Melancholy and Our Infinite Nostalgia

by Lillie Sauer

If you’ve ever listened to The Smashing Pumpkins, you might already appreciate their dreamy melodic themes, lyrical nuance, or general shoegazey brilliance. If you haven’t, hopefully you will soon at least be able to appreciate where I’m going with this clumsy introduction to my thoughts on the impracticality of our naturally idealistic human memories. Of all the things I could have referenced, The SPs come to mind as an especially powerful personal connection to romanticized memories — like those times after school when I drove to my then-boyfriend-now-husband’s house, listening to “Tonight, Tonight,” and we watched The Royal Tenenbaums while drinking sparkling cider, then napped on the futon in the sunroom (because what’s high school without the sleep deprivation?).

billie corgan

What I’m trying to say is that nostalgia, that bittersweet sentimental longing for the past or some long-gone feeling, finds a way to affect each of us in the most peculiar of ways.  Aside from our individual experiences with nostalgic triggers, though, the general effect is essentially the same: a temporary dissociation from the present due to some attractive force from the past. It might not be so easy to see how this could be harmful, until we look at it in terms of our expectations for the future. We might want to accept that the best is yet to come, but sometimes the past can be so damned alluring and the temptation to pull out those rose-tinted shades is undeniably hard to resist. Before I allow myself to melt into a puddle of blissful angst from the grating brassiness of Billy Corgan’s voice, however, I think those of us who are sometimes content to exist in the realm of pure untethered emotionality might stand to gain some composure.  I’d like to offer some thoughts on how and why we might seek to do that, but first, an anecdote.

When I was about four years old, I rode my cherry red tricycle up and down the sidewalks of a small, foggy Wisconsin town. There’s one time in particular that I remember doing this. I know this ride was an especially important one, because I remember feeling very brave, as well as especially mature for having crossed the streets exactly how I had been taught to do. I don’t remember exactly where my voyage began, just that I had awoken from a nap to an unusually quiet house, which could have only meant that my siblings had gone somewhere without me. Indignation arose from within my little body: Why would they think I’d rather nap than go with them? Did they just forget me? Either way, I wasn’t going to sit around like I was okay with the situation. I narrowed down where they might be to two likely places — the convenience store or our neighbors’ place, up the road by the church — tied my shoes (adding to the pride/maturity thing) and hit the pavement. Timing was important here, as I didn’t want them to start heading back home before I had a chance to surprise them by showing up on my own and make them feel guilty for leaving me. I had to think efficiently and act fast. The two places were about equidistant from my house, but the convenience store, with its one cent Tootsie Rolls, seemed a safer bet. Upon arriving, my gut told me they weren’t in there (I decided this from about twenty feet away, as I didn’t feel confident enough to go into the store alone). So, a little less proud and all the more determined, I headed in the opposite direction, imagining how the scenario would play-out — Should I call them out before they have a chance to speak? Do I play it cool and act like I wasn’t actually looking for them? Needless to say, my four-year-old ego was nearing the depletion of its already meager reserves. When I arrived to nothing but the surprised and concerned looks on my neighbors’ faces, as they realized I had triked there on my own, I began feeling terribly alone. After a phone call to Mom and an assurance that I could make it safely back home on my own, I returned, dragging my feet up the front porch steps. The indignation having been washed away by my tears, I now only wanted some company. With one last burst of hope, I checked the basement, which earlier was dark and quiet, so warranted no inspection. Flipping on the light switch, I heard three protesting voices, “Turn that off!” “Hey!” “We’re watching a movie!”

lillies house

If we had only to open some unassuming basement door to find that satisfaction we’re all searching for! But this is reality; the transient joy from reflecting upon the past will only ever remain in the shadow of present life’s emotional influence. That’s the thing about waxing nostalgic: its initial sweetness lures you in so effortlessly that you don’t realize the trouble until you’re already in its painful grasp. The pain here being that of feelings that have transitioned from wistful affection to a melancholic longing for current circumstances to be other than they are. And the trouble is, we often can’t change our lives to the extent that we’d like, though we can work on how we react to the things we want to change. Of course, this isn’t something we know intuitively, but from experience (or else we wouldn’t be discussing the negative consequences of nostalgia). Consequently, learning how to best treat this luring-in of bygone days takes time, awareness, and not a small amount of struggle, lest we spend our days longing for a replay of moments unreachable, distorted through memory’s rosy haze.

