Nostalgia has become a word that is associated with a positive longing for the past, particularly special moments or eras. There are groups of people who still get together to celebrate the camaraderie and/or atmosphere that pervaded the air in their part of the world during World War 2; they meet up to dance and listen to music of the era and eat war time austerity meals, even though they probably weren’t even born until after the war. I’ve also found groups online who travel sometimes thousands of miles every year to meet up at locations of long cancelled TV programs, memorable movies or even album sleeve art work.
In almost all of these cases I can see the attraction, I can empathise with the participants, I can appreciate what they’re feeling, I get what they get from these activities.
Now, nobody was a bigger fan of Northern Exposure than your’s truly, and I can see that the Moosefest people are having a good time when they get together, and the strange thing is, even with my eyes open to the dangers of nostalgia I sometimes still feel like I’d love to join them! NX obviously hit a nerve with a lot of people and I was one of them. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, Northern Exposure was an American TV comedy/drama series that aired in the 1990’s about a New York doctor who moved to a very remote Alaskan town to become the local GP and lot’s of quirky japes ensued. Going to Moosefest is OK, but if the rest of your life becomes just the sad time between “Moosefests”, then something’s wrong. (I only picked Moosefest because I am also an NX fan)
All of the activities above are fairly tame and innocuous, but I mentioned that I think there is danger in nostalgia and I believe that danger comes when I repeatedly get pre-occupied with my past; not a TV program, not an album or even album sleeve. No…those are just hooks that hitch a part of my life to a period in time. No, what I’m talking about is a pre occupation on a morbid level with the entire era within my lifetime that coincides with those hooks.
Now, think about the word nostalgia for a minute and see if any alarm bells ring. Where else do you see a word that follows that form? Where else do you see words that end in “algia“? Most likely in a medical dictionary, because the suffix algia is derived from the Greek algos meaning pain. Nostalgia sounds like an illness, because it is. Longing to be in a situation or in some-time that no longer exists is a mental illness that can get so bad for some people that it can ruin their life or even end it prematurely.
Based on that, couldn’t I open a nostalgia clinic to clean up on this?; it’s a very troubling illness, it truly lives up to its algia suffix…it can cause a lot of pain, and when taken at face value it looks pretty easy to fix. What’s not to like about that for a seemingly easy money making opportunity?
Well, the fact is, nostalgia is a lot more complex than that. In a lot of cases it has a positive association and has been said to improve mood, social connectedness and improve self regard. On the down side it is associated with the darker aspects of life being connected to a spectrum of life events stretching from mild melancholy all the way to suicide.
Despite nostalgia’s ability to connect us with positive experiences of our past, it tends to crop up when we are feeling low already and that isn’t always helpful. Trying to re-connect with a past that doesn’t exist anymore can make us feel even worse about our current situation.
The more often we project ourselves back to the past or forward to an imagined future (our memories of the past are quite often invented or at least spruced up too), the more often we are missing what’s real; the here and now, the present moment which after all is all that exists.
And it is here that the real answer lies. We are all subject to nostalgia (I’ve got two 20 year old Volvos ;-), but when it is used as a frequent escape from the present, maybe the present doesn’t feel so good, and if you’ve always been a deeply nostalgic person, then maybe you’ve never been happy in the now. But…the Now is all there really is, so isn’t it time to change the Now so that it makes you feel the way you want to feel, so that it holds all of the joy that you think is in the past?