The COVID-19 pandemic has caused profound emotional distress. We are worried about our own health, the wellbeing of friends and family, and the threat this virus has posed to our livelihoods, the economy, and our way of life.
But don’t worry. Some researchers and marketing executives have found a solution. Psychology Today, for example, promises us that we can use nostalgia to cope with coronavirus. They say that it can help us combat social dislocation and loneliness by giving us access to pleasurable, shared experiences – transporting us back to time spent with those we love. Other researchers have suggested the feeling of nostalgia ‘buffers existential threat’, calming nerves about the possibility of imminent death and disease. The website YouGov even claims that embracing nostalgia amid COVID-19 might provide brands with a ‘unique opportunity to interact with audiences’.
Listen to a short podcast about nostalgia
Arguments like these pre-date the global outbreak of COVID-19. Like many contemporary psychologists, Constantine Sedikides sees nostalgia as something static, an experience shared by everyone, something he can study through surveys and with brain scans. He defines nostalgic feelings as, ‘predominantly fond, personally meaningful and rosy memories of childhood or close relationships’.
According to scholars like Sedikides, nostalgia serves a range of psychological functions. It has capacity to improve perceptions of friendship and social support, nurture sentiments of protection and love, lower anxiety, and prompt sociable behaviour. Nostalgia might, therefore, be a ‘bittersweet’ emotion; but it is usually more ‘sweet’ than ‘bitter’.
This new consensus – at least amongst psychologists – about the meanings and experiences of nostalgia marks a break from the past. Before the twentieth century, nostalgia was one of the most studied medical conditions in Europe. First identified in the late seventeenth century amongst Swiss mercenary soldiers fighting far from home, this mysterious disease caused lethargy, depression, and disturbed sleep. Sufferers also experienced bodily symptoms – heart palpitations, contusions, and dementia. For some, the illness proved fatal – its victims refused to eat and slowly starved to death.
It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that ‘nostalgia’ acquired a version of its contemporary meaning (sometime in the 1950s it was transformed from an emotion to do with yearning for a distant place to one that was about longing for a by-gone era). In 1951, the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English knew nostalgia only as ‘homesickness’; by the 1964 edition, the dictionary defined the emotion as a ‘sentimental yearning for some period of the past’.
Nostalgia – like other emotions – has changed in meaning and probably in experience over time. Recently, it has acquired new baggage. For while the feeling of nostalgia might be pleasurable for the individual experiencing it, its reputation as an influence on politics and society is not so honeyed.
Nostalgia has been blamed for a range of perceived sins. Some left-wing commentators have criticised recent populist movements for their nostalgic appeals to a mythic by-gone age – an age, they suggest, that some people wish to return to because it had far fewer women and far fewer people of colour in the public sphere.
Take Brexit, for example. One academic article argued that Britain was ‘infatuated with a distorted past’, and insisted that pro-Brexit politicians ‘deluded millions of…citizens’ about the country’s past, present, and potential future. Even the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, blamed Brexit on Britain’s ‘nostalgia for the past’.
Similar accusations have been levelled at the British population’s feelings about their National Health Service. The 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony mythologised the foundation of the NHS and relied heavily on nostalgia for its representation.
Danny Boyle, the ceremony’s director, rejected a narrowly political interpretation of the ceremony and argued that it was an expression of timeless and universal values, ‘One of the reasons we put the NHS in the show is that everyone is aware of how important the NHS is to everybody in this country’. Boyle argued, pretty un-controversially, that the health service, ‘is something that is very dear to people’s hearts’.
For some, however, this emotional and nostalgic commitment to the NHS can be a troubling obstacle to healthy critique and reform. In an article published in the Mail on Sunday in 2012, journalist Ian Birrell decried those who deemed the health service ‘sacrosanct’, and argued that a ‘misty-eyed myopia’ prevented ‘real reform’. For Birrell, Britain’s ‘sentimentality over its health system’ was a ‘damaging and ultimately self-defeating national tragedy’.
In the 21st century, nostalgia has been dogged by associations with populism and intellectual vacuity. But perhaps it’s in need of some rehabilitation. Nostalgia can be seen rather as a productive, and perhaps protective, emotion, one with the capacity to shield us from the reality in which we live, generate individual, social and political change, and to communicate profound dissatisfaction with the way the world is now.
Nostalgia not only offers us a crucial and illuminating case study of how the meanings and experiences of feelings mutate over time; it can also act as an alert system. When we see it in social and political discourse, we should pay attention. What do we find when we really look at nostalgia? What experiences is it being used to long for and lament? What does its deployment tell us about what a society and individuals value at any given time? And can we move away from seeing those with a tendency towards nostalgia as straightforwardly sick, sentimental, or stupid?
- Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia
- Owen Hatherley, The Ministry of Nostalgia
- Christopher Shaw and Malcolm Chase, The Imagined Past: History and Nostalgia
Other online sources
- Krystine Bancho, ‘The psychological benefits – and trappings – of nostalgia’ The Conversation, 6 June 2017
- Julie Beck, ‘When nostalgia was a disease’ The Atlantic, 14 August 2013
- Felipe De Brigard, ‘Nostalgia reimagined’ Aeon, 20 July 2020.
- Chelsea Saxby, ‘Nostalgia and the NHS’ The Polyphony, 7 April 2020