fallout 4

We should try to hold our dear old friend nostalgia at a comfortable arm’s length — close enough to feel its warm, familiar touch, but not so close that we lose ourselves in its embrace. I cannot stop my senses from occasionally sweeping me back to that autumn filled with bergamot-scented candles, when Fallout 4 consumed hours of my days, while I consumed too many Hurt’s Donuts and yerba mate tea. But what I can do is force myself also to consider the less romantic things belonging to that time; that I was suffering from an exponentially growing load of schoolwork, a miserable part-time job, severe anxiety, and a lack of human connection. In doing so, I can start to turn the fonder, easier-to-think-about parts of my memories into fuel for thinking about how I can ensure that there will be more and better ones in the future. That way, we can begin to see the more painful demands of life today not just in terms of their presently distressing influence, but as little reminders that it is possible to look back upon this time and feel at least a twinge of longing for the smallest of comforts even in the most miserable of circumstances. Reminders, as Corgan puts it, “that life can change, that you’re not stuck in vain.”

We shouldn’t be forced either to make demons of our happy memories, by flooding them with grueling reality, or to bitterly resign ourselves to notions of “good ‘ol days” and bleak futures. We all have the option of finding that pleasantly practical middle-ground, where an honest look into our nostalgic memories can still be beautifully bittersweet, yet serve as a force for a more effectual future. It’s a matter of reassessing how you feel about yesterday, what you want to achieve today, and how you’d like to look back on today, tomorrow. In moderating our emotional reactions in this way, we are not taking up the impossible task of fighting our human nature, but simply making a way for ourselves to become more well-natured humans.

32 Comments »

  1. Your inaugural post is nicely written. I look forward to more. I agree with this:
    In doing so, I can start to turn the fonder, easier-to-think-about parts of my memories into fuel for thinking about how I can ensure that there will be more and better ones in the future.

    It is a little like standing on the fulcrum of a seesaw, where one side is the past and the other side is the future. We continually balance in the present, sometimes tipping back into the past, then struggling back onto the fulcrum(the present), then tipping forward, only to struggle back as we dread falling into the future.

    Shakespeare put it like this in Sonnet 30:

    When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
    I summon up remembrance of things past,
    I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
    And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
    Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
    For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
    And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
    And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
    Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
    And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
    The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
    Which I new pay as if not paid before.
    But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
    All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

    Shakespeare’s answer is ‘think on thee, dear friend‘. That is like having a partner on the seesaw of your life. It restores balance so that you can enjoy the pleasure of sinking into the past and thrill to rising into the future. You synchronise your life to another, where, on the seesaw of your life, you give and receive in trusting harmony.

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  2. While still in the mood for poetry, I can do no better than to quote Chaucer in admiration of your essay:

    This daisy, flower of all flowers, filled with all excellence and honor, always and alike fair and lusty of hue, fresh in winter as well as in summer, gladly would I praise it if I properly could. But I am filled with woe, for it lies not in my power! (60)

    For well I know that people have reaped the field of poetry before me and have harvested the corn. I come after, gleaning here and there, and am very glad if perhaps I find an ear of any goodly words that they have left behind. And if I chance to recount again what they have said in their lusty songs, I hope that they will not be displeased, since all is said

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  3. Hi Lillie

    I am pleased to see that we have another new contributor with interesting (to me) interests.

    “Aside from our individual experiences with nostalgic triggers … the general effect is essentially the same: a temporary dissociation from the present due to some attractive force from the past. It might not be so easy to see how this could be harmful, until we look at it in terms of our expectations for the future. We might want to accept that the best is yet to come, but sometimes the past can be so damned alluring and the temptation to pull out those rose-tinted shades is undeniably hard to resist.”

    I agree with you about the dangers. In my last piece here I was sounding somewhat similar warnings. But I’m tempted to say that once you pass a certain age (the age of early romantic encounters?) it is probably not the case that the best is yet to come – unless you have had a very bad time in childhood and youth, or unless you value a steady quietude over deep emotion, etc..

    Actually I’m pretty positive about steady quietude; and I agree with your recommendations here, your (non-Romantic?) middle way. But I guess I’m playing devil’s advocate.

    My point is that there’s something special about the *first imprints* of various categories of experience, if you get my meaning. I’m thinking of mothers and fathers and (in my case) a older girl cousin. And the natural world as experienced by the child. These first experiences are crucial, but many experiences are surprisingly deep and richly colored right up until the brain is mature (and maybe a bit beyond, especially on the romantic front).

