Nostalgia – For Better or Worse

A few weeks back I was folding laundry in the living room and looking for something to watch on TV.

nostalgia with journey

I happened upon a documentary on the rock band Journey. It told the story of how they found their lead singer, Arnel Pineda, and brought him to America to audition and later join the band.

I was enthralled. What a great story about following your dreams and persevering. I developed a Journey obsession that lasted nearly three weeks. I was on YouTube daily, watching Journey live performances and the updated version of their popular VH1 Behind the Music episode. (I didn’t even know they updated it!) It was ADD running wild, fueled by nostalgia.

My nostalgia was laced with a bit of sadness, as well. The story of Journey is largely one of “what might have been”. What would have happened if Steve Perry didn’t walk away in 1986? What if he had taken only a year off instead of ten? I remembered back to when I bought Journey’s Greatest Hits on CD. Doesn’t everyone own it? I bought it in college after my parents bought me a CD player for Christmas. I had the cassette already, but CD’s were a big deal back then and this one was one of my first.

Ahhhhh, college. Being out on my own and discovering there was a whole world that existed outside of Peru, NY. Making friends, learning, and preparing for the future – exciting times. But I had to get back to the real world. I had to stop obsessing about Journey and get on with writing, being a husband and a father.

It’s Like Déjà Vu All Over Again

I know what you’re thinking… “What’s the big deal? You enjoyed getting back into Journey, right? Everyone needs a little escape once-in-a-while.” I get it. But, you have to understand I’m a big procrastinator. I wrote a book about it for cryin’ out loud. I knew, deep inside where that voice of reason lives, that I was using this as a diversion. I was putting off writing, putting off growing my business, and putting off dealing with things that I needed to deal with.

Ironically enough, had I not gone off on this little Journey diversion, I wouldn’t have made the decision to dig into the concept of nostalgia. Why do we have nostalgic thoughts? What do they mean? Do they serve a greater purpose and is it a noble one?

You see, the Journey episode wasn’t the first time I’d found myself stuck in a continuous nostalgia loop. A couple months before, I started rewatching Battlestar Galactica (the reboot, not the original) while mixing in a few Star Trek movies and episodes along the way. Watching them again took me back in time to when I first watched them.

Battlestar reminded me of how cutting edge the show was back when it debuted and how much buzz it got and how disappointed I was when there was talk of moving the show to NBC but nothing ever came of it. Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan took my back to my 12th birthday party. My Dad rented a VCR (yes, he rented one) and showed the movie. Then we had cake. I don’t think my friends enjoyed it as much as I did. Oh well…

The Journey incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I knew if I could learn something about nostalgia and see if there were links between it and procrastination, I could help myself and all of you. And even if there was no link, at least I’d know what need nostalgia was fulfilling in my life and maybe figure out what else I could be doing to meet that same need.

What’s Nostalgia All About?

If you know anything about me, you know I like to define things before I start attacking them. That being said, here’s a simple definition of nostalgia.

“a sentimentality for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations”

Okay – this explains how I feel when I listen to Green Day’s “Dookie” album or Candlebox’s debut album, aptly titled “Candlebox”. It reminds of the year I lived in Pittsburgh. I had my first real management job and I was living on my own, paying my own bills, and figuring out how to be an adult. I couldn’t have picked a better city to live in. Lots of history, beautiful architecture, and hard working people. Sometimes I wish I’d never left.

Another album, “Four” by Blues Traveler, reminds me of when I lived in Erie, PA, with my aunt, before and after I lived in Pittsburgh. I remember my Dad buying me the album one weekend when he and my Mom visited us. I remember a basketball court I used to frequent when the weather was good. I remember a little bakery downtown with the best cookies I’ve ever eaten.

But when I hear a song from any of those albums, there are memories that don’t resurface…

My decision to leave my first management job and start a business in a box – a  business that lasted maybe 3 days before I realized how naive I’d been.

Almost going broke back in Erie and having to take a credit card advance to move into a new apartment in Rochester, NY when I finally found a job.

The tension between my aunt and I because I invited myself back into her home after things didn’t work out in Pittsburgh.

Hmmm…there’s some filtering going on here. Is this unique to my own experience? If history is any indication, probably not…

Nostalgia: Better Than A Pill?

Alan R. Hirsch, in his report, “Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding,” characterizes nostalgia as “a longing for a sanitized impression of the past, what in psychoanalysis is referred to as a screen memory — not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out.”

