Intentionally Exploring Nostalgia: Its Ups And Downs

Why is nostalgia important? In this article suggests some reasons why nostalgia is actually a positive emotion we should embrace and actively seek, rather than try to repress.

I started to think about nostalgia as a condition when I came across Nathaniel Drew’s YouTube video, I Quit Social Media For 30 Days: My Journey in Time Travel.

Throughout the video, Nathaniel explained that he took a social media break because he felt that the constant scrolling and checking of information were becoming addictive and non-productive. He went on what he calls an “information diet”, to get back to a past self who hadn’t been engulfed by the Internet yet.

In doing so, he realised that - without the constant distraction of social media - he was forced to confront aspects of himself he hadn’t thought about in a long time. 

During his internet hiatus, he recognised that he was hit by waves of nostalgia for bygone worlds that no longer exist. In the video, Nathaniel decides to cultivate his nostalgia by recreating an environment that would have been familiar to him when he was younger: a world without social media.

He, therefore, reactivates versions of himself that have been forgotten or put aside. For example, a younger Nathanial would not have had to deal with the pressure of looking a certain way for his social media posts. By purposefully evoking his nostalgia for a time when getting likes was not a priority, he is able to overcome appearance expectations encouraged by social media.

He states that by essentially going back in time and switching off his social media channels, his self-image improved. I believe that this is a demonstration of how remembering your past self can be a positive experience for the construction of your present self. 

Similarly, fellow YouTuber Johnny Harris also decided to investigate nostalgia in his video, THE NOSTALGIA THEORY.

He intentionally exposes himself to old smells, textures, pictures, and journals to see what that does to his brain and to his current self.

He developed his own theory: as memories of old events fade, new events will help to construct a new story of who we think we are and how we feel about ourselves.

This happens on a loop. Old memories are stored away, and new memories replace the old ones constructing a newer version of yourself. In this case, nostalgia is about retrieving old memories to draw a richer, more complete picture of who you are now. 

Researchers say that nostalgia can actually change the brain: neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez says that when we encounter a meaningful memory, certain neurons fire in the brain which oversees emotional processing.

A sort of neural communion between our emotional network and our memory occurs, creating positive feelings. Johnny Harris discusses such studies and how nostalgia has a healing improvement on mental health issues, such as loneliness.

He states that nostalgia is like a medicine: it can cure us, but we have to be careful not to abuse it.

Image Source: Unsplash

In this article, I also want to intentionally explore nostalgia from a historical, political, and personal point of view. In doing this, I hope to assess how we may cope with nostalgia’s ups and downs to enrich our present selves.

Nostalgia is a way to rediscover history and re-invent the present

Historically, nostalgia has been used to, not only overcome a certain struggle with the present, but also to improve its social, humanistic, and even artistic problems. This was often driven by a yearning for a “golden age”, as was the case for example with the Renaissance period in Europe. 

Due to the rediscovery of classical Greek and Latin thinking, we may consider the Renaissance as a sort of longing for classical antiquity. This historical phenomenon can be used to demonstrate how nostalgia can actually be a positive and productive feeling.

Nostalgia affected the creativity and innovation of many Renaissance artists, politicians, and philosophers, like Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli, who ached for a no longer attainable past.

This allowed a complete reshaping of the contemporary society based on forgotten notions of the classical past.

Many observers would agree that the Renaissance was not, in fact, so much a period of cultural advance as it was spurred on by a clear nostalgia for classical antiquity.

It seems that it was encouraged by a desire to improve one’s present condition by looking back to a much more glorious past.

Somewhat relating back to what Nathaniel Drew argues in his YouTube video, we could compare the Renaissance to his experiment of purposefully evoking nostalgia to enrich one’s present experiences.

If we think about such an important historical period using Drew and Harris’s nostalgia theory, then we can maybe apply the same concept to our own lives – giving us a constructive way to cope with nostalgia. 

