The past, like the future, is subject to the distorting mechanisms of our minds. When reminiscing, we might fabricate a very biased view of the ‘good old days’. Some of us focus all of our attention on the good bits, glossing over past tribulations and airbrushing out of existence all traces of bygone blemish. Viewed this way, the past is seductive—a flirtatious si’lah* enticing us to swim in the ocean of our imagined former glory. Some of us swim so far from shore—the present—that we are lost at sea, and the seductress, let’s call her nostalgia, claims yet another victim.
The word nostalgia is derived from the classical Greek, nostos (return) and algos (pain). The ancients characterised the condition as a burning, all-consuming desire to return to past places or previously lived lifestyles. The nostalgic were viewed as being almost immovably fixated on imagined past happiness. This rigid retrospection meant that they were unable to enjoy the present moment or anticipate future pleasure. This state seems similar to the present-day psychological complaint known as anhedonia. The anhedonic suffer from a diminished ability to experience joy in the present moment (consummatory anhedonia) or to imagine future delights (anticipatory anhedonia).
Perhaps understandably, this early conceptualization of nostalgia led to its being viewed as a psychological disorder, not a sentiment to be celebrated. This pathological version of nostalgia can be described as extreme rose-tinted retrospection, offering up a sanitised, idealised, and beguilingly delusional view of the past.
Within medieval monasticism, nostalgia was also viewed negatively. It was held to be a key symptom in acedia, a psychological complaint common among monks and ascetics. Having left their old worldly lives behind, some of these unfortunates were now pained by a yearning for the ‘bad old days‘—for a return to their worldly, pre-monastic states.
Even within the Freudian psychoanalytic tradition, nostalgia was viewed negatively. The Freudians termed it repressive compulsive disorder: an unconscious desire to return to an earlier life stage.
Historically speaking, nostalgia has had bad press. Today, however, we often celebrate nostalgia. We love retro and vintage clothing, and ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s themed parties are frequent. Marketers and advertisers are also fond of leveraging nostalgia to help shift products. So, somewhere along the way nostalgia has had an extreme makeover. We no longer view it as a psychological disorder; there is even some recent research suggesting that a little nostalgia might be good for us.
Firstly, contemporary psychological studies exploring nostalgia suggest that the experience is ubiquitous—we all feel a little nostalgic occasionally. One UK study of undergraduate students reports that most participants experienced nostalgia as a positive emotion, bittersweet perhaps, but typically less bitter than sweet.
Experimental research into nostalgia has found that it gives rise to positive moods, increases self-regard, and strengthens social bonds. In other studies, nostalgia has also been found to reduce loneliness and increase existential purposefulness.
It appears, then, that nostalgia is more like a medicine than an illness. It tends to strengthen us, helping to preserve and perhaps even promote our psychological well-being.
However, even if nostalgia is medicinal, we still need to be careful. Some medicines become toxic, even fatal, when administered in high doses. An occasional trip down memory lane is beautiful, but buying an apartment and relocating there is likely to prove problematic. Furthermore, such an extreme yearning for the past is perhaps symptomatic of a more profound dissatisfaction with one’s present life, or of a debilitating fear of the future.
Expatriates, especially those who left their homelands many years ago, are particularly vulnerable to hyper-nostalgia (unhealthy doses of nostalgia). They can often romanticise and idealise the places they came from to the point of delusion. Paradoxically, once expats return home, they can also often feel the same way about the host nations from which they repatriated.
So, how much nostalgia is too much? If the bitter overpowers the sweet, and we begin neglecting the present and future, then perhaps we need to dial the nostalgia back a notch.
* In Arabian demonology, the si’lah is a female ghoul (jinniya) capable of shape-shifting. The si’lah is said to be a specialist in ensnaring people using her beguilingly beautiful forms. According to one legend, the si’lah always knows precisely what face, body shape, and even fragrance would most excite the senses of her victims. Accordingly, the she-demon would use her shape-shifting powers of seduction to madden her victims with passion before leading them to a bad end (Ibn Manzur in Lisan al-Arab / Encyclopaedia of Islam 1922).
Prof. Dr. Justin Thomas is a British professor of psychology at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University.