So my mind is playing tricks on me? Comes as no surprise, really. Check out what else I found…

Clay Routledge, a social psychologist at North Dakota State University, who has studied nostalgia extensively over the past decade says, “When you’re nostalgic about something, there’s a little bit of a sense of loss—[the moment has] happened, it’s gone—but usually the net result is happiness,” His team’s research indicates nostalgic memories typically entail “cherished, personal moments”, such as time spent with loved ones. Those memories inspire “positive feelings of joy, high self-regard, belonging, and meaningfulness in life.”

Smells, things we see, or songs may trigger nostalgia, taking us back to memorable times in our lives. But there are other less subtle triggers – like negative feelings, such as loneliness, according to Routledge’s experiments. His team also asked study participants to read one of three news stories containing depressing, neutral or positive content. The results showed that a story about a tsunami provoked more nostalgic feelings than one about outer space or the birth of a polar bear.

So wait a minute. Our negative feelings will sometimes trigger nostalgia and when they do, the filtering of the bad stuff from our memories often leaves us feeling better? I think I see where this might be heading. Here’s the kicker…

Routledge says this about the role low self-esteem or disillusionment over life’s meaning plays in nostalgic thoughts and feelings. “People don’t just go back and recruit random memories of driving to work or paying taxes. They think about the special times. They think about the times they’ve spent with close friends or loved ones, maybe that family reunion, maybe important rituals—their wedding or graduation.”

Built-in self medication. Read this and tell me if I’m wrong… Routledge’s studies concluded that nostalgia brings comfort when we find ourselves in various negative mental states. He says, “If you’re feeling lonely, if you’re feeling like a failure, if you feel like you don’t know if your life has any purpose [or] if what you’re doing has any value, you can reach into this reservoir of nostalgic memories and comfort yourself. We see nostalgia as a psychological resource that people can dip into to conjure up the evidence that they need to assure themselves that they’re valued.”

Well I’ll be damned. I was looking for a connection to procrastination but I found something quite deeper.

Nostalgia and Emotional Needs

I’ve talked about emotional needs time and again. I’ve talked about how we meet them in a variety of ways that aren’t necessarily good for us. From what I’ve studied on the subject of nostalgia, it’s apparent nostalgia meets two of our basic emotional needs – validation and security.

We all have a need to feel important, appreciated, and valued. This is validation and if what we’re doing and how we’re living, in the present, doesn’t validate us – we look for other sources of validation which often take the form of others’ approval. We can seek others’ approval in the present through looking a certain way or having certain things or we can look back to times we felt the most loved, like the events Routledge refers to in his studies.

Nostalgia also brings comfort, which fulfills our need for security. We want to know we’re safe and taken care of. We want to know that everything is going to be ok. Dipping into the reservoir of past memories reminds us that whatever happened long ago turned out just fine. And we often alter those memories to focus only on the positive, which further comforts us and shows us that we made it through those storms.

Compared with other ways we seek validation and comfort, nostalgic thoughts appear to be quite harmless. They’re certainly better than self-aggrandizing behaviors and frivolous spending to “keep up with the Joneses”. Dave Ramsey said it best, “We buy things we can’t afford with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.” We comfort ourselves with junk food, alcohol, drugs, and sex. Given that, nostalgia sounds like a great alternative – it’s less expensive, won’t expand your waistline, give you a hangover or land you in jail.

Sounds great on the surface, but what happens when nostalgia leads to getting stuck in the past? How do you move forward when you’re constantly looking back? How do you learn to deal with your emotions and find productive ways of meeting your needs? How do you make new memories when all you’re doing is reliving your old ones?

Perhaps that’s the link the procrastination. When I look ahead I see a lot of work to be done in a short amount of time with no guarantee of success. It’s far more comfortable for me to relive a sanitized version of my past through old memories. Nostalgia is just one of ways I kill time. Recognizing it is half the battle.

Nostalgia is fun. It’s an instant pick me up, a reminder of how your identity has been shaped. The key to using it effectively is to make sure it doesn’t lead to backwards steps in your development. Use nostalgia to build your confidence by reminding you of past successes. Use nostalgia to provide comfort by reminding you of the adversity you overcame. Use nostalgia to remind you of why life is so worth living.

Don’t use nostalgia to keep you from living the life you were born to live today…


Todd K Marsha is a Catholic husband and father living in suburban Kansas City. Through his writing charism he tells the powerful story of his conversion to the faith, his triumphs through God's grace, and his continuing struggle to live a more Christ-like life.

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