The Dangers of our Nostalgia Obsession


The world can be a tough place. It can be a challenging thing to simply exist. People have a number of methods for coping with everyday life – from sex to drugs and alcohol. Then, there's nostalgia – a favorite for millennials. Nostalgia is a dangerous thing; it is duplicitous and sweet. It can lure you in with a promise of warm memories. It can leave people with the wish that things today would go back to how they used to be in “The Good Old Days.” Nostalgia is also a lie, a sweet lie, but a lie nonetheless.

This conclusion regarding nostalgia can be summed up by looking at the root of the word itself. Nostalgia comes from the Greek words noros, which means return, and algos, which means suffering. Quite literally nostalgia is the return to suffering. It’s a fitting description.

Nostalgia is a booming business right now. Presidential campaigns are waged and won on the promise of nostalgia. Movies and television shows pander to our collective nostalgia to help us escape or cope. The entertainment industry has ramped up its efforts to plunder our nostalgia for their financial gain.

Throwbacks are all the rage. Eighties nostalgia has seeped into pop culture over the past few years, and a 90s revival is showing signs of being just around the corner. Everything old is new again. Reboots and remakes have been the new normal in Hollywood, and they have been increasing over the past decade. Modern logic dictates that what was once popular and beloved must be so again. In Hollywood, as in many of our lives, a safe bet is almost always preferable to a risky unknown.

There is power in nostalgia. There is power in our memories, both collective and individual. Memories give us clarity in our day to day lives. Memories give us blueprints for situations we face. It is our past that informs our present, which in turn informs our future. We are supposed to learn from the past, or as the saying goes, we are forever doomed to repeat it. We should learn from the past, but we should never retreat into it. Ultimately that is the danger of nostalgia. It envelops us, it makes us feel good, safe and secure. It traps us. That is what is happening now. We are all retreating to the warm, safe glow of comforting memories. Childhood memories, in particular, are cloying, hence the 80s and 90s boom in popular culture.

It makes sense really. The world is a much different place than it was when we were growing up. Everything has changed from the previous generation. Technology has changed the way we live and interact with the world and each other. The 2008 financial collapse, coupled with automation, has fundamentally reshaped our economy. The 24-hour news cycle forever makes it seem as if our very lives are under threat at all times. The world seems less stable than it has ever before. Keeping all that in mind, it is easy to see why people would want to look back and live in a simpler time. The ability of nostalgia to help distract people, to help distance themselves from the problems of the day is what makes it so destructive. People can choose to not confront and face things. They can distract themselves and evade their lives. Problems do not get solved.

The truth of the matter is that we can never move forward and we can never change things if we are always looking to recapture those memories of yesterday. The world was not better back then. Things have always been a mixture of good and bad. The economy might seem to have been better in the 90’s and 80’s, but things were much more limited. Pop culture today is not any worse off than yesterday's pop culture. The music and movies you grew up loving are in no way better than the movies and music that are being made today. We should always be striving to move forward. We should be building and creating. We should always be like sharks; if we stop moving we will die. Nostalgia prohibits that.

I’m being hard on the entire concept of nostalgia, I can see that. It might even be unfair on my part. Good memories, happy memories, are things to be cherished. They can provide comfort and relief in times of hardship. Who doesn't love grabbing a few beers with old friends and reminiscing about the good times? It’s a great feeling. It's an alluring feeling.

It is easy to get lost in the past and never think about the future. It is even easier to want things to go back to being how they were while we were all growing up, to be free from responsibility and hardships. Ultimately, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. As with most, if not all, things in life, moderation is key. After all, if you're always looking to the past, you won’t be able to see your future.