I was raised by my Depression-era grandparents who grew up in very large, very poor families.
As a child, I sat beside my grandmother in front of the fireplace, my grandfather across from us, and I listened to stories about their adventures from back in the day. They talked about malted milks at the Five-and-Dime and dances at the lodge. In these stories, boys and girls got together and had “innocent fun.”
I could listen for hours, begging to hear my favorites “just one more time.”
“Grandpap, tell me about when you met Grandma. Please.”
“I don’t remember that one,” he would joke, blue eyes sparkling. Then he would begin. The tales transported each of us back to another era. It was a kind of group nostalgia. To me, it was magical, but was it really?
Nostalgia is defined as a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past. Sentimental, wistful affection—who doesn’t want those feelings? They evoke images of long summer days and first kisses. But whether tripping down memory lane is healthy or not is up for debate.
Until recently, psychologists theorized that nostalgia occurred when people could not face a current state of unhappiness. They escaped into a romanticized past rather than confront the present. Nostalgia was linked to depression. More recently, researchers describe it as a tool that helps us see the continuity of our lives, providing stability in the face of changing times. Finally, there are some who argue that the response to nostalgia depends on the person experiencing it.
In my teens, I began to ask questions. My grandfather left elementary school to work in the coal mines. My grandmother finished high school but couldn’t pursue her dream of becoming a nurse because there was no money. They married young and soon my grandfather was shipped off to war. Were times really so magical?
Shortly after the questions started, the stories stopped. Evenings in front of the fire became infrequent. I was a teenager. I didn’t mind.
And time went on.
Now I tell the stories. I talk about when, as kids, we roamed the neighborhood having grown-up-free adventures. I wax poetic about the romance of slow-dancing and the thrill of hiding boys in the trunks of cars to get them into the drive-in movies for free. I laugh till I cry describing the time we got busted toilet-papering a neighbor’s house. I was on restriction for two weeks after that—hysterical.
Besides being horrified that I’m now the old lady telling tales, I’m sad to admit that nostalgia usually leaves me feeling down. I know my adventures are no more or less true than my grandparents’ were. But I ache at the loss of them anyway. My real present cannot compete with my romanticized past.
Thinking back to those nights with my grandparents, I believe my grandfather enjoyed the stories. He lit up as he described the scenes in his mind and returned as his happy-go-lucky self. My grandmother, on the other hand, came back to the present quiet and distant.
It may be that psychologists who see both sides of nostalgia have it right. Maybe our basic nature dictates how it will affect us. People who are generally happy in the present may visit the past and find joy they can carry forward with them. Those who tend toward depression may be left feeling only loss. Since most of us will take our turn as the old person reminiscing, how do we ensure our memories lead us to “wistful affection”?
To start, we need to be diligent about attending to our mental health and seek help when it’s needed. Depression stains everything in life, including our relationship to our own stories. Just as important, we should strive to keep joy in our present lives. That way, when we look back, we won’t experience such contrast.
So, get started. Go read a trashy novel on the beach or walk your dog or bounce your grandbaby on your knee. Make some time to have a today filled with happiness.
- Garrido, Sandra (2016). The influence of personality and coping style on the affective outcomes of nostalgia: Is nostalgia a healthy coping mechanism or rumination? Personality and Individual Differences (v.120, p 259-264). Retrieved on February 11, 2020 from: sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0191886916308522.
- Verplanken, Bas (2012). When bittersweet turns sour: Adverse effects of nostalgia on habitual worriers, European Journal of Social Psychology, (p 285-289). Retrieved on February 11, 2020 from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ejsp.1852
Sedikides, Constantine,Wildschut, Tim,Cheung, Wing-Yee,Routledge, et. al (2016). Nostalgia fosters self-continuity: Uncovering the mechanism (social connectedness) and consequence (eudaimonic well-being), Emotion (v. 16(4), Jun 2016, p 524-539). Retrieved on February 11, 2020 from: https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/2016-01244-001.