WHY ARE WE SO OBSESSED WITH NOSTALGIA? A walk down memory lane reveals interesting truths.
With us enjoying revamped TV shows, more sequels than you can poke a stick at, the return of the Nokia 3310, and the overhaul of our closet, we explore why the pull of nostalgia has hit full-blown peak.
Ah, nostalgia: that lovely feeling of turning your brain back to a former time in the pursuit of happiness. It seems of late we’re all keen on a jog down memory lane, from the daily rumors of a Spice Girls reunion to the collective shit we lost for the Gilmore Girls reboot—which averaged 2.4 million views when it aired—not to mention daily listicles spouting click-bait like “24 Things Every ‘90s Girl Knows.” Now throw in a Will & Grace reunion, the old Nokia Snake game as an iphone app, and Reese Witherspoon calling for a Legally Blonde 3 because “women need positivity” and, well, you’ve got yourself one fine stew of nostalgia.
But why the eff are we so amped on the past?
“It’s that inner child reminder—the playfulness of adolescence—we get from these nostalgic articles,” psychologist Melissa Podmore explains. “We are reconnecting with that freedom and joy we had at that time in our lives.”
“When we reminisce, there is a lovely flood of endorphins that goes through the body,” she continues. “That feel-good hormone is quite addictive; that’s why we can watch The
Notebook 20 times; there’s a bio-chemical factor. It’s like when we have a hot chocolate, we get a warm, fuzzy feeling from endorphins.”
Dr. Glen Donnar, lecturer in pop culture at RMIT University in Melbourne, suggests it’s more a tool to cope with our insecurities.
“It might be a response to illness, distress, or something being wrong, and the nostalgia seeks to resist or counter it,” he says. “So when people talk about being nostalgic, as if they are going into the past, in some ways it might help us understand ourselves and our present. It is a way for us to deal with dramatic change or perceived threat. In some ways it places us at the center of our own story and memories again.”
Professor Constantive Sedikides from the University of Southhampton with Dr. Tim Wildschut from Urrecht in the Netherlands theorized that nostalgia is a “driver of empathy, social connectedness, and a potent internal antidote for loneliness and alienation.”
“Nostalgia compensates for... feelings of meaninglessness or a discontinuity between past and present,” said Wildschut in their experiments. “What we find in these cases is that nostalgia...is like a vitamin and an antidote to those states. It serves to promote emotional equilibrium, homeostasis.”
Back in 2012, Sedikides and Wildschut, alongside Xinyue Whou and Ding-guo Gao, found that listening to some nostalgic music caused the temperatures of participants in the study to rise. Nostalgia literally made them feel warm. Like a Snuggie (is it too early to feel nostalgic for a Snuggie?). In the same study, they found that nostalgia also increased perceptions of social support, made us feel less lonely, and gave us feelings of safety.
Think about those chats you have at work that start with “Do you remember going to Easter parties and wearing fluffy bunny ears to hunt for eggs?” Quirky example, sure, but this sentence usually ends with a discussion of the memory, as well as an in-depth comparison that makes us feel like we all have things in common; like we belong to the same branch of society. We’re united in our shared memory.
However, Dr. Mark Steven from University of New South Wales feels that nostalgia can sometimes be damaging for a community as it potentially stops us from accessing new levels of society. “According to some thinkers, closed horizons and an acceptance that how things are is how they have to be.” In other words, if we are only finding joy in the past, we’re not coming up with fresh new ideas to propel ourselves forward as a community. He asks, “How do we imagine a different, better world if we can’t look beyond our past?”
Good question. Pop culture gives us our nostalgia on tap in the form of endless reruns and remakes. But in that way, Dr. Steven believes that these nostalgic efforts run the risk of becoming so normal that acts who borrow from the past fail to produce anything truly modern or fresh. He refers to musicians like Mark Ronson or DMA’S. “They are thoroughly and absolutely nostalgia acts, recalling ‘60s soul and ‘90s Britpop, and yet that’s how they’re marketed. There’s no nostalgia for the historical past here...[it’s] as though the future and all its possibilities have vanished.”
