At Vintage Cash Cow we love our Time Machine section. It’s something every member of staff loves about working here. They often get to handle items that remind them of their childhood or their parents and grandparents.
This got us thinking. Why do we feel nostalgia. When we took to the internet to find out we came across a brilliant TED video by Clay Routledge. For those of you who’d prefer to read rather than watch the video, scroll down to read the transcript.
Why do feel nostalgia transcript
In the late 17th century a medical student named Johannes Hofer noticed a strange illness affecting Swiss mercenaries serving abroad. It’s symptoms, which included fatigue, insomnia, irregular heartbeat, indigestion and fever were so strong the soldiers often had to be discharged.
As Hofer discovered, the cause was not some physical disturbance, but an intense yearning for their mountain homeland. He dubbed the condition Nostalgia. From the Greek Nostos for homecoming and Algos for pain or longing.
At first Nostalgia was considered a particularly Swiss affliction. Some doctors proposed that the constant sound of cow bells in the Alps caused trauma to the eardrums and brain. Commanders even forbade their soldiers from singing traditional Swiss songs, for fear that they’d lead to desertion or suicide. But as migration increased world wide, nostalgia was observed in various groups. It turned out anyone separated from their native place for a long time was vulnerable to nostalgia.
And by the early 20th century professionals no longer viewed it as a neurological disease, but as a mental condition, similar to depression. Psychologists of the time speculated that it represented difficulties letting go of childhood or even a longing to return to one’s foetal state. But over the next few decades, the understanding of nostalgia changed in two important ways.
Its meaning expanded from indicating homesickness to a general longing for the past. And rather than an awful disease, it began to be seen as a poignant and pleasant experience. Perhaps the most famous example of this was captured by french author Marcel Proust. He described how tasting a Madeleine cake he had not eaten since childhood, triggered a cascade of warm and powerful sensory associations.
So what caused such a major reversal in our view of nostalgia?
Part of it has to do with science, Psychology shifted away from pure theory and towards more careful and systematic empirical observation. So professionals realised that many of the negative symptoms may have simply been correlated with nostalgia rather than caused by it. And in fact, despite being a complex emotional state that can include feelings of loss and sadness, nostalgia doesn’t generally put people in a negative mood.
Instead, by allowing individuals to remember personally meaningful and rewarding experiences they shared with others nostalgia can boost psychological well being.
Studies have shown that inducing nostalgia in people can help increase their feelings of self esteem and social belonging, Encourage psychological growth, and even make them act more charitably, so rather than being a cause of mental distress, nostalgia can be a restorative way of coping with it.
For instance, when people experience negative emotional states, they tend to naturally use nostalgia to reduce the stress and restore well being.
Today it seems that nostalgia is everywhere, partially because advertisers have discovered how powerful it is as a marketing technique. It’s tempting to think of this as a sign of us being stuck in the past, but that’s not really how nostalgia works.
Instead nostalgia helps us remember that our lives can have meaning, and value, helping us find the confidence and motivation to face the challenges of the future.