Why Are We So Nostalgic?
Unveiling nostalgia’s cultural ascendance
This essay was featured in the Soaring Twenties Social Club’s monthly set-theme Symposium. The topic for this issue was nostalgia. Check out the full collection below.
Nostalgia: a beautiful sight for sore eyes and a romantic feeling that few can adequately capture in words, song, or picture. Obscure emotions like nostalgia are beautiful to witness, but their ebbs and flows within individuals and groups can tell us quite a bit about those individuals and groups themselves. Let’s discuss the cultural ascendance of nostalgia and what that means about us as a culture and as individuals.
Nostalgia sells like sex sells. New movies tend to be sequels, prequels, and remakes of the classics. The recent cultural ascendance of nostalgia is not a profound or unique insight as even South Park elegantly captured this concept through the town’s infatuation with Memberberries in their 20th season. Social commentary like South Park begs us to ask the next question: why are we so nostalgic?
Let’s attempt to answer that question by breaking down a few possible explanations into a couple distinct categories about the culture:
The ascendance of nostalgia is a natural symptom of the current culture
Nostalgia serves as an individual’s rebellion against the cultural hegemony
Nostalgia as a Symptom of the Artistic Dark Age
The least insightful answer you hear is that nostalgia is a symptom of the decline in art quality. While an uninspired answer, it is worth exploring. Before we begin, let’s consider what separates the artistic from the prosaic. I have no authority on the topic, but I’ll still attempt to define art:
Art is an expression of the soul through the production of a tangible creation
To dissect this definition a little bit, there are two necessary ingredients to create transcendent art:
Love of the game is needed to master a creative skill - without this love you’ll quit before your talent shines
Soul in the Game: your creation needs to be a genuine expression of your soul (i.e. your version of the Truth)
The current zeitgeist suggests college, the hustle, and side businesses are the way to the good life. Every endeavor must be a means to an end instead of simply for the sake of its enjoyment. Very rarely do you see people producing something solely because it brings them joy. Ask your coworkers what hobbies they have outside work. Most will give you a weird look and only a sliver will share something artistic.
Of those that have artistic hobbies, only a tiny proportion have the attitude to stick with it long enough to create something truly transcendent. The cultural shift towards nihilism, fear of failure, shiny object syndrome, comfortable mediocrity, excessive concern with the opinions of others, and even the fear of success and its responsibilities are potent deterrents from mastering a skill and sharing it with the world. The culture's influence prevents most people from loving their creative outlets enough to overcome these deterrents.
Further, the culture's economic incentives drive many to express themselves for the sake of money instead of authentic expression through a mastered medium. Although overdone and cliché, there is something to be said about the correlation between selling out and a decline in art quality. Economic incentives remove your soul from the game.
How does this tie back to nostalgia? In this environment, there are two major cultural pressures that feed off each other. One, more consumers are pushed back to the classics - or a longing for a time when great art was made - because fewer people commit themselves to a life of producing transcendent art. Two, the culture’s economic incentives infiltrate art, leaving us with more sellouts without soul in the game who lazily write prequels, sequels, and remakes of past box-office knockouts. Notice that both of these cultural pressures run in direct contrast to the recipe for transcendent art.
The result is a positive feedback loop of supply and demand for nostalgia. More people want nostalgia, so the studios do their jobs and produce what the people want. Since less studios produce original art, more people desire the classics and the good ole days of art. This repeats ad nauseum and voila! The Artistic Dark Age has arrived.
This argument heavily relies on an anecdotal and possibly unfair cynicism towards the current culture. Perhaps cultural decline isn’t the right answer. If we look back to when music and radio were the dominant art forms, remakes of already hit songs were frequent headliners. Perhaps nostalgia is more evergreen than a simple decline in art quality.
Nostalgia as a Symptom of Risk Aversion
The safe and secure path is the journey to the good life. At least that’s what the average middle-class American will tell you. You want to start a business? Fuhgeddaboutit, that’s too risky. Instead, you should go to a good college and get a marketable degree, so you can get a stable job with a big company that offers 401(k) matching and other benefits. Conventional wisdom insists you max out your retirement accounts and diversify your investment portfolio with index funds to ensure you’re hedged against risk while safely earning passive income. Oh, and don’t forget to keep six months of living expenses stored under your mattress in case you lose your job.
I’m not necessarily saying this is bad advice, as many people would be better off if they adhered to it, but when it is drilled into most people’s skulls from a young age, anything less than these standards is considered risky and instantly fills many Americans with fears of financial insecurity. In a community filled with risk averse financial hypochondriacs, the attitude bleeds over into their consumption habits.
After a long commute or road trip along the highway, the typical American feels hungry and exhausted. Instead of taking a chance on a new restaurant or cooking a new meal, our American wants something fast and reliable. Who else should greet them but a familiar cast of characters?
