Skip to main content
Camilla Care

Do you think life is only going to get worse? Try to be nostalgic – for now – Twin Cities

Vaseline 1 month ago

Nostalgia seems harmless enough, and then someone starts seriously – absurdly – ​​glorifying the Stone Age.

“Can you fucking imagine being a human during the Paleolithic era,” a self-described “eco-socialist” podcaster tweeted in September 2021. “Just eating salmon and berries and telling stories around campfires and looking at the stars… no jobs, no traffic, no ads, no poverty no trauma caused by capitalism, just pure vibration.”

By the time that piece of fantasy circulated on social media, romanticizing the distant past had become a cultural pattern during the pandemic, post-uprising. Women were spinning yarns on Instagram, early 19th century style. Far-right fanatics parroted populist slogans and promised to restore the nation to its “former” glory, whenever that was. As we struggled to cope with our turmoil in modern life, we dreamed across the spectrum of politics and circumstances about times we never knew.

When does nostalgia go too far? And how do we find our way back?

I explored these questions further while researching my new book on cognitive biases in the information age. One chapter focuses on “declinism,” the widespread misconception that life is becoming irreversibly worse in all respects. You could think of declinism as the cognitive analogue of nostalgia.

In general, nostalgia is considered a healthy coping mechanism in psychological research, at least the classic form known as “personal nostalgia.” When the present feels painful – lonely, without direction or meaning, even just too cold – we naturally sink into a soothing brain bath of positive memories to feel better. It functions. A 2023 survey found that most Americans find hope for the future by selectively thinking about the best times of their past. Nostalgic memories are said to be “existentially significant,” especially memories involving family, close friends, and romantic partners.

But as the 2024 election approaches, I worry that public figures and politicians will capitalize on the appeal of nostalgia for their own gain. When politicians strategically manipulate nostalgia, they rely not on memories of people’s real experiences, but rather on oversimplifying or catastrophizing today’s problems by perpetuating delusions about an idyllic past. “These…propagandistic strategies help convince people that their current situation is worse than it actually is,” wrote Felipe De Brigard, professor of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience.

As I weighed the political risks against the benefits of coping with nostalgia, I wondered: Shouldn’t we encourage more accurate representations of history as well as focus our idealizations of the past on the present?

Nostalgia for the present is a phenomenon defined by missing something that is not yet lost. Anticipatory nostalgia, as it is sometimes described, can be both a feeling and a thought exercise. According to psychology professor Krystine Batcho, “Nostalgia for the present, as imagined from a future perspective, can drive us to appreciate and seek the best of what is possible. Feeling the sad longing for our present before it is over can encourage us to make good choices now.” In a 2020 study of anticipatory nostalgia in marketing (such as the Kodak slogan “Life’s little moments don’t last forever”), Batcho found that the tendency to cling to the present would paradoxically “jeopardize full engagement with it can bring’. But it can also make unpleasant moments seem less challenging because we know they are temporary. Anticipatory nostalgia encourages us to recognize and accept the inevitability of change. For those who felt dissatisfied with their current lives, anticipatory nostalgia reduced anxiety while increasing meaning and “a greater appreciation of the moment (for what it is).”

A 2023 Pew survey found that the majority of Americans believe life was better 50 years ago. “If you ask that question abstractly, that’s how people respond,” research psychologist Clay Routledge told me.

But if you start asking more specific questions, such as, “Would you give up current medical advances to go back fifty years? If you were raising a daughter, would you trade away all the progress made in women’s rights and opportunities?” most respondents walk back their answers.

They realize that life is objectively better in the present.

Routledge also cited a 2023 Harris Poll that found Americans of all generations are nostalgic for a time before smartphones. We don’t really want to go back in time, he explained, but rather make the most of what the past and present have to offer: “Even younger generations recognize that there is something in these phones that makes us stressed or distracted. distract us from the kinds of deep personal relationships we find meaningful. We don’t want to give up these phones. But we want to use them more consciously.”

I asked Routledge how we can harness the good of nostalgia and apply it to the present moment – ​​how we can romanticize the present so we don’t get lost in the Paleolithic past or the apocalyptic future. I told him that sometimes, when I’m worried about getting older and looking wistfully through old photos, I can break the cycle by imagining that I’m actually 75 years old and someone tells me that with a snap of my fingers can become 32 again. Suddenly I’m grateful for the life I have right now.

Routledge suggested that to maximize nostalgia for the present, we should prioritize the types of experiences for which we tend to personally develop nostalgic memories. His research shows that these moments tend to be highly social, focused on relationships and involve some degree of emotional risk-taking. For example, a gathering that makes you nervous, or a visit to a family member whose health is deteriorating. These are not always happy or enjoyable experiences. Sometimes they are bittersweet or even painful – as nostalgia can be.

Being nostalgic for old memories is normal and often even useful. It is when influential figures weaponize the delusions of the past that we can get stuck. It’s important to remind ourselves that the memories we may long for most are yet to come. And if the present is as good as it gets, good news: it’s still there.

Amanda Montell is a linguist and podcast host in Los Angeles. Her latest book is ‘The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality’. She wrote this column for the Los Angeles Times.