    So there’s something *psychologically* true in Romantic attitudes to childhood etc. (e.g. Wordsworth’s), even if the Platonism/Idealism that often comes with such views is not tenable.

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  4. I recall similar episodes on my tricycle, but the rest of the cultural references are alien. None-the-less, human nature remains the same. At least we don’t have to wax nostalgic about nostalgia.

    If I was going to be nostalgic at all, it would be fore an era in which philosophy didn’t have to establish its relevance to every generation. Or is that fiction?

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  5. labnut,
    I really like your interpretation of the struggle and how having someone alongside you can create balance and synchronization. I can personally attest to the way in which the right partner can make the highs and lows of life feel more purposive. That said, I’m also interested in the reaction of “steady quietude” that Mark is describing, as I can see many attractive points of each outlook (e.g. the higher “highs” of a life fully accepting of the consequences of strong emotionalism vs. a more rationally controlled and unwavering emotionality that takes a back seat to the more practical aspects of our experiences).
    I was also very glad to see your quotes from Shakespeare and Chaucer, since I know there are already a multitude of ideas on the topic out there that I have yet to encounter and these were a couple beautiful examples, so thanks for sharing them!

    Mark,
    I am very glad to know that we share some interests. My interest was also piqued by your piece on Romanticism and I am looking forward to reading your previous and future writings.
    I am glad you brought up your thoughts on the unlikelihood of the best being yet to come. I can see that they way it was addressed in my essay was as more of an assumption than a question, which I can say was misleading as far as my thoughts on the matter go. At this point in my life, I prefer to stay away from overzealous ideas such as this one that emphasize dependence upon a future that’s out of my control for the most part. So, I can accept that this is probably not the case, as you mention, but I think it might have more to do with where our individual values lie than with the mere passage of time (although the latter often greatly affects the former).
    I think I see your point about “first imprints.” This is a really interesting take on the problem of nostalgia, which is, I think you are proposing, that it is a prime target for Romantic attitudes. And since you brought up the psychological reality of it, I’m wondering what the benefit of it may be for our brains or physiology in general?

    Brian,
    I appreciate the irony that in trying to convey personal experiences in a generalized way I accidentally reminded someone else about at least one explicitly relatable experience. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. In response from my limited perspective, I like to offer that perhaps being constantly asked to prove itself is in the nature of philosophy, as well as ask if it would be the same without that challenge?

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  6. Hi Lillie,
    That said, I’m also interested in the reaction of “steady quietude” that Mark is describing,

    Yes, I can see the attraction of that idea. I see that as part of a cycle. It is a form of recovery as one simply absorbs being. It can be reading poetry, listening to music, a walk in nature, kneeling in prayer, meditation, a long run, etc. We might call it ‘recharging the battery’, and it is, but the industrial nature of the metaphor does not do credit to something which is quite profound and beautiful.

    Life is rich in conflict, confrontation, anxiety, stress and pain. These deform and bruise our emotions. These deformed and bruised emotions colour how we see the world, how we remember our past and how we react to new events. The moments of quietude allow the healing of our emotions, by shielding them from new emotional assaults, so that we can see, remember and react in healthy ways. In this sense I agree with Mark.

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  7. A lovely personal essay.

    I find myself largely in agreement with Mark here. The nature of nostalgia changes considerably as one ages. Who was it that said, ‘Nostalgia is the price one pays for not being eternally young?’

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  8. What a wonderfully written essay. Thank you very much for this. I don’t think I ever had the words to describe the feeling but as I read yours, I realized I’ve felt the same.

    I’m curious, however, how much we ought to allow nostalgia to inform our present life. More to the point, when does simple memory cross the line into nostalgia? Do I spend my days playing golf because I remember loving the game or because I’m nostalgic for the times I played with my ailing grandfather.

    I agree whole heatedly that it can be a dangerous slope but I also find that without it, we would lose a nonzero amount of who we are and why we do the things we do.

    Welcome to the group and thank you for the great words.

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  9. Welcome Lillie !

    I also enjoyed the essay. What struck me was the vivid depiction of the inner life of a 4 year old with a fully formed sense of agency. I don’t remember events at that age in that kind of detail, but the 1st person frame you put forth rang true for me. The loss of enchantment that comes with a mature world view is a common theme here, but another important dimension of your essay was pointing out how when we look back we often forget the roller coaster emotions can be part of the ride.

