Nostalgia, like comfort food, transports us back to a simpler time, evoking warm memories. Shared nostalgia can provide a sense of belonging and connection with others who are fans of the same movies and music as we are. But it can also cloud our judgment and lead us to overestimate the quality of the things we feel nostalgic for.
While your favorite movie or television show might be great, not everything from that time or that thing was perfect, and there has always been more forgettable content than memorable content. I am not against nostalgia, but I believe that in excessive quantities, it can be dangerous. If you find joy in nostalgia and define yourself as a fan of a certain thing, that’s fine, but it’s wise to occasionally question your opinions. In this post I will dig into what I see as the biggest issues with excessive nostalgia, and some ways that I have found helpful to balance nostalgia with new experiences.
Issue 1: Nostalgia distorts our critical thinking and makes us susceptible to manipulation.
Nostalgia is an emotional response that transports us back to the past, allowing us to relive cherished memories and experiences. This powerful emotion brings comfort, but nostalgia can distort our perceptions of the past and lead us to overestimate the quality of the items we feel nostalgic for. This romanticization can prevent us from seeing the past clearly, causing us to focus only on the positive aspects and overlook the imperfections. For example, I grew up listening to old country music, specifically Johnny Cash, and listening to his music makes me nostalgic. But after listening to almost all of his recorded catalog, I admit that a large portion of his discography is forgettable. But when I think with the mind of a “fan,” I uncritically consider everything he recorded as good.
All media, including movies, television shows, and recorded music, are products sold and marketed with the goal of separating target audiences from their hard-earned money. Corporations like Disney have made billions selling the same thing to nostalgic fans repeatedly. It’s a great business model for them, with pure profit and little or no cost. Acknowledging the imperfections of our nostalgic memories can help us separate our emotional attachment from the actual quality of the things we feel nostalgic for and help resist being manipulated.
Issue 2: Nostalgia leads to elitism and snobbery.
You are not the thing for which you are nostalgic. But when you are a fan of a piece of popular culture, you can start to see that thing as your identity. This can make you look down on others who don’t appreciate the same thing that you do. If you think political arguments are bad, try getting in the middle of a Star Wars vs. Star Trek debate. This can also lead to snobbery and arrogance when you look down on others who are not as much of a “true fan.” Our culture is already divided enough; do we really need to add who is the most true Fast and Furious fan to the list?
Issue 3: Nostalgia makes the present less satisfying and demotivates creativity.
Excessive nostalgia can lead to feelings of longing for the past, reducing our motivation to create new experiences and engage with the present. When I binge a television series from the past and think that things were better back then, I can start seeing the past as better than the present. This can be especially attractive when my present is unpleasant, and I want to escape from it and desire a return to a more idyllic time. This is despite the fact that the times for which I might be nostalgic had their own problems. In this mindset, I am less likely to want to do new things or create something in the future—instead, I want to withdraw into the past.
Have you ever met a man who tells the same stories over and over with little self awareness that he has already told that story? That is the image of someone who is living in the past. I don’t want to be that guy—I want to create new experiences and stories, not dwell in the past.
Issue 4: Nostalgia obscures the distinction between the object and the memory of the experience
Think about a photograph from your childhood that includes your sibling and pets.
That piece of paper is not the memory, but a representation of that memory. If that photograph was destroyed you would still have that memory. Likewise the fondness I have for a movie from my childhood frequently has more to do with my memories of experiencing that thing for the first time—where you were in life and who you experienced it with. Re-watching that movie will never really take you back to that time in life. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t watch the movie, and you can always make new memories around that thing (like watching the movie with your kids). But it helps to keep a realistic perspective.
I am especially leery of what I call “second-hand nostalgia.”
Second-hand nostalgia refers to the experience of feeling nostalgic for something that someone did not personally experience or have a direct connection with. It typically arises from exposure to the nostalgic feelings of others, such as friends, family members, or even the broader cultural narrative. In this case, an individual may develop an emotional attachment or sentimental longing for a particular period, event, or cultural artifact that they did not actually experience firsthand but have come to appreciate or idealize through the experiences of others. For example, my father had a Mutt and Jeff book from the 1920’s when he was a boy. After he passed away I had this book.
However, to me in 2023, the hundred year old humor doesn’t make sense. Apparently in the 1920’s the height of comedy was to hit other people in the head with bricks and other objects (because that happens at the end of almost every Mutt and Jeff comic strip). This book has no real value, a more pristine copy of it can be purchased for $2-$4 on eBay. And I have no real sentimental connection to the book—it won’t bring my father back, and I can’t even remember ever seeing him read it. The same goes for things like Star Trek or superhero movies—while I have friends who love these properties because they have a childhood connection to them, I do not, and I can never have the deep connection to these things as they do. That doesn’t mean that I dislike these properties, I just have no connection to them.
Life is too short for reruns
Instead of living in the past I want to strive to experience new things and create fresh memories. Intentionally seek out new experiences, such as exploring new music or visiting unfamiliar places, to combat the feeling that everything new is bad.
By embracing new experiences, you not only enrich your life but also ensure that you have new stories to look back on in the future.
Here are some suggestions to help you embrace new experiences:
1. Expand your horizons: Try new hobbies, attend different events, or visit unfamiliar locations to create new memories.
2. Update your playlist: Actively seek out new music, artists, or genres to refresh your listening experience and keep your musical taste diverse and exciting. ChatGPT can be helpful for this—try the prompt “I enjoy __________, please suggest newer music that I might enjoy with related style.”
3. Engage with different people: Connect with individuals from different backgrounds, cultures, or age groups to gain fresh perspectives and insights, while also expanding your social circle. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know some of my colleagues from India who have introduced me to movies and food that I would have never experienced had I stuck with my normal choices.
Nostalgia is a two sided emotion-on one side it can be comforting, but it also can be a negative when taken to extremes. The target of your affection is not your identity, and excessive nostalgia can diminish your critical thinking and make you less creative. By recognizing the imperfections of nostalgia and focusing on creating new experiences and connections, we can appreciate the past while moving forward with new experiences and memories. Embracing the present and striving to balance novelty and nostalgia empower us to build a future that we can look back on with fondness and appreciation, without falling into the trap of idealization.