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The Misleading Power of Nostalgia

Used it correctly, however, and you can strengthen your relationships.s


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Max Phillips

a year ago | 4 min read

In its last episode, The Office (US) touches on anticipatory nostalgia, where you miss what you have not yet lost:

“I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”

During university, I often realized the moment would soon become a memory and began to miss it already. I tried to savor as much as I could — gradually learning from my mistakes, and stopping the good times flying by without drinking them in correctly.

But, as I’ve learned throughout my 23 years, personal nostalgia — where you miss what you’ve lost — is more prevalent.

When I left school, I didn’t appreciate it at all. I went from a relatively easy life — messing around with friends and a school curriculum I enjoyed — to the stresses of university. My second year of university was the best time of my life — those “good old days” became distant memories. And I’m sure in 15 years I’ll look back on my twenties with a similar longing.

It’s nice to look back fondly. But, if you’re not careful, lingering in the past can leave a distaste for your present.

You run the risk of getting high on your nostalgic supply.

However, use the correct mindset and nostalgia can be what you intended — a fond glance into your past used to enrich your life, not to resent your current state.

You must first understand one thing for that to happen: there is more to nostalgia than meets the eye.

Your distaste for the present fuels a longing for the past

The film Midnight in Paris is almost entirely about our relationship with nostalgia.

Gil, played by Owen Wilson, is a struggling writer visiting Paris with his wife. He believes the 1920s were Paris’ golden era, and while walking alone at midnight, he accidentally travels back in time and meets idols such as Ernest Hemingway.

Resenting the modern day he lives in, Gil longs to live in the 1920s, but he’s taught a painful lesson:

“Nostalgia is denial — denial of the painful present.”

There are always problems with the world you live in, and because you’re living it, you’re more aware of them. But, once you move on, it’s easy to only remember the good bits.

Nostalgia, in essence, is our brain’s highlight reel.

The film dives into this some more:

“The name for this denial is golden age thinking — the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in — it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”

Nostalgia shouldn’t be your main course. Instead, it’s a side dish — something you don’t necessarily need but might desire at some stage.

Besides, it can easily warp your narrative. In many ways, it already has.

Nostalgia makes us unreliable narrators

Shows such as Stranger Things perform so well because they make you yearn for a different time. I wasn’t born until 1998, yet the show made me want to live in the 80s. It used popular culture everyone recognizes to ensure its viewers watch through nostalgia-tinted beer goggles.

This disproportionate view of reality doesn’t stop there.

When you recount memories of an event, they’re from your perspective, so they might not be 100% accurate. And, when those memories are good ones, your brain might cut out the negatives and feed you an unreliable narrative. Although, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as who wants to cringe at something they did nine years ago, right?

However, while potentially dangerous, nostalgia certainly has a place in your life.

Use nostalgia to fuel your relationships

While studies have shown the harmful effects of nostalgia, it can be a powerful bonding tool — especially if shared with others.

Whenever I see my friends, we surge through our old trips to Budapest, Prague, Amsterdam, and more. We tell the same stories, but they don't get boring. Someone might tell it from a different perspective or perhaps unlock a new memory altogether. But that’s not the main thing.

Tapping into shared nostalgia helps enrich your relationships as you revel in a memory you all share.

Memories are just that, but you shouldn’t confine them to the deepest corners of your brain. Instead, use them to fuel the fire in your friendships, family, and romantic life. Sure, go and make new ones, but there’s an arsenal waiting to be used.

Nostalgia is a hidden personal development tool

As we love dipping into the past, we may as well use it proactively.

You can familiarize yourself with the person you used to be. Look at how much you’ve changed so you can admire the person you’ve become.

For example, I often long for university — the time of my life. However, I didn’t want to burst that bubble, so I ignored the future. As a result, I ended up lost once I graduated.

Nowadays, I’m always planning my next move to ensure that doesn’t happen again. Tripping on my memory-induced nostalgia allows me to compare and, for a short while, bask in my growth.

If you’re struggling and feel like an abject failure, get high on your nostalgic supply. Compare your past selves to now.

Everyone needs a pat on the back once in a while.

Bring memories to the present and use them for good

Dr. Constantine Sedikides, a psychology professor at the University of Southampton, once said“Nostalgia makes us a bit more human.”

It’s natural to miss your past. What you shouldn’t do is stay there.

When you get lost in a memory, you’re bringing it to the present day. The key is ensuring you learn to appreciate both your past and present have ups and downs. Favoring one will only make you resent the other.

Miss the old days, but don’t let them taint your present perspective.

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