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Living in the past isn’t exactly a desirable trait. Movies, television, and musicians alike have long portrayed the former high school jocks and cheerleaders sadly wearing their letterman jackets, clinging to the glories of yesteryear. It’s these lasting lampoons and various other personal experiences that have led people to perceive nostalgia—a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time—as a negative thing.
For further proof, look no further than Donald Trump’s campaign for president. The Republican nominee has resonated with his voter base by employing his now-famous slogan “Make America Great Again,” a nostalgic nod to the United States’ post-World War II military and economic dominance over the rest of the world. It was a time when business was booming, jobs were being created left and right, and no one could touch the mighty Americans, not even those pesky Soviets.
But for all the negativity—and frankly, hate—associated with the Trump campaign and his supporters, there is an interesting nuance to that slogan. Though it takes on a tinge of racism by hearkening back to a period of American history where certain demographics, namely African Americans, were more overtly oppressed, there’s a nugget of futurism that suggests it’s actually based in positivity.
“It’s saying that there is something that was right and that we can do that again in the future,” says Dr. Clay Routledge, associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. “I don’t think that’s the healthiest strategy, because of course it depends on who’s past you’re talking about.”
Routledge has been studying the psychology of nostalgia for more than 12 years, and has published a number of papers, blogs, and essays on the subject. He agrees that the general perception of the emotion is negative, but through his research something has really stood out—for all its negative associations, most people’s nostalgia is a net positive for them.
He shares an anecdote of a friend who loves rebuilding old arcade games. Routledge asked his friend why, with the glut of advanced video games and technology available nowadays, he would choose to rebuild these gaming dinosaurs. His friend tells him that he does it because he remembers how much joy the games used to bring people, and he desires to bring the games back to life, thus transferring that past joy into the present.
“Nostalgia isn’t so much about going into the past or hiding in the past,” Routledge says. “We have this conception that when you’re nostalgic, that must mean that the present isn’t so good, so you’re wishing you’re somewhere back in time. It seems that a better description is people going into the past and bringing it into the present.”
It’s that future-oriented nature of nostalgia that Routledge says is one of the most surprising aspects of his 12 years of study. When the word is spoken or seen, we’re immediately inclined to think about the past, but really nostalgia is rooted in looking forward for the happiness of the past, not backward.
“When people are engaging in nostalgic reflection, they’re not wanting to go backwards, they’re wanting to go forwards,” Routledge says. “They want to use the past to mobilize themselves to take on their current challenges or to plan for future goals. I think the most surprising thing is the idea that nostalgia is what we call an approach-based experience, because people think of it as more of an avoidant-oriented experience.”
That lines up pretty well, even with a personal favorite nostalgic satirization—Uncle Rico from the 2004 cult classic “Napoleon Dynamite.” Even though Uncle Rico clings to his past as a backup high school football quarterback, insisting his team would have captured a state championship had the coach only put him in the game, he harnesses that nostalgia to create a comically bad highlight reel of himself to send to potential talent scouts.
For an example more grounded in reality, Austrian scientist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” is centered around his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz and his efforts to remain positive and find meaning in the presence of so much death and destruction. He recalls the things he learned in the concentration camp, the relationships he formed, and the inner-strength he discovered.
“Even when people have negative or traumatic life experiences, over a time they’re able to make sense of them, and that process generates this fondness, these nostalgic memories,” Routledge says. “I would say generally it’s good, and all of our evidence seems to suggest that.”
That’s not to say nostalgia can’t go wrong in certain contexts. The danger lies in false senses of historical nostalgia (see: Trump campaign) or when those who have a tough time dealing with nostalgia get caught up in it. There are scores of Google results of the term “nostalgic depression” and similar likenesses, and though there’s no clinical diagnosis, nostalgia can present problems to those with major depression.
“You could make the argument that people who are suffering through some psychopathology or a mental illness have a difficult time with nostalgia,” Routledge says. “I don’t think that’s necessarily caused by nostalgia, it’s just that people who are depressed, the way they think about memory and how their memory system works is just generally more negative. So it might be harder for them to use nostalgia in a more constructive way.”
If we are able to harness the power of nostalgia though, it can really come in handy, especially when it comes to reminding us of times during which we overcame obstacles that might have seemed unbearable or insurmountable. It’s a highly social emotion, and according to Routledge, invoking it helps us to feel more socially supported and confident in our social abilities.
“Nostalgia is a way for you to reach back into your experiences and say ‘right now maybe I’m lonely, maybe I’m stressed, but I have had these experiences of success,’” he says. “So people can kind of use nostalgia to find the ways to take on challenges in a particular domain.”