future (baby boomer era). But nowadays, I think present day Americans are quite blasé about everything; measured indifference. I think most people nowadays aren’t so optimistic about the future, not overly pessimistic either. So perhaps nostalgia is just socialized into us through the cultural attitude of the times.
  3. Perhaps nostalgia is a psychological defense mechanism for humans, for us to help overcome traumatic past experiences and memories. I believe the faculty we have of forgetting is one of the best abilities we have; imagine the paralysis we would get if we could never forget all of the embarrassing or negative things in the past.

The ultimate takeaway and conclusion I have is this:

See the past with appreciation and gratitude, but look towards today and the future with extreme optimism!