Wellness·Point of View

The need for nostalgia: Looking back might be doing more for us than we realize

Exploring how reminiscing can create a sense of control and even put this period of time into perspective.

Exploring how reminiscing can create a sense of control and even put this period of time into perspective

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images )

Lately, I've been loving the aroma of soft, salty pretzels and dark chocolate cakes baking in the oven, letting loose to '90s dance hits and chatting on the phone for hours with my friends about the minutiae of our days. 

In short, I've been really nostalgic — remembering the way things used to be before constant hand-sanitizing, wearing a mask and standing six feet away from another person weren't mandatory. As far as I can remember, baking has been a soothing memory. I have tender feelings thinking about when I used to bake cookies with my mom. And It's no wonder I'm listening to Robin S.'s Show Me Love on repeat. Hearing my favourite songs transports me to the time I used to go to bars, getting sweaty to the beat, and take part in lip-sync battles at dinner parties, laughing with friends. I prefer talking on the phone over video conferencing, reminded of a time when the telephone cord from my landline would get wrapped around my wrist as I shifted, trying to find the privacy to speak. Today, I'm on the phone with people I love and can't see in person since, for me, the days of making restaurant reservations and going to the movies or a concert have been put on pause. 

"Nostalgia comes up when we don't know where to turn," David Berry, cultural critic and author of On Nostalgia, told me over the phone. "Nostalgia seems obvious to us, to our survival and mental well-being, as its purpose is to lift us up."

"With so much heaviness, we need to [remind] ourselves what used to make us happy," Cassandra Francis, who explores the role of emotions in her work with psychotherapy clients, told me. "Nostalgia is about having a sentimental piece of happiness, a personal connection. It gives us more motivation and hope to proceed on a day-to-day basis." 

Now that a simple trip to the supermarket can trigger feelings of mistrust and anxiety, it's nice to think of when our only market concerns were the cost of ingredients and remembering a reusable bag.  

Francis added, "We are drawn to nostalgic memories because we know what's going to happen, and having control in a time of uncertainty is important." 

This security we crave, I think, is why many of us have been pulling out activities and things that brought us joy so long ago. We've been posting evidence of our renewed love of running and photos of sourdough bread baking and completed 1,000-piece puzzles, drawn to activities that have stood the test of time. Baking, reading, exercising, listening to music, watching reruns and old movies — "we love these things because there is a predictability in knowing what is going to happen," said Francis. "As we are continually in the process of adjusting to the next thing, doing what you can control can settle the fear."

No one could have predicted we would be having "quarantimes" instead of our hoped summer times. Many things I planned for have been put on hold, like weddings, and birthday and summer celebrations. The future is so uncertain right now, I can see how I'm looking back because I can't really move forward. When I think about my past, even though not everything was great, there are memories of who and what I loved that help boost my spirits. "Nostalgia is always comforting because it is always drawing us back to ourselves," said Berry. I long to feel the way I did before all of this uncertainty, and reminiscing is my direct line to those emotions. 

But also, recalling the past gives me hope for the future because it puts this period of time into perspective.

I went into this year feeling pumped it was 2020. I thought I would be enlightened, focused and full of hope with new beginnings on the horizon. But, like most people, I've found myself confused, deflated and struggling to find my place. Still, I've been able to reflect on what the most important things are in my life. So as hard as it may be to believe, when we look back on these days maybe we'll remember something good: connecting with family, learning new skills, and assessing our priorities, for example. I hope I will remember being able to slow down, listen and find myself in the chaos of the world. These days will definitely not be the "good old days," but recalling memories that put a smile on my face and warm feelings in my heart makes this time a little easier to be in. Nostalgia helps, maybe, because some things can be better appreciated in the rear view. 

Vanessa Magic is a freelance writer, storyteller and award-winning costume designer. Currently, she is in development with CBC to make an afrofuturist science-based kids show. She loves making up magical stories and singing songs to her adorable four-year-old son. When she is not in mama mode, she facilitates mentorships and workshops with Inclusive Stylist Toronto

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