2016 has been a very nostalgic year. A flurry of Netflix originals, like “Stranger Things” and “The Get Down,” have capitalized on our collective dreamy eyes for a bygone era. And then there’s the onslaught of series reboots, from “Fuller House,” “Gilmore Girls,” to the ever-hyped “Twin Peaks” revival. Pokémon has even been resurrected from the Game Boy graveyard with Pokémon Go.
The ‘90s have also come back with a vengeance, as millennials lace their necks with black chokers and turn to Buzzfeed for nostalgia-porn. Forbes journalists have even highlighted something called “nostalgia marketing” as a surefire way for brands to sink their teeth into wistful youths, eager to revisit the days of Mad Libs and Oscar Mayer’s Lunchables.
Before we go any further, though, let’s trace nostalgia to its formal origins. Coined in 1688 by physician Johannes Hofer, who treated afflicted Swiss soldiers in France, nostalgia is a pairing of the ancient Greek “nóstos,” meaning, “return home,” and “álgos,” meaning “pain.” The homesick Swiss men, psychologists, and physicians mused, must have suffered neurological damage due to the cowbells prevalent in their homeland’s rolling hills, leading to acute withdrawal symptoms. Obviously, cowbells had nothing to do with the phenomenon, and psychologists soon figured out that nostalgia is neither pathology nor a form of depression. Rather, as the OED states, nostalgia is “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past.” It is a state of mind, an activity.
"Nostalgia makes us a bit more human."
In 1999, Constantine Sedikides, Ph.D., assembled a team of psychologists at Southampton University to create the Southampton Nostalgia Questionnaire, intended to track people’s experiences of nostalgia. They also conducted several studies, methodically analyzing participants’ experiences of nostalgia given different contexts and prompts. Their findings were unexpected.
Firstly, the demographic of experiencers spanned a much wider range than anticipated. As this Huffington Post article cites, “it is most common in young adults in their teens and 20s who are beginning with important life transitions, such as leaving home and beginning college or new jobs, and in adults older than 50 who are looking back and reevaluating their lives.” Digiday is calling the event “early onset nostalgia.” We cluster around shared memories, frequently using hashtags like #TBT and #FBF (Throwback Thursday and Flashback Friday, respectively) to coax the past into the present on a regular basis, even if the “past” is only a throwback to last week’s dinner party.
So, it’s official: we all experience nostalgia, and the majority of us experience it quite often. But what does it mean? Should we be worried that we’re wasting our lives pining for something we’ll never get back? The answer, according to Sedikides, is no. Not only is nostalgia harmless to our mental health, it has been shown to improve it. “Nostalgia makes us a bit more human,” he says.
To be sure, nostalgic stories are often bittersweet, tinged with the melancholy of loss. But on the whole, studies have found that individuals engaging in nostalgia feel more positive and connected to their peers. Not only does nostalgia lead to a stronger sense of interconnectedness, but it has also been shown to make people feel physically warmer. Psychologists claim that the cumulative effects of nostalgia help keep existential angst at bay, which is no small feat. While concentration on the future can induce sensations of anxiety and instability, nostalgia helps individuals to recontextualize themselves, garner a sense of purpose and approach tomorrow with a more hopeful outlook.
As with all good things, there’s a fine line not to be crossed. “If you’re not neurotic or avoidant,” Sedikides says, “I think you’ll benefit by nostalgizing two or maybe three times per week.” Flick through your life—not to search for the ways it now pales in comparison to the golden days, but to appreciate how it has led you to where you are now. Indulge in a healthy dose of reflection, rose-tinted glasses and all. It’ll do you good.