    I’m a middle way guy, but I don’t think that necessarily entails losing our sense of wonder or pursuing life in such a way that discovery always feels as though it might emerge around the next bend in the road. While looking back and looking ahead are both essential, I think obsession with either one becomes pathological when it consistently separates us from attending to the present. I think this excessive separation is often a cause for the dampening of our sense of wonder.

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  10. Hello Lillie, and welcome!

    I, too, have been chewing on nostalgia this season, and as I’m in the middle of exams, just wanted to briefly make a recommendation for a book I think you would enjoy: the late Svetlana Boym’s “The Future of Nostalgia.” In my opinion, it’s a lovely read. It asks the question, among many others, of what happens when we (a collective “we” or an individual we) are nostalgic for a past that never was – which, of course, is an almost-certainty with the slipperiness of memory!

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  11. Hi Lillie

    Nice essay. What is interesting to me is that as I get older the pang of nostalgia fades. It has almost gone now. I recall the things that used to trigger those feelings well enough, remember that I was happy, but that bittersweet feeling is not there any more.

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  12. Hi Lillie,

    A quick question if you have time:

    And since you brought up the psychological reality of it, I’m wondering what the benefit of it may be for our brains or physiology in general?

    Why do you assume that there would be a benefit that would accrue to our brains or physiology in general? If this attitude is a result of evolved features then the benefit, strictly speaking is that increases the probability that a certain genetic configuration gets passed on.

    So the benefit might not have been to us at all but to our offspring or to others in our close group. It may be that it conferred some benefit a long time ago but not now.

    I wonder if it would change our attitude to those feelings if we found that it conferred no benefit to us or even that it now conferred a disadvantage.

    Or maybe it would all be irrelevant and we would enjoy and value the feelings just the same.

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  13. Surely one of the most beautiful evocations of nostalgia, ever, is the chorus of the Hebrew slaves in Verdi’s Nabucco

    Fly, thought, on wings of gold;
    go settle upon the slopes and the hills,
    where, soft and mild, the sweet airs
    of our native land smell fragrant!

    Greet the banks of the Jordan
    and Zion’s toppled towers…
    Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost!
    Oh, remembrance, so dear and so fatal!

    Golden harp of the prophetic seers,
    why dost thou hang mute upon the willow?
    Rekindle our bosom’s memories,
    and speak to us of times gone by!

    Oh you akin to the fate of Jerusalem,
    give forth a sound of crude lamentation,
    oh may the Lord inspire you a harmony of voices
    which may instill virtue to suffering.

    In the last two lines we see a powerful interpretation of nostalgia:
    oh may the Lord inspire [in] you a harmony of voices
    which may instill virtue to suffering

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  14. Then we have the modern version, by Boney M, more closely based on Psalm 137(http://biblehub.com/esv/psalms/137.htm). Once again it displays the power of communal nostalgia to unite and motivate a people to endure suffering and maintain hope. This is in reply to you, Robin, when you asked the question
    Why do you assume that there would be a benefit that would accrue to our brains or physiology in general?

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  15. And now for my final example of the power of nostalgia. Here we see Catholics on the shores of a secular Babylon, feeling threatened, and indeed held in captivity by a hostile secular world. They respond by drawing on historical, institutional and liturgical memories, investing them with the beauty of nostalgia, giving them pride in identity and strength in purpose.

    I know that readers here, for the most part, are atheist, so your instinct is to summarily reject this. But it is still worth watching the video through to the end so that you may understand the power of another form of nostalgia. A devout Catholic strongly feels its motivating power to give his life identity, meaning and purpose.

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  16. Hi Lillie, I’ve been having a hard time thinking how to respond to your essay. Not that there is anything wrong with it, just that, by total coincidence, Smashing Pumpkins has a strong connection for me with real issues of nostalgia and then real pain related to memories. So it motivates me to write something, but a bit too much.

    So after much consideration I decided I’ll spare everyone the details.

    But I think I will touch on what has come up in commentary, based on the essay. As I get older I also find myself engaging in nostalgia less and less, other than to note that in fact things actually were better in the past (for me). That is whether we discuss personal or larger world/cultural issues. Given the pain related to many memories, which once may have been pleasurable, it is hard for me to tell whether my resistance to nostalgia is related to age (as one commenter suggested) or less incentive to reflect.

    I would side with Robin in questioning if there is any evolutionary mechanism involved. A potential to get through hard times has been mentioned, which was put nicely, but it might be pointed out that as much as people engage in nostalgia (positive, if bittersweet) there is also the capacity for melancholy, which is in your title, or get caught up in outright depression about memories that is rather counterproductive.

