As someone who succumbs easily to nostalgia — supposedly this is common among those of us born under the Cancer sign — this blog permits me to hop into my personal time machine on a regular basis. And Throwback Thursday is a Hallmark card of an invitation to switch that machine into overdrive. Today I’m going to ponder why I find such indulgences so appealing.
It hurts so good?
Last year, John Tierney, writing for the New York Times, served up a fascinating piece on the role of nostalgia in our lives. He featured the research of psychology professor Constantine Sedikides (U. Southampton, U.K.), who challenges the popular notion that nostalgia must be associated with sad melancholy. Here’s a snippet:
Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.
Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.
He included a thought-provoking perspective from Dr. Sedikides:
“Nostalgia makes us a bit more human,” Dr. Sedikides says. He considers the first great nostalgist to be Odysseus, an itinerant who used memories of his family and home to get through hard times….
Writer and online “salon keeper” Stacy Horn, in her book Waiting for My Cats to Die: a morbid memoir (2001), calls nostalgia “both a self-inflicted wound and the morphine you take for the pain – a perfect reprieve from the cold, cruel light of an untampered-with day. It hurts, but it’s a good hurt.” I tend to agree, seeing nostalgia as a simultaneous pleasure/pain kinda thing.
The online version of the Times article linked to Dr. Sedikides’s webpage. The webpage includes a questionnaire called the “Southampton Nostalgia Scale,” which defines nostalgia as a “sentimental longing for the past.”
I answered the survey questions, and I clearly score off the charts. I think about my past a lot. I think about historical events and eras a lot, and I yearn to experience them, even if they preceded me by decades. I probably could get soggy about the coffee I had with breakfast yesterday if the moment was right.
The weird thing is, I’ve been this way since I was a kid. As a grade schooler, I would get nostalgic about family vacations to visit relatives in Hawaii!
Take my “Yearbook Test”
Here’s my personal test for measuring one’s propensity for nostalgia: I call it the “Yearbook Test.”
Spend some time with a college or high school yearbook, maybe one grabbed from a friend’s bookshelf or rescued from the bargain bin at a used bookstore. Although it can be from a school you attended, it shouldn’t be one from your years there or the years immediately preceding or following them. (In other words, it cannot overlap with anyone you knew from your own student days.)
Do you find yourself feeling like you “know” people in the yearbook? Do you start imagining their lives? Can you guess at the groups and cliques that may have formed up? Do you find yourself wanting to step back into that time and place to experience it personally, just to see what it was really like?
If you’re inclined to answer yes to these questions, then I’d bet a fair amount of change that you’re a nostalgia junkie. I mean, let’s face it, if you can get all sentimental over the student experiences of those from another era, then you’re a goner when it comes to nostalgia.
For the record, I’ve used ebay to obtain a smattering of old yearbooks from my undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University, and from my law school alma mater, New York University, dating from the early to mid-20th century. I can get lost in them for hours. On occasion, I’ve Googled names of students in an attempt to see what became of them.
In other words, I’m hopeless.
I have no doubt that my nostalgic tendencies dovetail with my enjoyment of history. My status as a history buff has a strong emotional component to it. For example, last year I wrote about my affinity for the 1980s mini-series “The Winds of War.” The story starts in 1939, as war clouds are swirling about Europe. It follows the fortunes of the Henry family, headed by U.S. Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry, along with his wife Rhoda, sons Warren and Byron, and daughter Madeline.
Joining them as major figures are renowned Jewish author and retired professor Aaron Jastrow and his niece, Natalie, who are living in an Italian villa. Also prominent is Pamela Tudsbury, a young British woman who travels the globe helping her father, foreign correspondent “Talky” Tudsbury, as well as foreign service officer Leslie Slote.
“The Winds of War” qualifies as a sweeping epic. It opens with Europe on the brink of another war, and it continues on through the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Throughout the story, the major characters and others cross paths, move apart, face life-threatening danger, and fall in and out of love, in places as disparate as London, Berlin, Italy, Portugal, Washington D.C., Hawaii, the Soviet Union, and the Philippines, among many others.
I find myself caught up in that dramatic sweep, imagining the lives of the characters and the look & feel of the era. I watch the full mini-series roughly once a year, and it has an odd, comforting effect on me.
How “accurate” is our nostalgia?
I understand how we often create memories that make certain times appear a lot rosier in the rear view mirror. I know that the past is rarely what it’s cooked up to be.
When it comes to feeling sentimental about historical eras, I’d love to visit 19th century London or 1920s New York. But would I actually like to live during those times, for the long haul, with no “go back” button in the event I find myself, say, in a Dickensian workhouse or a Lower East Side tenement? And despite my affinity for the Second World War years, for an American of Japanese descent, a time machine return to that period would not be desirable.
As for my own past, there are few times in my life that I’d truly like to live over again, not because I’ve had a bad life, but rather because the “do overs” I yearn for — the ones with the benefits of wisdom, hindsight, and maturity — are impossible. I was reminded of this last week, when a brief Facebook exchange with college chums led to recounting favorite eateries near the campus. Now, if someone today offered me a few years to go back to school, think big thoughts, and enjoy campus life, I’d happily take it. But would I want to return to the post-adolescent anxieties of (in my case barely) early adulthood? No thanks!
So, the bottom line: I’ll continue to indulge my nostalgic tendencies. But at least I know that the rear view mirror often serves up a distorted picture.
This post borrows several big chunks from a 2013 piece published on my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.