I can relate with our American friend. Why risk consuming something you don’t like when you are certain you will enjoy something from one of these familiar places? You might argue that people only eat from these places because they are the only options available, but someone’s demand for their products is the reason these businesses established themselves in these locations. And someone’s continued demand is the reason they are thriving businesses making millions in revenue a year.
This isn’t just an anomaly along the highway where more folks understandably want fast and reliable service. Go to a middle class suburb and you’ll see a recognizable cast of restaurants, stores, and entertainment: Olive Garden, Chili’s, the local American pub, Lowe’s, Walmart, and a movie theater. Go to an upper middle class neighborhood and it’s the same story: The Capital Grille, an overpriced Americanized taco shop, the local wine bar, a gourmet Italian market, and a chic axe-throwing hatchet house. Besides a more or less scenic backdrop, they resemble every other American neighborhood within the same socioeconomic class.
The same risk aversion can be observed in entertainment consumption habits. The most widely consumed art form is television and film, and interestingly enough, the most popular TV series and movies surround familiar stories. Prequels, sequels, and remakes like Star Wars, Top Gun, and The Marvel Cinematic Universe dominate the headlines while original art tends to struggle. Instead of taking a risk on something new, many go for something they know they’ll like. Perhaps nostalgia is nothing more than a preference for what’s familiar.
Nostalgia as a Rebellion - Escapism
The ubiquity of risk aversion has without a doubt caused many children to grow up chasing careers that weren’t meaningful to them for fear of financial instability. Further, the death of hobbies leaves few people spending their time on activities that bring them joy. The average American lends their time out for financial security and uses their remaining free time to passively consume what others produce.
Now we have a population of people burdened with responsibilities that aren’t meaningful to them and no creative outlets. They chase goals, but rarely enjoy their present responsibilities. So naturally, they look back fondly upon the last time they didn’t feel burdened by responsibility: their childhood. Feel-good media that reminds them of their familiar and burdenless childhood offers an appetizing escape from the responsibilities of their present day-to-day life. Instead of embracing responsibility, those that reject it coddle themselves with the latest epic Star Wars story because it reminds them of their freeing childhood.
The problem with this nostalgia-fueled bender is the unsatisfied itch for meaning, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Milan Kundera excellently captures this idea in his aptly named book:
“The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.” - Milan Kundera
Those that spend their free time shielding themselves from the burden of responsibility often feel on edge, anxious, or filled with existential stress due to the insignificance such a life carries. However it manifests, this is The Unbearable Lightness of Being that Kundera speaks of. On the other hand, those that embrace the burdens of their day-to-day life feel the intense fulfillment and truthfulness Kundera speaks of. Responsibility gives significance to the present moment, and since the feeling of significance is something that differentiates us from animals, responsibility makes us more human.
This discussion about nostalgia took a quick peak into a deep Nietzschean rabbit hole of responsibility and meaning, so let’s reel it back to the topic at hand so we don’t go insane.
At this point, it appears the author is implying nostalgia is anti-human by distracting us from our responsibilities. While it can be anti-human, it depends on whether nostalgia is driven by escapism or entertainment.
At the core of it, escapism is the path to The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Escapism signals a dissatisfaction with the present situation, a longing for the past or an alternative to the life people have created for themselves. Instead of embracing their responsibilities or simply tolerating boredom, the escape artist rejects their current world and chases the lightness of a fairy tale world.
Entertainment, on the other hand, is the enjoyment of art solely for the sake of its enjoyment. Whether nostalgia is a form of entertainment or escapism depends on the emotion’s context.
Let’s break down the contextual pieces that move around emotions like nostalgia. There are four components in the lifecycle of an emotion:
The emotion itself
The beholder’s beliefs about the trigger, emotion, and their context
The resultant behavior
The trigger releases an emotion, and your beliefs guide your reaction. If your beliefs are constructive, you tend to have a constructive response. If they are destructive, they tend to play out poorly.
In the case of nostalgia, a chance reminder of a care-free childhood can cause many to feel nostalgic. The key between whether the resultant behavior is a form of escapism or mere entertainment depends on their belief of the past.
An infatuation with the past means you place the past on a pedestal above the present - so much so that you’d prefer to escape the present and go back to the Good Ol’ Days. A reverence respects the past but does not pedestalize it. Reverence stems from an understanding that the past is part of who you are today; it stems from a love of the present and your present self. Which belief of the past do you think is a more constructive context around nostalgia?
A destructive infatuation with the past is often paired with addictive behavior. This is where an internal trigger or belief influences your emotions just like how the external trigger reminded you of your childhood. The addictive internal trigger is driven by an existential gap - the feeling that something significant is missing from your life. Instead of resolving the existential gap, those with addictive behavior fill the gap by chasing pleasant emotions that distract or numb them from facing the abyss. Many consume something destructive or something benign at a destructive frequency to feel this pleasant emotion. Substance abuse, sex addiction, and existential nostalgia all follow this mechanism.
