During the mid-semester break, I decided to visit my old swimming club again – a place where I had spent countless early mornings and after-school nights during my childhood. As I pushed open the front door, I was instantly hit by both the thick cloying scent of chlorine and an overwhelming wave of nostalgia. It was strange, but even after five long years, it felt like not much at the swimming centre had changed at all. Sure, there had been a few renovations at the front desk, a fresh coat of paint for the kiosk, and some much-needed upgrades for the change-rooms, but somehow, the fundamental feel of the centre had stayed exactly how I remembered it. As I stood next to the pool where I used to swim laps almost every day, I was overcome by the bittersweetness of reflecting on past happy memories whilst knowing that I could never live through those moments again.
I’m sure that you too can also think of a time where you felt a deep sense of nostalgia pulling at your core. After all, nostalgia is universal to the human experience – at some point, everyone will inevitably feel that wistful longing for days that have slipped by. Nostalgia itself is such a complex sensation; it can evoke an entire melting pot of emotions, leading people to paradoxically feel both happy and sad at the same time. By reconnecting people with their past, nostalgia brings a sense of warmth and comfort that is inexorably tinged with a melancholic touch, reminding us all of the irrevocable passage of time.
Now, the power of nostalgia is undoubted, but have you ever stopped to wonder why nostalgia occurs and what purpose it serves? In order to answer this question, let’s start at the beginning, and examine the first attempts to explain this curious emotion.
Nostalgia was first termed in the 17th century by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer, who noticed a strange illness in Swiss mercenaries who were serving abroad and experiencing strong symptoms like fatigue, insomnia, and irregular heartbeat. Hofer realised that these symptoms were not caused by a physical disturbance, but rooted in a psychological basis, specifically a deep yearning for their homeland. And thus, Hofer termed his newly discovered neurological disorder as nostalgia, after nostos, meaning ‘homecoming’ and algos, meaning ‘longing’. Interestingly, nostalgia was initially considered as an infliction that only affected the Swiss, and commanders even banned their soldiers from singing traditional Swiss songs due to fear of the soldiers being stricken by this mysterious condition.
However, as time went on and migration became more widespread, nostalgia was increasingly reported across the world as more and more people became separated from their homes. As nostalgia became more commonly acknowledged, it was no longer viewed as a neurological disease that required treatment, but a poignant experience defined as a general longing for the past. It’s also important to note that this major reversal in how professionals viewed nostalgia would not have been possible without a fundamental change in conventional scientific methods, as there was a shift from pure theoretical analysis to more careful and systematic empirical observations.
After the ubiquity and normality of nostalgia was established, psychologists began to theorise about its psychological purpose, in order to answer the question of why humans have evolved to experience it. One major theory, as described by Dr Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology and developer of the Nostalgia Inventory, focuses on the importance of nostalgia in unifying our sense of identity over time. Batcho explains that since we are constantly changing, nostalgia motivates us to remember our past, prompting us to reflect on who we used to be and compare that to our current selves.
Something interesting that supports this theory is the observation that nostalgia is most commonly experienced in young adults. Whilst most people expect nostalgia to be most prominent in older adults, a study from the University of Surrey actually suggests that it peaks in young adulthood, as it is such a pivotal developmental transitional period. As you may have experienced first-hand, young adulthood is a time fraught with turbulence and uncertainty, but it also a time where our identities are shaped, and we start to figure out who we really are. And so, recalling past memories and emotions can help stave off feelings of anxiety and loneliness, while also playing a key role in developing your new sense of self.
However, you might be wondering about the obvious drawback of nostalgia: its potential to hold us back by keeping us stuck in the past. Before opposing empirical evidence was collected, this was indeed the prevailing worry among theorists too. However, Batcho reveals that the solution to the potentially regressive nature of revisiting past memories lies in the bittersweetness of nostalgia. In an interview with the American Psychological Association, she explains: “The sweetness entices us to revisit our past. Once we’re there, the bitterness of knowing that actually it no longer exists reminds us that we must return to the present.”
And finally, before I conclude, I think it’s important to recognise that whilst we have explored nostalgia in terms of its scientific basis, it’s also important to recognise that such complex emotions can never be fully explained by science, as each individual has their own unique understanding of and experiences with nostalgia.
For me, it’s always interesting to think about how the days that we are currently are living are the days that we will long for in the future. Perhaps one day, maybe in twenty years, I will walk down University Avenue again, and feel that same sense of nostalgia that I felt just last week at the swimming centre.
This piece used information from Clay Routledge’s video “Why do we feel nostalgia?”, Alissa Roy’s article “The Science of Nostalgia” and Kaitlin Luna’s interview with Krystine Batcho for the American Psychological Association.
Chi Chi Zhao