Why we became more nostalgic during the pandemic

In times of crisis, it seems baked into our humanity to turn to retro and analog activities as a way to cope. Why is cultural nostalgia so often a reaction to the present time?

Nostalgia is a natural response in times of great transition, researcher says

During the pandemic, nostalgic Canadians flocked to drive-ins like Saskatchewan's Twilite Drive-in Theatre. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

In times of crisis, it seems baked into our humanity to feel nostalgic and turn to simple comforts from the past as a way to cope.

Cultural nostalgia is often a response to our current circumstances. The 19th century Arts and Crafts movement, led by British textile designer William Morris, was in reaction to mechanization. The tie-dye trend often returns again and again in times of political turmoil.

"The time periods over history that have been associated with greater nostalgia, tend to be times of great transition," Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College, told Spark host Nora Young.

Transition can be a result of technological changes, like the Industrial Revolution, and disruptions or threats to a way of life, such as war.

"In a time period like ours, when some people feel we might even be losing control over how quickly technology is changing and perhaps we can't keep up with it, there is this longing for the simplicity and security of when we were able to use tools and devices easily. But at the same time, paradoxically, we can't wait for the newest technology to come about."

In the early months of the pandemic, the sourdough trend was big. (Michelle Parise)

Since the pandemic took hold earlier this year, retro activities have experienced a revival of sorts. Drive-ins have momentarily eclipsed cineplexes, sourdough starter recipes are traded like currency, old TV shows and reunion specials have popped up on streaming services and this summer saw a world-wide shortage of roller skates.

"We're all seeking the joy that we had, to some extent, even the innocence we had before we had to deal with this pandemic," says Batcho.

Krystine Batcho is a psychologist, a professor, and the creator of the Nostalgia Inventory. (Courtesy of Krystine Batcho)

Nostalgia had its advent in 1688, when Swiss physician Johannes Hofer described a condition amongst mercenaries in the battlefield yearning to return home. The term comes from the Greek words for "pain" and "longing for home."

It was presented as a negative phenomenon, used as a label for a medical disease, which in the worst case, could be fatal.

While the concept of nostalgia runs deep in human history, the term has evolved radically over time, says Batcho.

As transportation became more accessible and new means of communication arose, the idea of being intimidated by being far away from home started to weaken. In the process, home took on a slightly different meaning than just a physical location. It started to include family, friends, as well as the experiences we've had in that original place of birth.

Home became more of a symbol for good things that were associated with our loved ones, and that it had something to do with our origins.

This semantic drift led nostalgia to eventually signify a longing for the past, says Batcho.

Batcho has been studying this longing for the past for several decades. In 1995, she created the Nostalgia Inventory, a survey that assesses people's proneness to personal nostalgia.

There are several triggers for nostalgia documented in the literature, but the one many are experiencing in an increasing degree right now is separation from others, says Batcho.

"Especially separation from those we've come to rely upon or those we love or love us. But even beyond that, just social isolation or social distancing, in and of itself is a trigger. Loneliness has been shown to be a trigger for nostalgia," says Batcho.

Some people are retreating to old hobbies or old activities that they once enjoyed. Others are exploring new interests or reaching out in search of a new group on the internet that might teach them a new skill.

"Yes, it's true that they're looking for pleasure and joy in that new activity, but they're also looking for social connectedness, which is a highly nostalgic thing to do. And what they want most, first and foremost, is a sense of belonging to a community."

She notes that social media platforms have encouraged people, not only to find and archive aspects of their own past, but then to communicate and share them with others. They've also helped satisfy a yearning for relationships that got neglected and indulge our nostalgia in ways we couldn't before.

Batcho says there are two time periods in our lifespan where nostalgia is at an increased level. One is old age, the other and most significant is early adulthood — a period usually characterized by seeking new independence and identity exploration.

Unlike the condition posited by Hofer, nostalgia is associated with more positive than negative effects, she says, including "social connectedness, feelings of belonging, continuity of self, a better understanding of one's identity, calming or decrease in anxiety."

Back to the futures past

Nostalgia isn't uniquely about looking to bygone moments from our lives, there is a surprising pleasure that comes from looking back at past visionary dreams of the future and at how people in the past portrayed—and marketed—the next big thing.

The Space Age depicted a future where everything is seamless and shiny. Where nothing ever breaks or needs a firmware update.

More often than not these visions were a statement of people's hopes and fears in that period of time, says tech journalist Matt Novak.

Novak is a senior writer for Gizmodo and the founder of Paleofuture, a blog dedicated to documenting the various imaginings of the future that never were.

Matt Novak is a senior writer for Gizmodo and founder of the Paleofuture blog. (Paleofuture)

When it comes to burrowing ourselves into retrofuturism as a respite from reality, Novak says that that's not necessarily a bad thing in 2020, when the actual future is dubious at best. "I honestly don't know that there's a downside to escaping into a world of flying cars and jetpacks, when the world is crumbling. And there's so much suffering going on."

"I really think that everyone needs escape."

But he notes that it's also important to keep in mind that these visions of the future were often a response to their grievances.

The meal pill was first conceptualized by American suffragette Mary Elizabeth Lease as a way to allow women to escape what she called "the drudgery of the kitchen." While meal pills aren't viewed as a utopian promise today, they were part of a progressive idea with roots in the women's liberation movement in the late 19th century, says Novak.

Similarly, flying cars, a staple for many futuristic films set in the 20th century, were envisioned in the 1950s and 60s as a solution to road congestion and traffic.

"Even within generations, there's a wide spectrum of different [imagined] futures. By nature, people have different desires and different things they want to get out of life."

Written and produced by Samraweet Yohannes.