If you have an infatuation with the past, its root cause may be an existential resentment towards [your] responsibilities. You may seek that therapeutic feeling of nostalgia as a means to escape your present responsibilities.
This existential nostalgia is the classic form of escapism. When driven intrinsically through the desire to feel like a child again, there is no way this addictive behavior can be simple entertainment. As long as that destructive belief towards responsibility exists, the destructive behavior will continue. Perhaps this could be alleviated by replacing your current burdens with more meaningful responsibilities. If it’s the deeper seeded aversion to all responsibility, a deeper dive into The Placebo Mindset may be a worthwhile endeavor to change that destructive belief.
Nostalgia as a Symptom of Interconnectedness
As the cliché goes, we are more connected than ever. The internet opened up a Pandora’s Box of connectivity that creates all sorts of new interactions with one another. What can we rely on this wonder machine for? People coming together for a good ol’ fashioned bitching session.
Think about how boomers use Facebook. Almost every conversation devolves into some form of, “The world is going to shit. The golden era was my childhood/adolescence.” In their defense, they may be right, as we explored in our discussion about the decline in the quality of art. More likely than not, it’s deeper than that.
As we all know, the current culture is not exactly conducive to mental health. With more and more people depressed and anxious, nostalgia is a way to vent: it is a way to connect with others that feel the same way. A “Remember the good ole days?” is often a veiled way of saying, “I’m unhappy with the present.” The recipient welcomes this conversation because it appears to be a harmless, even beneficial, way to connect with another.
Even worse, the introduction of nostalgia can be a sinister way to suck the unsuspecting into an ideology of misery. We see two phenomenon driving this:
People love to proselytize their beliefs
For the uninitiated, crab mentality is the phenomenon where if you place a bunch of crabs in a bucket, none of them escape. This is because if one crab gets close to escaping, the rest will grab him and pull him down into their pit of writhing crabbiness. People live like crabs. The losers loathe the winners and use psychological warfare to pull anyone they can into their pit of crabbiness. Crab mentality is the classic villainous trope, “If I can’t be happy, no one can!”
The result is a weaponized use of nostalgia to [consciously or not] trick people into being miserable with the present. Our unsuspecting victim thinks, “Wait a minute, you’re right! The good old days were better. This culture sucks!” Another soul evangelized.
The point of all this evangelism and crab talk is that the interconnectedness of this era gives us greater agency to share our natural tendency to complain. We can reach a greater magnitude of people with our message and more people’s messages impact us. And unfortunately, as many of us know, the negative tends to have a greater impact than the positive.
On top of a greater agency to complain, the interconnected environment actively rewards people for sharing their complaints. Each time they write a negative post, social media rewards complainers with the illusion of connection through likes, comments, and shares. The overarching result is a feedback loop of outrage.
Okay, the side tangent about the evils of complaining is over. The point is that nostalgia is commonly used as a veiled way to complain online. And since internet culture rewards us for these complaints, it becomes more common and has a ripple effect on others. The flywheel spins faster with each iteration of the feedback loop.
We explored how increased interconnectedness can result in nostalgia being a force for bad, but let’s discuss how that same interconnectedness can create that same nostalgic feeling, but form a ripple of positivity.
As we previously explored, there lies a space between emotional triggers and your behavior. This space is governed by your beliefs and goes by another name: free will. With free will, you have the authority to stop a ripple of negativity when it comes your way. You can achieve this by simply not engaging with triggering content, or even better, removing it from your field of vision altogether.
For nostalgia to be a ripple of positivity, the context needs to be constructive. When the context is constructive, nostalgia looks less like a complaint and more like a source of awe around past art, places, and people. This romantic nostalgia can inspire people to do all sorts of great things: create the next masterpiece, rekindle with long lost friends/family, feel more gratitude, or view the past through a new exciting lens. The ripple of positivity spreads when we share nostalgia as something that uplifts and inspires rather than drags down like crabs in a bucket.
While not a precise formula, I believe this romantic form of nostalgia can only grace you if two heuristics are met:
You have a general optimism/satisfaction towards the present
It arises from spontaneity rather than a search for nostalgia
We took a look at the anecdotal claim that nostalgia is increasingly prevalent in today’s culture and found that it could signal a few different cultural shifts:
A decline in art quality
Escapism from responsibility
Nothing; it is simply entertainment
An increase in interconnectedness
Any number of these could be correct, and all of them may be correct to a certain degree, but at the end of the day, your answer depends on your prejudices about the current culture. Perhaps we are missing the bigger picture by theorizing about the impetus of a trend in an intricate web of causality. Maybe we should instead focus on the impact of nostalgia and how we can ensure it creates a ripple of positivity.
As we explored, beliefs that fill the space between emotion and behavior determine an emotion's outcome. The impact of nostalgia ultimately depends on what each individual does with the feeling. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn said something similar:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts.
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