Sunday, 9 May 2021


How to define 'nostalgia'? Looking back at the past through a warm golden filter? Sentimental longing? Wistful affection for the past? The word's etymology is interesting - from the Greek nostos meaning 'return home' and algos meaning 'pain' - and it is exactly that bittersweet nature of nostalgia that I've been dwelling on recently. Because nostalgia is much much more than just remembering, it is a feeling. We transport ourselves back to a time in order to feel pleasurable emotions and sensations again but, in doing so, we are also reminded that we can never have this again in the present. 

Why have I been musing on nostalgia? Well, there's nothing like a pandemic, with its threat and uncertainly, to make us collectively crave the familiar comforts of the past and, with the introspective nature of lockdown, it is not surprising that nostalgia has become a current preoccupation. Almost everyone I know has revisited their own personal archives over the last year whether sorting through the wardrobe and remembering the last time you wore something, clearing out the loft of sentimental possessions or going through old photographs and reminiscing. I managed to find a random collection of photos from decades ago when I was a similar age to my adult daughters now. One showed me getting ready to go out, hair in heated rollers (remember those!) with a good dollop of make-up. Although I'd say I'm more introvert than extrovert, that image brought back all the carefree excitement and abandonment of a good night out. How thrilling it was to mingle on a crowded dancefloor, socially undistanced, get swept up in the music at a live gig or laugh so much with friends that you lost the ability to stand unaided! Those photos made me smile but also reminded me, sadly, that I am in my fifties and not my twenties - how quickly time passes! And it's not that I would want to go to a nightclub necessarily when restrictions lift or experience sensory overload at a music venue or, indeed, suffer a vodka induced hangover at 54, but the seclusion and social isolation that lockdown brings does make me wistful for the happy clamour and closeness of other people. 

In Covid confinement, nostalgia also manifested itself as a return to old fashioned analogue hobbies. I haven't been the slightest bit tempted by baking, knitting or gardening (I seem only able to bake scones, I'm more of a knotter than a knitter and gardening to me is just housework outside) but I have re-read old favourites and completed one ridiculously difficult jigsaw puzzle. Nostalgia is not just limited to pastimes either, it's affected our media consumption too. TV habits changed with many re-watching events such as the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics or starting on old box sets once more. I started Homeland again but once I got to Season 5 I couldn't cope any longer with the sheer bonkers plot lines! Spotify reported a 54% increase in listeners creating nostalgia-themed playlists in April 2020 alone and I'm guilty as charged having created more than one of these - surprising myself that I still know all the words to Are 'Friends' Electric...'It's cold outside...' 

So all this retrospection must be a coping mechanism of some kind and in this sense it is a positive one as it reinforces a sense of continuity when everything around us feels fragile and disrupted. Feeling insecure and anxious about the present sends us scurrying back to the past; nostalgia - the security blanket of adulthood. But there is also a negative aspect to nostalgia, one that doesn't help promote good mental health. Going back to its etymology, nostalgia can evoke 'pain' as well as comfort simply because it induces longing. In the words of Shakespeare,  'there's the rub',  for when indulged in in isolation, nostalgia becomes too inextricably tied up with loss and its equally miserable bedfellow - regret. We are painfully reminded of what, and who, we have lost and the more we long for them. If we cocoon ourselves in the past for too long then we distance ourselves from appreciating what and who we have now. Nostalgia is a poor proxy for happiness in the present.