Nostalgia as a tool for manipulation and political propaganda

Nonetheless, as pointed out by Johnny Harris, nostalgia also has a dark side.

Nostalgia can be used during hard times as a coping mechanism, but it can also be exploited and used as a tool of manipulation: for instance, in politics. Politicians, such as Donald Trump, have made it possible to use nostalgia as a weapon to mobilize support through slogans such as “Make America Great Again”. This is based on a distorted (or even untrue) memory of the past.

Politically, nostalgia is often used to manipulate the opinion of many people who may be struggling with social change, by giving them the picture of an idealised past to latch on to. 

Useless to say, this can be incredibly harmful – both from a micro and macro point of view. I think it perpetuates an unhealthy view that clinging on to, and ultimately being stuck in the past, is okay.

This prevents any individual (or any society, for that matter) to move on, denying everyone a chance for progressiveness. 

This goes back to what Johnny Harris says when comparing nostalgia to medicine: too much of a good thing can indeed be harmful if abused.

My own attempt to purposefully evoke nostalgia

Personally, nostalgia is for me a synonym of homesickness.

As an immigrant, living far away from my country, I often find myself aching with an oppressive melancholy. This can sometimes be an actual physical reaction to recalling old memories: I can feel my chest tightening whenever I think of home, a soft punch to the stomach when I’m reminded of a place or a person that is currently unreachable.

Nostalgia really is bittersweet and contradictory. Johnny Harris put it in a way that really resonated with me:

It’s like I’m mourning something yet celebrating it too.

For the purpose of this article, I too wanted to practice intentionally evoking nostalgia.

But I quickly realised the danger for everybody when dealing with nostalgia is getting stuck in the past and forgetting to live in the present. For instance, sometimes when I am at home with my family, I feel nostalgic ahead of time. I find myself thinking about when I will have to leave and how desperately upset I will feel. The present essentially already becomes the past.

This is not healthy at all and has made me realise the importance of practising how to handle our nostalgic feelings. 

It is even more important to check how we are all coping with nostalgia in our current climate, where we are all divided between pre and post-Covid-life. I for one feel nostalgic when thinking about what life was like pre-Covid and I know many feel the same desire to go back.

By the law of nature, nothing will ever be exactly the same so we might as well learn how to adapt; while at the same time we should use our collective nostalgia to improve the present and make the most of it.

Hence why I decided to take Harris and Drew’s advice to practice intentionally evoking nostalgia to enrich, rather than inhibit, my current experiences. 

As we have established, even though timeworn memories may be an idealised picture of the past, purposefully retrieving these can have a great impact on our current experience.

Here are some examples of how you can cope with nostalgia in a positive and productive manner: 

1. To enhance your creativity

Use nostalgia by letting my homesickness be an inspiration to create art that is a celebration of my roots. The past year I have used my nostalgia as an opportunity to create theatrical content based on my home country.

2. To appreciate the people around you

Use nostalgia as an incentive to really appreciate the people around me that have made my past and continue to make my present so memorable. Whenever I felt melancholic, I reached out to my loved ones to make more unforgettable memories together.

3. To motivate yourself

Use it to motivate me to work harder in the present, so that I can top the memories that are making me nostalgic and make the present even better. Not by trying to recreate the past, but by attempting to use its lessons to make the present better.  

I firmly believe that we are all looking for a version of the past that no longer exists, much like the Renaissance people did with classical antiquity.

It is only natural to yearn for times gone by, but we must realise that there is always the risk of romanticising the past as seen with recent political events.

Through this experiment, I have come to the realisation that we can utilise this sometimes-negative feeling and turn it around so as to better enjoy the present. 

Overall, we should change the way we approach nostalgia as it enables us to retrospectively review our past experiences. This can be very rewarding for the construction of our current self.

Nostalgia can be the key to a more fulfilling human experience if only we changed our perception of it: we should stop dreading it and welcome it instead.

English Literature and Theatre Studies student at the University of Glasgow. Italian.

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