Nos-tal-gia — a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations,” is how the Oxford Dictionary of English defines nostalgia.
We all have our own self-image, valid or not. Deliberately avoiding nostalgia has always been a component of mine. I don’t need it for comfort or validation. Enjoy the present, look forward rather than peering in the rear-view mirror, focus on what can be rather than dwell on what was.
Memories I understand. This column wouldn’t exist but for me sharing memories and thoughts. I appreciate a vintage bicycle for its engineering and simplicity, but when it comes time for a ride, I prefer carbon fibre frames and hydraulic disc brakes. The same applies to nostalgia. No one can deny the past exists, that we each had a tiny place within it—but it’s not somewhere I choose to linger when I’m alone, or seek for sanctuary.
Last week I received the 2022 schedule for Fonthill’s extremely successful Thursday Night Concerts at the Bandshell, and I noticed that cover or tribute acts outnumber new groups three to one.
FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre announced its 2022-23 musical line-up via a glossy promotional flyer. It was wonderful to see photos of the many featured acts, how the musicians have aged so gracefully in the 20 or 30 years since their hits dominated the music scene.
These venues are extremely successful organizations showcasing very popular entertainment. They know what fills the house—patrons love what they offer—but I’ll steer clear thanks. No nostalgia fetish here.
A few weeks ago I volunteered to help a friend and his wife clear out her mom’s house prior to selling it, and arrived just in time to stop him from pitching a JVC GX-500E full 4-channel system, including receiver, turntable and four massive speakers, into the dumpster. Beside it were nine boxes of 33-1/3 rpm high fidelity LP records ready to follow the system in a march of destruction to the dump.
Somewhere there had to be a nostalgic vinyl fan anxious to pay good money for this once-trendsetting unit. The JVC was one of the world’s first commercially successful matrix 4-channel quadraphonic sound systems. An hour later the JVC and LP collection were in my van, with a promise to return the expected profits to my friends.
A week later my world became confused. The JVC was in serious need of refurbishment before it could be sold. I took the time to clean and polish each component, repair a slipping turntable belt, and connect everything together, eager to hear its sound, yet concerned that the only records available were the same as those my parents had played repeatedly and mercilessly.
Five decades ago Andy Williams made me gag, and Perry Como caused me to flee my parents’ home, hands clasped over my ears. It was Mitch Miller, Jim Nabors, and Johnny Mathis Christmas Special LPs played continuously for the eight weeks before December 25 that finally forced me to move out and get a place of my own. (To be fully transparent, maybe getting serious about my now-wife Els contributed a bit too.)
To sell this equipment now, I had to know that it was fully functional. Atop the dusty pile of records was Andy Williams’ 1967 hit Born Free, an album as good as any for test purposes. Within a moment, a long-forgotten, five decades-old song about Elsa the lioness, sung by a voice Ronald Reagan called a “national treasure,” brought mist to my eyes. An hour later I was still “testing” the system with vintage LPs that just days before I had fully expected to take to the dump: Al Hirt, Andre Kostelanetz, Lena Horne, the Ink Spots, Bert Kaempfert and his Orchestra no less.
What just happened? Had the tentacles of nostalgia reached out from those four, huge, pressed-wood speakers and curled around my brain? Was I drifting backward in time to an incomprehensible fuzzy and warm place? Did it matter, and could I cope?
Nostalgia as a word was first conceived in 1688 by a Swiss Army physician to describe a psychological ailment afflicting mercenary soldiers fighting beyond Swiss borders. Nostalgia described a state of mind which made life in the present debilitating for these lonely troops constantly enduring mental and physical trauma, causing them to reflect back to times of happiness and tranquility with family and friends for emotional refuge.
This theory of nostalgia, now termed, “Reflective nostalgia,” was the accepted norm until recently. Nostalgic thoughts carry us back to times that we experienced happiness and joy, a mental exercise which was considered temporarily helpful in maintaining a positive outlook.
However, excessive indulgence in these emotional flights to a past full of cherished people and sunny situations can become addictive, leading to a feeling of dissatisfaction and hopelessness with one’s day-to-day life. In the worst cases, a state of psychosis and suicidal tendencies might occur amongst those who find retreating to nostalgia is easier than maintaining the necessary resilience to deal with their current situation.
It was in 1999 that Constantine Sedikides, a Professor of Social and Personality Psychology, examined his own emotions after a career transfer from the University of North Carolina to the University of Southampton, in England. He discovered that the nostalgia he felt for UNC did not create negative thoughts about his move to Southampton, but instead was a powerful stimulant for feelings of optimism toward the future.
Nostalgia as the perfect internal politician, connecting past with present, pointing optimistically to the future
Sedikides and Southampton colleague Tim Wildschut began researching the subject and quickly learned that the negative attributes of nostalgia represented only half the truth. Within a decade, they were confident in pronouncing, “Nostalgia as the perfect internal politician, connecting past with present, pointing optimistically to the future.”
Their research found that “Restorative nostalgia,” the ability to forget the toil and turmoil of the past when thinking back in time, measurably boosted empathy, social connectedness, and provided us with a basis to believe there is purpose and meaning in our lives—all significant internal remedies for loneliness and alienation.
Sharing nostalgic experiences can make conversation and intimate connections easier amongst strangers, enabling or vindicating the pursuit of future common goals. One 2016 study suggested that 75 percent of social conversations included nostalgic content.
It’s our reaction to nostalgia that defines whether a spontaneous return to the past will provide positive emotional reinforcement or a potentially harmful addiction.
When nostalgia slips into rumination, and counter-factual recollections distort our true past, creating unachievable demands on us in our present circumstances, bitterness and hopelessness may be triggered.
Conversely, summoning the warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia may protect us during bouts of disappointment and anxiety, grounding us so that we can better accept our present situation and look forward to the future. It is during these times we realize that by creating a happy and meaningful life for ourselves today we guarantee that our personal future nostalgia will be comprised of fond experiences and happy memories.
The JVC system is still in my living room, and it will still be sold, eventually. Now that I understand I needn’t fear the occasional pang of nostalgia, I really should play the 250 vintage LPs buried in those nine boxes before I list everything on Kijiji. ◆
Editor’s note: Don’t even bother asking for his email, folks. I called dibs!