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Embrace Nostalgia: A Refreshing Perspective on Life’s Challenges

Nostalgia appears innocuous at first, until someone begins excessively – even ludicrously – idealizing the Stone Age.

In September 2021, a self-professed “eco-socialist” podcaster tweeted, “Damn can you imagine being a human during the paleolithic age? Just consuming salmon and berries, sharing stories around campfires, and marveling at the stars… no work, no traffic, no advertisements, no poverty, no traumas induced by capitalism, just pure vibes.”

By the time this fanciful notion circulated on social media, romanticizing a distant era had evolved into a prevalent cultural trend amidst the mid-pandemic, post-insurrection period. Individuals were showcasing traditional yarn spinning on Instagram reminiscent of the early 19th century. Extremists on the far right were echoing populist rhetoric, vowing to reinstate the nation to its “former” greatness, whenever that might have been. Across various political spectrums and circumstances, as we grappled with the challenges of contemporary life, we found ourselves yearning for eras we never experienced.

But when does nostalgia cross the line? And how do we navigate our way back?

Delving into these questions while researching my upcoming book on cognitive biases in the Digital Age, I explored the concept of “declinism,” the widespread fallacy that life is progressively worsening in all aspects. One could consider declinism as nostalgia’s cognitive equivalent.

While conventional nostalgia, known as “personal nostalgia,” is generally viewed as a healthy coping mechanism in psychological studies, where individuals immerse themselves in positive memories to alleviate present distress, the misuse of nostalgia by public figures and politicians for their agendas raises concerns. When nostalgia is strategically wielded to manipulate perceptions of the past or present, it can distort realities and exacerbate societal issues.

Considering the potential political risks versus the emotional benefits of nostalgia, the question arises: Shouldn’t we promote more accurate portrayals of history and direct our idealizations of the past towards the present?

Anticipatory nostalgia, a phenomenon characterized by yearning for something not yet lost, can serve as a guiding principle for appreciating and maximizing the present moment. By acknowledging the impermanence of the present and embracing change, individuals can mitigate anxiety, enhance meaningfulness, and foster a deeper appreciation for current experiences.

Research indicates that despite a widespread belief that life was better half a century ago, most individuals recognize the advancements and progress made in various aspects of contemporary life. Nostalgia for a time before the ubiquity of smartphones, for instance, highlights a desire to balance the conveniences of modern technology with a more intentional and meaningful approach to its usage.

To harness the positive aspects of nostalgia and apply them to the present moment, prioritizing experiences that foster personal connections and emotional depth is crucial. Moments that involve social interactions, relationship-building, and emotional vulnerability are more likely to cultivate lasting nostalgic memories.

In essence, while reminiscing about the past is natural and beneficial, it is essential to avoid getting ensnared in idealized versions of history. By recognizing that the most cherished memories may lie ahead and embracing the present with gratitude and intentionality, we can cultivate a healthy sense of nostalgia for the current moment.