    To me they both stem from the same capacity for memory, which *is* evolutionarily driven, but neither potential use selected for in particular.

    In writing this I looked up the definitions of both nostalgia and melancholy. Not because I did not know them, but to check etymology and usages in case they would be interesting. Merriam Webster gave two interesting quotes on nostalgia…

    “To dwell even fitfully on the past, for James, was to risk crippling nostalgia; the past was the shadow side of will and therefore must be rejected.” —Jackson Lears, Nation, 26 Feb. 2007

    “My own feelings were that since I’d jettisoned employment, marriage, nostalgia and swampy regret, I was now rightfully a man aquiver with possibility and purpose …” —Richard Ford, Independence Day, 1995

    These both get to something I see in nostalgia, and its flip side melancholy… the shadow side of will.

    I see no problem with nostalgia, or even thinking about sad/bad times, as long as one keeps a tight rein on them and not let them get past entertainment/motivation. To be overwhelmed by them is to lose oneself to the past. It is to be reined in yourself.

    So the length of an album/CD or two should probably be good enough.

    Of course where my defences fall hard is to escapism, which is much like those two, but unattached to reality (past, present, or future). I could come up with an evolutionary mechanism for escapism if I wanted, but that being hypocritical for me, I’m not even going to try.

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  17. Contrary to both Robin and Dwayne, I am finding that the older I get, the much *more* prone to nostalgia I am and the stronger that nostalgia is. Indeed, I have been working on a novel now, for a number of years that is, in many ways, nostalgia driven.

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  18. Contrary to both Robin and Dwayne, I am finding that the older I get, the much *more* prone to nostalgia I am and the stronger that nostalgia is.

    Yes, I think that is the common experience. As one gets older one accumulates a deeper and richer store of memories. Consequently there is more to be nostalgic about. Some are more reflective than others and thus have more well formed memories.

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  19. I admit, getting more nostalgic as one gets older may very well be the common experience. I’m agnostic on that. Just noting that that is not the case for me… but not because I am less reflective or have less well-formed memories.

    It is fortunate when people have lives that give them memories which make nostalgia possible. Some people are not fortunate in that regard.

    In any case, if I had lots, I’d still think it is less useful to get stuck in, swept away by for extended periods. Using it as motivation for a novel sounds like a pretty good way to harness them.

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  20. DB,
    I would side with Robin in questioning if there is any evolutionary mechanism involved.

    We could argue about whether it is evolutionary but recent research is indicating the value of nostalgia.

    The Past Makes the Present Meaningful: Nostalgia as an Existential Resource
    https://www.ndsu.edu/fileadmin/psychology/Colloquium/nost_and_meaning_jpsp_published.pdf

    From the abstract:

    The present research tested the proposition that nostalgia serves an existential function by bolstering a sense of meaning in life. Study 1 found that nostalgia was positively associated with a sense of meaning in life. Study 2 experimentally demonstrated that nostalgia increases a sense of meaning in life. In both studies, the link between nostalgia and increased meaning in life was mediated by feelings of social connectedness. Study 3 evidenced that threatened meaning increases nostalgia. Study 4 illustrated that nostalgia, in turn, reduces defensiveness following a meaning threat. Finally, Studies 5 and 6 showed that nostalgia disrupts the link between meaning deficits and compromised psychological well-being. Collectively, these findings indicate that the provision of existential meaning is a pivotal function of nostalgia.

    and from the introduction:

    There are good reasons to hypothesize that nostalgia is a source of meaning in life. Wildschut et al. (2006) content analyzed written narratives of nostalgic experiences and found that nostalgic episodes refer to momentous life events. Such events often revolve around important cultural rituals, family traditions of great symbolic value, or cherished memories (Sedikides et al., 2006, 2004; Sedikides, Wildschut, Arndt, & Routledge, 2008). These are events that encapsulate deep, wholesome, and consequential life experiences— experiences that, when reflected on, may serve to impart a sense of meaning. Daily life is of course filled with a series of ordinary experiences that are important for normal functioning (e.g., driving to work, shopping for groceries, paying bills) but are perhaps not the kind of events that facilitate perceptions of meaning. Thus, waxing nostalgic about past events that stand out as personally significant (e.g., a family Christmas, cherished time with friends, playing in a championship football game) may be one method that people use to infuse life with meaning. Also, when individuals ponder questions about the greater purpose of their lives, nostalgia may provide a way to conjure up evidence that their lives have indeed been meaningful. It may be, in a sense, the self-focused emotional process through which people recollect experiences that weave a meaningful narrative around their lives.

