Monday, August 8, 2016

Nostalgia: Both Curse and Comfort

by Marcella Kearns

Ray Bradbury (top), John
Hodgman (center) and
Vanya (C. Michael Wright, bottom)
each have their own
takes on the benefits and
disadvantages of nostalgia.
“I learned to let my senses and my Past tell me all that was somehow true.” In an introduction to semi-autobiographical novel DANDELION WINE, Ray Bradbury rhapsodizes about the creative soil of memory. His fictionalized portrait of Waukegan, Illinois in the 1920s centers on young boys encountering firsthand the delights of capturing a summer’s spirit in their grandfather’s wine and a summer’s events in their reflection and writing. Even the darkest moments—and there are dark moments—remind his characters to capture and fully embrace the richness of simply living and the sweetness of remembering the past.

In VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, playwright Christopher Durang too dips into nostalgia. Siblings Vanya and Sonia look back on the past and find comfort, along, perhaps, with a trace of wistfulness or longing for what once was. That past wasn’t perfect, but its recollection has the effect of soothing them in need. Though their sister Masha declares “I can’t remember dates or decades. I just live!”, listen for what follows—even she finds herself recalling what was and what might have been.

No harm, right?

Exactly, according to Southampton professors Constantine Sedikides and Tim Wildschut, who have revolutionized thinking about this potent force and experience.

Nostalgia has been typically characterized as a useless or potentially dangerous impulse, a sense of “living in the past” without regard for present needs. Certainly, for all humans who perceive our lives unfolding along a linear timeline, idealizing the past without taking into consideration the changing circumstances of the present in order to build a healthy collective future is irrational. Writer and comedian John Hodgman often and eloquently warns of this very risky aspect of nostalgia. In an interview with Josh Jackson, he says,

Everyone who enjoyed a stable and relatively happy childhood will look back on their childhood and think that it’s the best. That’s the parlor trick of nostalgia, and it’s why nostalgia is the worst. It is a toxic impulse that leads to nothing good, honestly. The idea that things were better once and are terrible now and getting worse every minute is what fuels the worst, in my opinion, movements in contemporary culture…

Sedikides and Wildschut’s study over the course of the last decade asks us to re-frame our thinking, however. They attest that instead of vilifying nostalgia, we can and should actively employ its effects to counteract depression, anxiety, or pain. As they’ve discovered so far, nostalgia is a universal human experience and powerful for healing across cultures. This kind of thinking about the past, Sedikides explains, “is always related to intimacy maintenance: I want to remind myself of the people who are no longer here and what they meant for me. It serves to remind you of what intimacy you have achieved and therefore what you are most capable of… Nostalgia stands out as adaptive.” Indeed, historical-based research and current studies indicate that the mind, through nostalgia, actually temporarily alters the body’s perception of the condition of a room.

With this framework in hand, they have been developing nostalgia-based therapies for depression and are even beginning to explore the potential for its active use in easing the effects of Alzheimer’s. The key seems to be mindfulness of nostalgia as a tool—a calming agent, fuel for resilience in difficult periods. By connecting to the past and what we loved, we flood ourselves with warmth. Ever hear a song that “takes you back”? Smell a smell that recalls holiday meals, a loved one’s perfume, a campfire? Memory, along with that sweet tinge of longing for what’s past, buoys us.

The conclusion may seem simple, but its application is tricky. Sedikides speaks of nostalgia as the “perfect internal politician, connecting the past with the present, pointing optimistically to the future.” The trick is not to try to re-create any perceived notion of the past, but to draw on that, in Sedikides’ words, “inexhaustible bank account” to move forward. Durang’s characters certainly find an anchor in memory, but their nostalgia also serves as a platform from which to speak. Nostalgia, that anchor in the past, becomes a general reminder that warmth, love, and true connection with others in the present is possible.


Adams, Tim. “Look Back in Joy: The Power of Nostalgia.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 9 Nov. 2014. Web. 1 Aug. 2016.

Jackson, Josh. “The Real John Hodgman: We’re Not Making This Up!” Paste. Paste Magazine, 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 1 Aug. 2016.

Ward, Baldwin H., ed. Nostalgia: Our Heritage in Pictures and Words. Petaluma, CA: News Front/Year, Inc., 1975.

To continue the conversation on the topic: Charles (Chuck) Bryant and Josh Clark of STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW fame explore nostalgia (and John Hodgman’s perspective!) in an episode of their podcast. Check it out at

No comments:

Post a Comment