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Embrace Nostalgia: Rediscover Joy in the Present

Nostalgia may initially appear harmless until someone begins excessively glorifying the Stone Age in a sincere yet absurd manner.

In September 2021, a self-proclaimed “eco-socialist” podcaster tweeted, “Imagine existing as a human in the paleolithic era, indulging in salmon and berries, sharing stories by campfires, and marveling at the stars… devoid of jobs, traffic, advertisements, poverty, or the traumas induced by capitalism—just pure vibes.”

As this whimsical notion circulated on social media, the trend of idealizing the distant past emerged as a prevalent cultural theme amidst the mid-pandemic and post-insurrection period. Individuals engaged in activities reminiscent of bygone eras, from women showcasing traditional yarn spinning on Instagram to far-right extremists echoing populist rhetoric, vowing to revive a nebulous “former” greatness. Amidst the turmoil of contemporary life, people across various ideological spectrums found solace in romanticizing unfamiliar epochs.

The question arises: when does nostalgia cross the line, and how do we navigate back to the present reality?

These inquiries prompted a deeper exploration while researching cognitive biases in the Information Age for my upcoming book. One chapter delves into “declinism,” the misconception that life is perpetually deteriorating—a cognitive parallel to nostalgia.

While conventional “personal nostalgia” is viewed as a healthy psychological coping mechanism, offering solace during challenging times, the manipulation of nostalgic sentiments by public figures and politicians for personal gain raises concerns. By oversimplifying current issues and fostering illusions of a utopian past, these figures exploit nostalgia to sway public opinion. This propagandistic approach distorts reality, convincing individuals that their present circumstances are more dire than they actually are.

Balancing the psychological benefits of nostalgia against its political risks, it becomes imperative to advocate for accurate historical representations and align our idealizations of the past with present realities.

Anticipatory nostalgia, characterized by yearning for a present yet to transition into the past, serves as a poignant reminder to cherish the fleeting moments. This forward-looking sentiment encourages proactive decision-making and acceptance of inevitable change. Embracing anticipatory nostalgia can alleviate anxiety, enhance meaningfulness, and foster a deeper appreciation of the present.

While surveys indicate a prevailing belief among Americans that life was superior half a century ago, a closer examination reveals a nuanced perspective. Despite nostalgic sentiments for a pre-digital era, individuals acknowledge the advancements and opportunities afforded by the present. The desire is not to regress but to optimize the best of both past and present realities.

To fully leverage the positive aspects of nostalgia for the present, prioritizing socially enriching experiences that evoke personal nostalgia is essential. These moments, often centered on relationships and emotional vulnerability, lay the groundwork for cherished memories that resonate deeply.

In essence, while reminiscing about the past is natural and beneficial, it is crucial to guard against the manipulation of nostalgic sentiments. By embracing anticipatory nostalgia and fostering meaningful present experiences, we can cultivate a genuine appreciation for the current moment, steering clear of idealized pasts or dystopian futures.

Amanda Montell, a linguist and podcast host based in Los Angeles, explores these themes in her latest book, “The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality.” You can find her on Twitter at @amanda-montell.