    The social component of nostalgia, in particular, is likely to constitute a driving force for enhancing meaning. Experimental evidence shows that, among other psychological consequences, nostalgia increases social connectedness. Participants who reflected on nostalgic (compared with ordinary) events from their life reported feeling more “loved” and “protected” (Wildschut et al., 2006), evidenced greater attachment security (Wildschut et al., 2006), felt more competent in interpersonal contexts (Stephan et al., 2011; Wildschut et al., 2006, 2010), had stronger perceptions of social support (Zhou et al., 2008), and empathized more with the suffering of another person (Zhou et al., 2011). Furthermore, Wildschut et al.’s (2006) content analysis of nostalgic narratives not only showed that momentous (i.e., personally meaningful) life events are a predominant subject of nostalgia but also confirmed previous findings that social connectedness is an important feature of such momentous life events (Holak & Havlena, 1992). That is, although nostalgia is self-relevant, most momentous life experiences about which people wax nostalgic are social in nature (e.g., weddings, family reunions, holiday dinners).

    In fact, it is relatively rare to find nostalgic narratives that are predominantly asocial in nature. When such examples are found, they are indicative of narcissism (Hart et al., 2011). This association between social themes and momentous life events in the nostalgic narratives is consistent with research on meaning, which shows that family, friends, and relationship partners are primary sources of personal meaning in life (Hicks, Schlegel, & King, 2010; Lambert et al., 2010). Indeed, experimental evidence demonstrates that social threats (i.e., social exclusion) decrease perceptions of meaning (Stillman et al., 2009) and, when people face existential threat, a sense of social connectedness bolsters well-being and promotes adaptive functioning (Arndt et al., 2005). Taken together, this work suggests that enhanced social connectedness may be one mechanism through which nostalgia increases meaning.

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  21. CJ,
    Thank you for the warm welcome! It’s wonderful to know that you connected with the feelings I was hoping to convey here.
    You question about the “line” between memory and nostalgia is one that I think is really important in determining how we should moderate our emotional reactions. For me, I would say that any memory that can largely be categorized as “bittersweet” is a nostalgic one, and also add that it likely would be strong enough to sway our focus from the present in some less-than-beneficial way. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be as abstract as that, but I think that’s the most effective definition to accept if we want to get the most out of our nostalgia.

    Seth,
    I’m glad you enjoyed it and thank you for your thoughts. I completely agree with your assessment on the importance of maintaining balance between looking forward and behind ourselves in time. I had never considered how that might directly contribute to “the dampening of our sense of wonder,” but that is a really insightful thought. I think there’s something very true about wonder going hand-in-hand with pure, in-the-moment experiences.

    Margaret,
    Thank you so much for the welcome and recommendation! It sounds like exactly the sort of thing I can get into right now and I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Robin,
    Thanks for the question! I can’t say my remark was so much an assumption as it was a thought that occurred to me in reading Mark’s reply. From the perspective of my sparse knowledge of genetics and evolutionary psychology, though, I would hypothesize perhaps the opposite: that with more advanced development of the frontal lobes came a greater need for immediate benefits to the self, as opposed to the mere need for healthy offspring and gene transference, due to the evolution of self-consciousness. But, since I can’t claim to have a lot of evidence to back that up, I’d like to share this article on the benefits of nostalgia that mentions several recent studies, which I think are relevant to our questions here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/09/science/what-is-nostalgia-good-for-quite-a-bit-research-shows.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
    I’m glad you brought up this point; you’ve given me a few things to think about and study further!

    Dwayne,
    Wow, that’s great (I hope) that you were able to connect to this in that way!
    I can understand your and Robin’s skepticism at the idea of nostalgia being able to having any benefit for us, as you are right, it is naturally more bitter than sweet for most; melancholy does seem to be its best friend. However, I think there’s still room for both ideas to exist without contradicting each other. Nostalgia seems to carry some nasty connotations with it for some, but I’d argue that is due to having only passive experiences with it, since, as you pointed out, it is “evolutionarily driven.” My intention with this piece, though, was to get people thinking about how — given our cognitive abilities to moderate thoughts and thus, emotions — we can make nostalgia into an intentional, useful experience. As your academic background makes you vastly more qualified to ponder such questions, though, I’m interested to read any future thoughts you might have on the topic! Thanks!

