Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of nostalgia. Why do we need lists from Buzzfeed asking us if we know we grew up in the ’90s and telling us why 2014 is disappointing…if we grew up in the ’90s?
Is 2014 really that bad, or is it the fact that, due to the internet, we have such easy access to information and artifacts from our pasts that hearkening back to them is just simpler for us than it was for previous generations?
We don’t have to dig through boxes in our attics and storage units to find old Walkmans and Video Cassettes. We can simply Google images of them, feel the rush of memories associated with the objects, and move on with our lives.
I looked up the definition of “nostalgia” in the dictionary. According to Dictionary.com nostalgia is:
a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time:
a nostalgia for his college days.
Implicit in this definition is the assumption that the current time is in some way dissatisfying. I considered this for a while. Is the popularity of nostalgia sites among millennials a sign that we are discontent? We hear all the time about how millennials are strapped with exorbitant student loans. We are the first generation where it’s not only socially acceptable to move in with one’s parents after college, it’s practically expected, at least for a year. Statistically our generation is marrying later, buying a house later, and having kids later.
I don’t think discontent is the reason. I feel “sentimental yearnings” for times and places in my past that weren’t particularly happy for me at the time. Why is that? How can I be nostalgic for those places?
An example of that could be the nostalgia some people feel for the late 1960s. The year 1968 was tumultuous and full of tragedy. Great leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. The nation found itself locked in war with Vietnam and the way we treated our veterans when they came home from the fight was shameful. Why then are entire documentaries and miniseries dedicated to the year “1968”? Why do so many people look back on the music and culture of the time with such fond memories? I would argue that even though it was an excruciating year, it was a shared cultural experience that shaped the country.
Could it be that we are naturally going to remember the 1968s in our own lives?
I had a miserable time in middle school. It sucked. I was nerdy and played Zelda games. Why on earth would I remember those years with such sentiment? Well, I do. When I look back at them now, I smile because those were my formative years.
I don’t think this explanation explains the current nostalgia phenomenon exemplified by the prevalence of Buzzfeed lists. I think the culture has everything to do with technology and the rapid transformation of the way we interact with people due to social media. Consider this, exactly ten years ago Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook. I don’t think ten years is that long ago, but think about how much has changed so rapidly in ten years. It feels like life before Facebook existed a lifetime ago. If what happened ten years ago feels like 100 years ago thanks to rapid technological changes, we’re going to remember twenty years ago like it was 200.
The old Disney logo:
instantly transports me to my childhood which took place 300 years ago.
I’ll put forth one more hypothesis, because this post is already long enough.
When one is very busy, one has no time for sentimental yearnings. I noticed this recently when I finally got several pages into a piece of writing I’m working on. As I got into the zone, I didn’t have the time to think about how much better my writing would be if I wrote with pen and paper rather than computer. And if you have to contact a bunch of people for a story, you don’t yearn for a time before the internet when you had to look up people in a phone book. If you are lost, you don’t yearn for a time before the GPS.
Maybe the cure for nostalgia, if nostalgia needs a cure, is to just get busy. Extremely busy.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts!