August 21, 2013

Nostalgia: A Cure for What Ails American Society, or a Mental Health Disorder?

Nostalgia is something that old people do a lot of, right?  At one time, nostalgia was considered a mental health illness akin to depression.  However, such diagnoses were done at a time when psychology, neurology and even medicine were all relatively new.  One of the earliest examples was when 17th-century Swiss physician first coined the term nostalgia, who attributed soldiers' mental and physical maladies to their longing to return home — nostos in Greek, and the accompanying pain, algos.  Yet the view of nostalgia being a disorder essentially became the established dogma.  No one really looked much further into the matter in spite of significant advances in the science of mental health that came in the years that followed.

As it turns out, new research has proven that contrary to the established dogma, nostalgia is not an illness at all, and it indeed serves a psychological role; it is definitely not a mental illness.  For example, new research shows that nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety.  It also makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders.  Couples feel closer and look happier when they're sharing nostalgic memories.  On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.  Indeed, it provides a coping mechanism for people who experience loss of loved ones due to death as they age and helps them to prepare for their own death.

Constantine Sedikides at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, is the man who pioneered much of this new research into nostalgia, and pioneered an area of study that today includes dozens of researchers around the world using tools developed at his social-psychology laboratory, including a questionnaire called the Southampton Nostalgia Scale.  In early July 2013, the New York Times had an excellent article on this topic (see for the actual article) which probed into the modern research's origins and what has come from it.

That's not to say nostalgia is without its downsides. For example, as the New York Times's observed, it's a bittersweet emotion — although the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and helps make death less frightening.  When people speak wistfully of the past, they usually become more optimistic and inspired about the future, rather than negative about the future.

This blog is built on nostalgia, although its hardly the only thing I do, here or anywhere else.  In a small way, I've done it to provide a mechanism to take a positive view of the past, yet is firmly anchored in the future.  People don't visit this blog to watch old re-runs of "The Partridge Family" (that stuff can be found someplace else), but they do get to see what the cast of the original show is up to these days (see my posts at and for two examples).  My intent is to put a modern spin on the pop culture (such as it was) when I was younger.

Nowadays, the entertainment industry has something of a love affair with what it calls "reboots" which is taking a movie (or television) franchise back to its origins.  If a sequel continues an original story, a prequel tells what happened earlier, and a remake portrays the same events again (using a new cast, but without a change to the original story), then a reboot is supposed to take a franchise back to its origins and begin again with a different take — and cast, perhaps in an effort to make the idea appealing to an audience that might not enjoy the original.

Not all reboots have been good for business.

Some failed because the original upon which it was built may have been a blockbuster, but was actually built upon a weak story line, and giving it a younger and/or more attractive cast won't do much to save it.  Think of movies like the 2011 "Footloose" reboot from Paramount pictures.  The original was a film that starred Kevin Bacon (and Sarah Jessica Parker among others) that was a blockbuster for Paramount back in the 1980s.  But the 2011 "reboot" didn't do nearly as well.  Others include films like "Spiderman", and more recently, "Man of Steel" (based on "Superman").  While the reboot movies based comic books have generally been better than other movies like "Footloose", they're also based on stronger material to begin with.  Generally, to be a success, a reboot cannot be built on a weak foundation, no matter how successful the original may have been.

At the beginning of 2013, I wrote about how the Millennial generation was feeling nostalgia for a time that's barely a decade ago (see that post at  However, the reasons for that nostalgia are as valid as the reason an older person senses nostalgia for his or her own youth: to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety and help them be more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders.  I, for one, would say that's not a bad thing, and society as a whole benefits.  Indeed, there are examples (see for details) examples which prove this (although Detroit's recent bankruptcy show another side to it).  The key is to use nostalgia for the purpose it was intended, not to get tied up in wistfulness of a time that has passed.

Of course, all of this raises the question as to just what we as a society should be nostalgic for?

Recently, The Atlantic had an interesting clip (see for details) which observed that if you're an old Republican (and many are), there's a good chance you probably want to go back to the 1950s, while Democrats and Millennials seem to love the 1990s (there weren't as many Gen Xers, so nostalgia for the 1970s-1980s isn't as strong).  It featured the following graph from The Economist and YouGov.

What makes the observations most interesting are the fact that the findings show strong generational correlations, which is hardly surprising.  However, beyond that, the political implications are interesting (and potentially troubling for the Republican party since their core voters are getting older and even though the elderly have proven to be a reliable voting block, it doesn't suggest their latest losses have taught them very much ... (see and ... yet, although I would say there's still time as long as the lessons aren't simply window-dressing).

In the end, though, the biggest take-away from all of this isn't political, but the fact that nostalgia can help people adjust to new phases of life.  But, I think as some Hollywood reboots prove, if its built on a weak foundation, it can also prove to be an economic disaster.

I wonder where the dominant U.S. political parties stand on that?!

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