Is There a Dark Side to Nostalgia?

As a society, we are intent on looking back. Of course, romanticizing the past, even at the expense of the present, is nothing new and seems to be part of human nature.

Yet, nostalgia feels stronger than ever, doesn’t it? Maybe this is due to the expansion of technology, which has created a sort of living cultural document and even a digital record of our own personal histories. After all, we’ve all caught ourselves scrolling through the Memories section of Facebook. Even if you don’t try to look, Facebook serves you nostalgia on your Timeline when you log in. Didn’t want to be reminded of that former haircut? Too bad.

But is nostalgia—defined by Merriam-Webster as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition”—really on the rise, and if so, could it be having an adverse effect on future generations?

Perception, meet reality

Although it seems like nostalgia is at an all-time high, no conclusive evidence has confirmed this, said Bettina Zengel, research fellow of psychology at the University of Southampton.

Graphic of several old technologies like VHS and tube television. Nostalgia pbs rewireZengel’s research hinges on personal memories, the essential building blocks of nostalgia. But she hasn’t uncovered a trend toward an increase. And, because this is an emerging area of study, the negative effects of nostalgia—if there are any—have yet to be uncovered.

“This does not mean that they do not exist, only that so far we are lacking solid evidence,” she said.

The perfect storm

Of course, the fact that science hasn’t officially declared that we’re living in the middle of a red-hot era for nostalgia doesn’t mean we can’t speculate why its role feels so omnipresent and, really, vital.

We can attribute some of this feeling to technology, but another underlying factor might hold a deeper explanation.

“Nostalgia is a resource that people can use to cope with life’s challenges,” Zengel said. “So, if we live in times that are more challenging, then we would expect for people to resort to nostalgia more often.”

The majority of adults turn to nostalgia at least once each week, Zengel said, but this could conceivably be more frequent now if people feel overwhelmed, depressed or isolated by what they’re seeing in their social media feeds or on the news.

With this influx of information, it’s harder than ever for people to avoid the divisive politics, upsetting news reports and other less-than-uplifting stuff. Turning to nostalgia—“Hey, did you know that movie you love just turned 25 years old?”—then acts as a serviceable escape and defense mechanism. How this habitual reflecting will negatively play into our future remains anyone’s guess.

‘Good’ and ‘bad’ nostalgia?

Even if we’re indulging in nostalgia more than we used to, the effects aren’t necessarily damaging. In fact, it might actually provide coming generations with a more well-balanced perspective on life and a sharper self-awareness of the world around them.

Research, for example, indicates that nostalgia inspires more connectivity with others, greater self-esteem and more empathy for those in need.

“In general, nostalgia is a psychological resource,” Zengel said. “When someone feels nostalgic, they think about the past, but they also feel more optimistic and inspired. Nostalgia is therefore anchored in the past but with a positive trajectory into the future.”

However, others, like Hal McDonald, a professor of literature and linguistics at Mars Hill University, have speculated that nostalgia may actually exist in two forms, only one of which is beneficial.

The other involves romanticizing the “good ol’ days” in stark contrast to the current harsh reality and longing for a simpler time that may not have really existed in its idealized form in the first place. This type comes up a lot in the political sphere.

“Restorative nostalgia, involving a desire to ‘rebuild the lost home,’ views the past with an eye toward recreating it—a desire to relive those special moments,” McDonald wrote for Psychology Today. “It is what spurs us to pull out our phone at 1 a. m. and call up an old boyfriend or girlfriend because we just heard ‘our song’ on the radio.

“Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, accepts the fact that the past is, in fact, past, and rather than trying to recreate a special past experience, savors the emotions evoked by its recollection.”

It will be some time before we know the full extent of how current nostalgia affects us, but it is possible that how we collectively consider our past experiences is evolving. Because we’ve archived our lives so well, we’re able to put the events into better context than previous generations, perhaps giving us a little more perspective than generations past.

A headshot of a man. PBS Rewire. Robert Yaniz Jr.

Robert Yaniz Jr. is a full-time freelance writer specializing in business, marketing and entertainment. Over the last 15 years, he has covered everything from the regional business scene to the latest movies and TV shows. You can usually find him—laptop on hand—sipping a latte or chasing after his young daughter. For more on his work, check out robertyanizjr.com or email him directly at [email protected] You can also find him on Twitter @robertyanizjr.