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  22. That NY Times article was a good overview. I liked the point you made about the Odyssey.

    It seems to me that nostalgia is a part of the continuum of emotions attached to the narratives we construct out of past events.

    1) shamed nostalgia
    2) regretful nostalgia
    3) bitter sweet nostalgia
    4) wistful nostalgia
    5) fond nostalgia
    6) heroic nostalgia.

    The writing and propagation of the Odyssey is the preeminent example of heroic nostalgia. I know that I feel all six types of nostalgia when I consult my past narratives, having done things that shamed me, caused me regret, all the way up the scale to the narratives I remember as heroic deeds.

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  23. How I envy those who led fairly normal lives – which I did not. An emotionally abusive family, a psychotic brother-in-law, so many friends who thought it their mission to quash my ego, spending most of my working life on the bottom rung of the economic ladder – I had exactly one year to remember with any pleasure – and that year I fouled everything up (as could be expected, given my up-bringing).

    What I’ve discovered is that when I get nostalgic, it is over memories I don’t really have; I saw them in movies or television, heard them in song or read them in books.

    Otherwise, my memories collect into a level of hell.

    Sorry for introducing this negativity.. But we all get weepy eyed over a past that somehow makes sense to us. But my past doesn’t make any sense at all. The great narrative of life (on which nostalgia depends) is entirely foreign to me. On the contrary; I look back on a random walk in darkness through a fields of nettles.

    Does anyone wonder why I’m a Buddhist?

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  24. If it’s any consolation EJ, as soon as I see an ‘ejwinner’ (comment or post ) I get that feeling where I have to read what follows knowing that I am likely to come across something authentic and insightful. And I’m not being nostalgic 🙂

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  25. EJ,
    The great narrative of life (on which nostalgia depends) is entirely foreign to me.

    And yet, here you are, a highly respected commentator, insightful, perceptive and thoughtful. That counts as a major success and it is the best kind of narrative. Success is the way one enriches the lives of others and you enrich our lives every time you write in these pages. You are a major reason I come back again and again.

    The problem of suffering is the deepest philosophical(and practical)problem that all belief systems grapple with. I really hope you put together an essay on the subject.

    Life throws curved balls at us. We duck and dodge them as best we can. But they still bruise us, knock us down and sometimes leave us prostrate. What makes me sad is how few people stop to help others to get back onto their feet. I hope our sincere words are of some help.

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  26. Hi Lillie, I want to clarify that I wasn’t trying to say that nostalgia offers no benefits, but that if one loses control over it, it can be detrimental (at the very least a distraction).

    I guess I could equate it with sex, or drinking alcohol, both of which I like quite a bit and am happy to promote. While both are fun and certainly can have many benefits… even social benefits… if one let’s them become overriding (gain control over you) they can start taking away from one’s life. Nostalgia is a bit more slippery because it has few, if any, physical limits.

    I agree with your concept of channeling and so making use of nostalgia. That’s why I thought Dan’s comment about writing a novel seemed really nice.

    My biggest problem (and that stemmed from comments, not the essay) is with drawing a line between potential benefits of a mental activity and the fact that our brain is a product of evolution, to say that mental activity X is a product of evolution (that the activity was selected for due to benefits). It seems easy enough to note that our brains offer many different forms of mental activity, some which are contradictory, which then must also be evolved.

    That suggests there is no reason to go to evolution for each specific one, rather than believing that some basic evolved capacities allow for the diverse and more complex activities we see when mental activities are put in practice. Unless there is a demand (based on evidence) that an activity had to be evolved, *if* I can explain it without evolution, there is sort of a scientific/philosophical argument *not* to do so.

    That said, it is an intriguing idea that nostalgia might have conferred some social benefit so strong that it played a role in group selection.

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  27. Hi EJ, it sounds like we’ve had similar life experiences.

    As I was suggesting in my first two replies, the lives most people lead seem lucky, fantastical things. I *wish* I could know what that was like.

    That’s why I find it very hard getting into comparing anecdotes, or discussing connections of subjects to events in my life. What I’d have to say would seem foreign to most people, and inject an incredible negativity into discussion that I want to avoid.

    By nature, I’m actually pretty upbeat, humorous, and optimistic. I’m not a depressed person. But that sure is hard to keep going with a personal history that is filled with painful events. Nostalgia offers little as an analgesic or guide for where to go next.

    “…it is over memories I don’t really have; I saw them in movies or television, heard them in song or read them in books.”