Yet performers have found inspiration from acts that came before them since someone plucked the first guitar string. Think Lady Gaga’s homage to Madonna in general, Beyonce’s sampling of Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” on her visual album Lemonade, and Britney’s “Stronger” video clip resembling Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much” chair dance.
When it comes to pop culture, there’s an even clearer reason than psychology that we’re seeing more of the past: that reason is money. Aside from being a distraction from our everyday lives, nostalgia has also become a massive money maker as advertisers hitch their wagons to the consumerism of reflection.
“There is one main party to the drive towards reviving and rebooting cultural texts,” says Dr. Donnar. “And that is the cultural producers, such as streaming services. They need content, because we live in a multichannel, multi-platform media environment.” For an on-demand streaming service that needs 24/7 content, nostalgia can provide a fully stocked pantry with the click of a button. The fact that we still fry our bacon to
Friends 20 years after it left screens means that nostalgia is pretty much a commercial piggybank for these content producers.
“Whether it’s ‘00s classics like The O.C. or Sailor Moon’s
“Pop culture gives us our nostalgia on tap.”
makeup range, people can’t get enough of nostalgic content,” says Cosmopolitan. com.au’s content director, Emily Kerr. “It shows that this kind of pop culture gold won’t quit.”
“What strikes me about leveraging nostalgia now is that it’s no longer harking back to a time 30 years ago,” says Imogen Hewitt, joint executive strategy director for the Havas Group in Australia. “The speed at which the world changes means we can be nostalgic for something that’s only 10 years old. Connected to this is how people feel about the state of the world at the moment. For many people, a difficult present makes for more nostalgia. This then has a knock-on effect for brands trying to tap into the mood of their consumers.”
We all have advertisements with which we feel an affinity. Think about the Ovalteenies, Sprite, or Jollibee ads. The way we feel about a brand and the memories it invokes is a powerful tool; brands invest a lot of time and money into capitalizing on that connection.
Nostalgia isn’t restricted to tech, either. Walk into a store and you’ll be confronted by a modern recreation of fashions past. Style’s love for all things nostalgic goes beyond Kendall Jenner wearing a glo-mesh dress to her 21st birthday a la Paris Hilton circa 2002; overalls are still a thing, the plastic chokers we wore when we were 10 are back, and each day we all resist the corset craze.
Our obsession declares our desire to hold onto the material of our nostalgia, according to Dr. Steven. “It speaks to our want to possess something that, even if mass produced, is uniquely ours,” he says. “This is a question of value and how our possessions relate to our lives more generally.”
We hold on to the dream of yesteryear as long as it makes us feel better. But more and more, however, diehard fans of the original incarnation are standing up and saying, “No more!” They are sick of your walks down memory lane.
As Dr. Donnar explains, although our feelings towards something we find nostalgic might change over time as we re-experience it, ( we still feel a certain ownership over these texts. The ( problem with this ownership is when we get so protective, and the nostalgia becomes less about community and social intimacy and more about the exclusion of new versions and fans. Read: the whole uproar surrounding the Ghostbusters remake.
Right now we’re living with a fear about the future. Will Trump f*ck up our world? At the very least, will he f*ck up freedom of the press? Will our avocado habits keep us off the property ladder? Will the gender pay gap ever truly close? We’re in need of something good and shiny to distract us.
“Even if it feels like a retreat in some ways, just going back has a positive impact,” says Dr. Donnar. “We live in uncertain times, and it just helps us get by in the present.”
Modern nostalgia acts as a deliberate daydream that reminds us of a time when we were happy. There’s nothing wrong with being happy. So now that Trump is ruining running the world, let’s instead think about his cameo in Home Alone as opposed to his possession of the nuclear codes. Feeling warm yet?
This picture collage making you feel things? It’s only natural. old school cool