When we think back to our blissful past, forget about our mistakes and embarrassments for a moment, it is called nostalgia. But nostalgia was not always considered in such a positive light.
The term nostalgia was first used by Johannes Hofer in 1688, in his medical dissertation. Hofer used the term to describe the symptoms displayed by Swiss mercenaries in the service of European monarchs.
Hofer coined the term nostalgia from the German word for homesickness, Heimweh, which at its root refers to the Greek words of nostos (return) and algos (suffering). When combined, the Greek became the word we know today as nostalgia or more literally, the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return (home).
To tell the truth, I found the association between homesickness and being neurotic or disturbed to be disquieting.
I too have felt homesick when away at camp as an adolescent and had pangs of homesickness when as a soldier in Vietnam. The feelings became less and less after I had become acclimated, and when I felt less threatened by the unknown.
What about you? Ever have a pang of homesickness while away as a child? As an adult? When I think of nostalgia now I think about a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.
Scientifically, nostalgic feelings, similar to happiness or sadness, are unavoidable chemical reactions in a person’s brain. Like many emotions, nostalgia has been dissected and studied by psychologists. Where joy triggers neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, nostalgia too creates similar responses in the brain.
Yang and others in a science paper published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found that when we feel nostalgic it involves brain activities implicated in self-reflection processing, autobiographical memory processing, emotion regulation processing and reward processing. WOW, What a potent stimulation and without a prescription!
As Scanlan noted in his 2004 introduction to the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, nostalgia “was not, and is not, simple. It crosses multiple categories simultaneously. We can talk about it as a cultural phenomenon and as an individual experience. We can view it directly or indirectly.”
As the saying goes, “it’s complicated.” Nostalgia’s complication comes from what it looks like, how it works, and upon whom it works.
I never thought of nostalgia as an illness, nor do I now, in its milder forms. But in Hofer’s time and through the 20th century, the soldiers and mercenaries were struggling with something more severe. The doctors were struggling too. They were trying to figure out the symptoms they were seeing, but what they had at their disposal was limited, and definitely not based on science.
Just as we do today with symptoms that have not been figured out, the doctors, in the past, relied on anecdotal evidence. In other words, what they saw was what they got and described it in Latin or Greek. And what they saw in the 17th through the 19th centuries were soldiers who were struggling with the horrors of war including exposure to dying friends, death and destruction, which resulted in their becoming depressed and traumatized.
Is all of this starting to sound familiar? A hint, PTSD! The term nostalgia as a war experience as we now know, was initially a confusion between a connection (longing for home) and a cause (feeling trauma due to the suffering of their inability to return home).
In today’s world, nostalgia is thought of as a wish or projection into the past “oh wouldn’t it be nice if… or wasn’t it better when…”
For some of those wishes, you are probably right. The times in our past when there was less pressure or fewer responsibilities seems peaceful or even quaint. But memory can be fickle.
We typically recall the past imperfectly. Unless you experience hyperthymesia. Hyperthymesia is also known as highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM). Our memories of the past are a confabulation, that is, a combination of what took place and our personal slant based on our own life experiences. So, our reverie for the nostalgia we long for, may not be all it was cracked up to be when it was taking place in real time.
As a forensic, when possible, I ask collateral sources who were present at the time of the crime or incident, the exact same questions about the same event. My experience is not unlike yours, I typically get three modified versions, each from a different perspective. Why not, they each had a different experience, therefore they each had a different recollection. Where it becomes dicey is when the collateral sources are police officers who were wearing body cameras, and the videos and their written statements did not coincide.
I digress, nostalgia is the desire to feel what we felt, see again what we saw and experience again the tranquil pleasantness of our past. What’s your perspective? Is nostalgia a good thing?
My personal prejudice is that nostalgia, even though it is unlikely that we can avoid it, is not a bad thing when taken in small doses. Nostalgia helps us reckon with and overcome present day failures. It can offer us insights into how we can calm ourselves about any anticipatory anxiety we have about our future.
Some scientists call nostalgia an important resource for psychological health and well-being. Krystine Batcho, a psychological researcher, when interviewed on the podcast Speaking of Psychology, said that nostalgia has multiple beneficial effects including a strengthened social connectedness; continuity of self; enhanced self-esteem; adaptive coping strategies; meaning in life; and comfort in the face of one’s mortality. I agree. What about you?
Nostalgia works best when we do not use it as a means to resist meaningful productive change. Nostalgia works when accepting our present will allow us to open ourselves to new experiences.
Hello friends and readers of the Psychologically Speaking monthly column.
It has been about two and a half years since having launched my column in the American Israelite. Since the beginning of the column, I have spoken about both forensic and everyday events, along with some topics about current news events like my last column on Artificial Intelligence.
I continue to explore areas that capture my interest and attention and appreciate your reading the columns and your questions and comments. Keep them coming!
The column was created in the spirit of exploring questions and topics that were not answered for me from other sources.
Psychologically Speaking has been an opportunity for my personal explorations, and while writing it I have been interested in finding out the answers. But I may be missing topics that interest you.
In full disclosure, I would appreciate knowing what topics you would want to know about? Send me your questions, thoughts, and misunderstandings to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am particularly interested in topics about our culture, and psychology in everyday life. How about you?
I believe a column that keeps a reader’s interest is one which promotes conversation and I believe your feedback will help to make the column better. I have some exciting topics planned for the months to come, and I look forward for you to be a bigger part of Psychologically Speaking.
Thanks for reading. Ken Manges, Ph.D.