People say 90’s kids are obsessed with nostalgia. Studios make reboots, sequels, and adaptations to cater specifically to nostalgic 20- and 30-somethings.
Nostalgia is often seen as a bad thing. Either your nostalgia is being manipulated (to get you to buy a ticket to that remake of Robocop) or your nostalgia is manipulating you (and you really shouldn’t like that video game that you played as a kid because it was actually garbage).
But does nostalgia deserve a bad reputation? And what exactly is nostalgia?
Nostalgia, at least when it comes to consuming media, is the sense that something was better than it actually was. Nostalgia happens when we have an overly-fond memory of something because we ignore or forgot any bad memories associated with it.
But nostalgia isn’t some error in our way of thinking or some kind of mental disorder. Dr. Sarah Whitbourne explains that it’s a totally normal psychological experience—albeit a strange one and not well-understood. Nostalgia is the result of “[a] phenomenon called the ‘reminiscence bump…’1 [which] leads adults of all ages to remember with great clarity and fondness the years of their own youth,” specifically ages 15 to 30.2
As you think back on your past, you’re most likely to be able to generate strong mental images of what you were doing at that time, perhaps even to the date. It’s literally, [sic] a ‘bump’ in your ability to remember what happened during these key critical years of life.3 …[W]hen we think back on these times, the painful events become dimmer and dimmer. We shape and re-shape our life stories, reworking the narrative in a way that enhances the way we feel about ourselves now.4
Nostalgia itself isn’t a bad thing, though there are unhealthy ways to respond to nostalgia. As Dr. Whitbourne explains, “[i]f we only focus on the positive, we’ll lose touch with the reality of the events that actually shaped who we are now.”5
So while psychologists recommend tempering those warm, fuzzy memories with a realistic and complete view of what really happened—yes, sad and unfortunate memories included—Dr. Whitboune reiterates that nostalgia is actually important to discovering who we are as individuals.
Dip into your own past to refresh your sense of who you are now. Emotionally connecting with your younger self helps you maintain a sense of continuity over time. Without memory, we would have no identity. The experiences you’ve had throughout your life help define who you are at any given moment.6
She goes on to emphasize this by pointing out why people with amnesia suffer so much: “The blank spaces in their life stories leave gaps in their sense of personal identity.”7 Because they have no memories, they essentially lose a piece of who they are.
So if nostalgia isn’t inherently bad, is it bad if nostalgia affects how we view media?
Yes… and no. As with our personal lives, that depends on how you deal with nostalgia.
Nostalgia is bad when we refuse to temper it with the less-flowery truth. Mishandled nostalgia creates fans who cannot admit their beloved franchise has flaws. Mishandled nostalgia makes reviewers who praise a film or game as “perfect” because of how they remember it as a kid without considering how bad it might actually be.
But as long as we’re willing to see things with clarity, there’s nothing wrong with having a nostalgic fondness for something. In fact, nostalgia is actually incredibly important. Our tastes—including our nostalgic preferences—are part of what make us who we are.
I believe this is what Dr. Whitbourne means when she says our memories help shape who we are. Some things from our past—even if they were corny or weren’t well-made or didn’t age well—still touched a deep part of us. In some senses, they became a part of us: one of our cherished memories.
When I was three years old, my favorite TV show was The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. There was one episode that always stuck out to me. I couldn’t tell you a point-by-point summary of the plot, but I remember how it made me feel.
|Buena Vista Television, 1989
In the episode, Pooh Bear’s responsible but up-tight friend Rabbit discovers a baby bird struggling to fly in the middle of a dangerous storm. Rabbit takes the bird in and nurses her back to health. When Rabbit discovers the baby bird is all alone, Rabbit takes it upon himself to raise her. The baby bird bonds with Rabbit right away, affectionately calling him “Rabbie,” which almost becomes a term to refer to Rabbit as her father.
Time passes, and the baby bird is no longer a baby. It’s time for her to leave. And Rabbit is overwhelmed by this terrible sense of loss and pride and sorrow at seeing his little bird fly away. There’s some implication that the little bird may come back, but there’s also this sense that they might never see each other again. And it’s certain that their relationship will never be what it once was: Rabbit will never again fuss over his baby bird and teach her to fly or cradle her in his arms.
A simple cartoon about a father letting go of his grown-up baby girl. And even though I was only three years old—certainly too young to understand most of its message—I understood the emotions. I understood that this was sad, and it made me feel sad. But there was also something I was too young to put words to: because even though the episode was terribly sad, it was also one of my favorites. There was something about it that was truly beautiful.
And this is the value of nostalgia: it allows us to enjoy and savor things long after we’ve experienced them. In many ways, nostalgia is good for all the reasons memories are good. They teach us important lessons. They allow us to go back to a special time in our lives. They speak to us in ways that we may not fully understand at the time, but that we come to appreciate more as time goes on.
Nostalgia, like our memories, tell us something about who we are.
And that makes nostalgia quite valuable indeed.
Notes and References:
- D. C. Rubin, T. A. Rahhal, and L. W. Poon, “Things learned in early adulthood are remembered best” [sic], Memory and Cognition, 26, (1998), 3-19, quoted in Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, “What’s So Nice about Nostalgia?” Psychology Today (blog), March 24, 2012, accessed March 21, 2018.
- Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, “What’s So Nice about Nostalgia?” Psychology Today (blog), March 24, 2012, accessed March 21, 2018.
- Susan Krauss Whitbourne, “The life-span construct as a model of adaptation in adulthood” [sic], Handbook of the psychology of aging [sic], 2nd ed., (NewYork, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1985), 594-618, quoted in Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, “What’s So Nice about Nostalgia?” Psychology Today (blog), March 24, 2012, accessed March 21, 2018.
- Whitbourne, “What’s So Nice about Nostalgia?”
Photo from The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Episode: “Find Her, Keep Her,” originally aired on ABC September 8, 1989 and property of Walt Disney Studios 1988-1991. Screenshot from The New Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh E4 Find Her, Keep Her [sic], posted by innodesadjo. Used under US “Fair Use” laws.
The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and all related terms are the property of Walt Disney Studios. And I am not affiliated with them.