While regret is what we wish we would have done differently, nostalgia is what we wish we could live again. We see regret through cold glass looking over our shoulder and nostalgia through warm fire glow that we want to run toward.
In listening to the second half of the Hidden Brain podcast I started and wrote about last week, I was surprised to think about how universal the feeling of nostalgia is. We all have it and based on our age, have different songs, foods, and television shows that set the scene for what can give us that warm glow. We often share similar feelings of nostalgia for these cultural touchstones.
Since about the 1980s, marketers have been using our emotions and our sense of nostalgia to sell us things. Our shared sense of nostalgia also makes for an easy source of memes and popular themes such at #ThrowBackThursday, which make us chuckle and laugh at the way we’ve all changed since then, even while we all feel that familiar pang.
And for more personal memories that make you wax nostalgic, there is often a tapestry of thoughts and emotions that make our sentimentality rise up. At this time of year, I find myself remembering summers Up North, as we Wisconsinites call anything north of where we live.
We used to travel for what seemed like a full-day to our Uncle’s Al’s cabin in Iron Mountain, Michigan. We spent one week a summer on the small lake, but all the years have been condensed into one epic week’s vacation in my mind. I see my brother, sister and I swimming in the murky lake, having competitions on the large black innertubes, my sister the only one old and brave enough to swim across. Having to use the outhouse except for at night when we could use the inside toilet. The time there was a mouse and we caught it in a bucket. The time we all got the flu and I got sick on fruit punch. Other, better times, eating meat and potato pasties and real Colby cheese which we picked up on the way. Fishing in the boat and singing the Fritos corn chips song so loud we scared the fish.
Later, when I was older, I visited my Uncle’s Eddie’s newer cabin next door and visited my Uncle Al’s cabin, now my cousin’s. I marveled at how tiny it was. I also didn’t remember all the other things I forgot when I was a kid. Being bored or crabby in the car on the way up. The spiders and the scent of the outhouse. The muck at the bottom of the lake. I don’t remember crying, though I surely did.
That’s because those memories aren’t the ones that give me that warm glow. Nostalgia is like a movie. You don’t use every shot. You edit it to include the frames that make the best story. And the bad ones you include are the ones that get the biggest laughs.
So is nostalgia good or bad? Researchers have found that instead of keeping people stuck in the past, it pulls them forward. When people feel nostalgic, they also feel hopeful and optimistic for the future. Instead of the past holding people back, people pull the past into the future. So don’t feel bad basking in that nostalgic glow.
What makes you feel nostalgic?