    Exactly. But then I consider that escapism rather than nostalgia. Though I suppose it could be “escapist nostalgia”?

    “Does anyone wonder why I’m a Buddhist?”

    And this is the interesting part. While I understand Buddhism and see why it would be worthwhile, it is not for me. It, like stoicism, feels too detached from life and living. I guess I want to maintain a chance of reward (however fleeting) even if it comes with risk, and so many examples of defeat.

    I could see retreating to it (or stoicism) for a short period, for healing or protection.

    But then I get antsy.

    That’s why Taoist and Epicurean philosophy are better fits for my personality.

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  28. DB,
    That’s why I find it very hard getting into comparing anecdotes, or discussing connections of subjects to events in my life.

    It is hard. Personal self disclosure exposes raw surfaces that we try to protect by concealing them. It is even harder today because the large increase in narcissism means that people are less inclined to listen to the concerns of others.

    But, paradoxically, it is the path to healing. We find healing in trusting involvement with other people. We listen to each other’s stories of suffering and offer up our own stories. We discover our shared suffering. We offer up stories of how to cope and are encouraged by the coping stories of others. Over time these stories began to show commonalities. They have coalesced into several broad themes and these we call religions or belief systems. From there these belief systems acquired other functions, chief of which was to be a source of ethical guidance, since, after all, much suffering was caused by ethical failures. And then God was discovered, both as a means of giving the ethical guidelines some regulatory force and as a source of hope in the face of suffering.

    Religion is the second most enduring feature of human society and that is because suffering is the most enduring feature of human society.

    But society is changing as we mitigate the sources of suffering. It is atomizing and becoming more radically sceptical. The regulatory force of God has been replaced by the regulatory force of the state. All this has reduced the efficacy of religion. But the need still exists because we still suffer, but in different ways. Society has responded to this need with things such as psychologists, psychiatrists and support groups.

    Psychology and psychiatry can be effective but they miss the key feature that involvement with other people provides. That is trusting mutual self-disclosure. Support groups provide this and they can be more effective than professional help.

    Here is one good meta-study showing how effective mutual support groups can be:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3052992/

    From the abstract:

    Seven RCTs[Randomized Controlled Trials] of peer support versus usual care for depression involving 869 participants were identified. Peer support interventions were superior to usual care in reducing depressive symptoms, with a pooled SMD of -0.59 (95% CI: −0.98, −0.21; p=0.002).

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  29. Hi Labnut,

    “It is hard. Personal self disclosure exposes raw surfaces that we try to protect by concealing them. It is even harder today because the large increase in narcissism means that people are less inclined to listen to the concerns of others.”

    Yes, and in addition (though perhaps part of narcissism) I tend to find it becomes a race for the bottom, with some people comparing their emotional wounds like physical wounds in that scene from Jaws. Show they are tougher or know more about suffering because they went through XYZ.

    I mean sometimes it is innocent, with mutual revelation. But 1) I’m tired of having someone do the “and this bite came from” thing and become disappointed with them, 2) in the end I find it has not helped me feel better/find my way out anyway (inducing a sort of melancholy), and 3) in such an open venue it feels like narcissism/exhibitionism (and that includes for myself).

    “Over time these stories began to show commonalities. They have coalesced into several broad themes and these we call religions or belief systems. From there these belief systems acquired other functions, chief of which was to be a source of ethical guidance, since, after all, much suffering was caused by ethical failures.”

    We may differ a bit about how gods and religion entered the picture (and my account is not all negative for this), but I agree that they both had these elements/roles integrated within them. This is also why I think challenging religion or strong belief systems as New Atheists do is a bit misguided and counterproductive.

    “But society is changing as we mitigate the sources of suffering. It is atomizing and becoming more radically sceptical. The regulatory force of God has been replaced by the regulatory force of the state. ”

    I would expand that to say we have also replaced the regulatory force of normal social interaction with that of the state. More and more society demands legal/economic punishment for violation of norms, and I think this is why we have seen an inflation (feeding on the narcissism you mentioned earlier) from viewing something that was once mere social misdemeanour (I’m offended) to criminal felony (that means I was attacked/damaged).

    “Support groups provide this and they can be more effective than professional help.”

    Agreed, the discovery that you are not alone (rather than just “being cared for”) is itself very powerful.

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  30. This is the best piece I have ever read concerning the subject of nostalgia, and that includes a few book length treatments of the subject some very famous in an academic – or maybe even popular – sense.

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