The start of a new year inevitably sees many of us reminiscing on times gone by; a chance to sift through the good and the bad of our lives so far and keep or discard that which has had a positive or negative effect on our well-being. Nostalgia! I’ve always been drawn to this word – it represents a hygge-esque moment/period of thought and provides some sort of order and clarity to the past times in our lives that have served us well and made us the people that we are today.
The recent success of the netflix series ‘Stranger things‘ has spurred numerous conversations in my house, with my own children (aged 17, 13 and 11), about the joy of growing up in the eighties – no mobile phones, no 24 hour tv channels, shops closed all day on Sunday – just hanging with your mates on your bikes and making your own adventure. Such conversations culminated in my 17 year old daughter claiming that she wished she’d grown up then, without the constant pressure presented by social media. She wanted a slice of the nostalgia that I had presented – subsequently we all watched various John Hughes films together (a favourite being ‘The Breakfast Club‘) and talked some more about the past. As our discussion progressed I began to wonder whether I had just successfully filtered out the negatives of growing up in the eighties and perhaps my nostalgia radar was too effective? Perhaps the eighties weren’t so ace after all (I mean, remember the hair!). What even is nostalgia?
A little history
Nostalgia it turns out has a little more to it than I first thought. It is a term that was coined by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in 1688 in a medical dissertation. It comes from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain). It was considered to be a disease, similar to paranoia. Betweeen the 17th and 19th centuries, nostalgia was a psychopathological disorder…!
The nostalgia we know today oozes fondness and seems to refer lovingly to all the sugar-coated facets of our lives that we have neatly compartmentalised into that special keepsake box in our minds. Not so a few hundred years ago. Nostalgia was associated with soldiers serving in the Thirty Years War – discharged for suffering from an extreme form of homesickness. In some cases, the physical characteristics were so extreme that death was expected. It may come as a surprise to look at the list of symptoms from those suffering from nostalgia in the past – loss of appetite, malnutrition, brain inflammation, fever, cardiac arrest and even suicide. Many experienced hallucinations of those that they loved and missed. Children were also susceptible to this disorder, particularly those who had been sent to the countryside to nurse, as-well as young women who had been domestic servants – which makes sense as they were away from their loved ones and were suffering desperately from a sense of loss.
Michael S. Roth has written extensively about the effects of nostalgia – ‘Dying of the past: Medical studies of nostalgia in nineteenth century France’.
According to Roth, almost anything you can think of could cause nostalgia – a too lenient education, unfulfilled ambition, masturbation, eating unusual food, and love. In the 18th and 19th centuries, some doctors were convinced nostalgia came from a “pathological bone” and searched for it to no avail.
Nostalgia finally found its way to the USA around the time of the Civil War. Military Doctor Theodore Calhoun thought nostalgia was something to be ashamed of, that those who suffered from it were unmanly, idle and weak-willed. He proposed curing it with ‘a healthy dose of public ridicule and bullying’. As I read about this it reminded me of the way mental health is treated in modern society and although things have improved in terms of recognising symptoms and offering appropriate support, society still has a long way to go for those struggling with any aspect of mental health. Those struggling to cope with ‘nostalgia’ 200 years ago, were not in a good place…leeches were used and even purging of the stomach in an attempt to alleviate the weak-willed of this affliction.
Somehow, over the years Nostalgia ceased to exist as a disease and has morphed itself into that fluffy comfort blanket that tends to make an appearance at Christmas, New Year and Birthdays…
Smell and touch are strong evokers of nostalgia due to the processing of these stimuli first passing through the amygdala, the emotional seat of the brain. These recollections of one’s past are usually important events, people one cares about, and places where one has spent time. Music and Weather can also be strong triggers of nostalgia.
– Wikipedia –
For me, nostalgia has always been steeped in positivity, wistfulness and wonder. I enjoy reading nineteenth century literature, particularly Dickens (obviously skipping merrily past all the untimely deaths from cholera, typhoid and pneumonia!) and yearn for a simpler time…
I don’t usually watch it, but found myself this Christmas looking forward to the BBC’s ‘Call The Midwife‘ Christmas special – and why? Nostalgia of course – there’s something very comforting about the simplicity and togetherness of the community and friendships that are presented to us in this programme. ‘The Two Ronnie’s’ are also a must at Christmas, taking me right back to family Christmas’ at home with my sister, parents and grandparents – I can still hear my grandpa laughing his socks off when this programme was on.
– Above left, my parents and I holidaying in Scotland, c.1977. The rest are probably the same year, my sister Annabel (in the kilt) and I playing with our beloved Grandpa Norman and Grandma Edna –
Alongside the smell of satsumas and twinkly lights (which, rather indulgently, I keep up all year round now!) nostalgia, for me, represents a time of innocence, a time where nothing mattered apart from being with your family and friends, free from the pressures of social media and internet surfing. Free from the new disease that is modern life, brimming with addiction and desire; the age of consequence…am I being too cynical? Probably!
What does nostalgia mean to you?
As I have taken this brief but important journey into understanding what nostalgia is, I have started to realise how it could have been seen as a psychopathological disorder and not just the wistful yearning for that and those who make us really feel a sense of belonging. Nostalgia is intense and potentially damaging if left to roam free. My brain has successfully filtered out the songs, smells and thoughts of the things in my past that have had a negative impact on my well-being. Sometimes I can be caught out by this – recently hearing a ‘Johnny Hates Jazz’ song in a shop, whisking me right back to 1988. The year my friend died. Go away nostaglia, I just want the good bits please! And so I will surround myself with twinkly lights and eat satsumas all year round and listen to the music that reminds me of times that were positive, creating my own nostalgia! Are you with me?
I’d love to hear what nostalgia means to you. Keep your peepers peeled for a beautiful post coming up later this week that further explores the concept of nostalgia and the importance of preserving memories – Annabel x
Main image: My sister and I during our childhood. Happy memories with our grandparents.