The Science Behind Our Generation’s Waning Interest In Nostalgia

The scientifically backed benefits of nostalgia could be a thing of the past.

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color photograph of a pair of hands holding an old faded photograph, an act of nostalgia

When my father called in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, I assumed something terrible had happened. Fortunately, it wasn’t bad news. “Lauren, we sold the house…and to some really nice lesbians,” my dad told me with pride. “One of them is a detective!” Naturally, I booked the first flight home—in part, to explain to him why telling the story that way wasn’t as progressive as he thought and, in part, to go through my childhood belongings. Not that I thought I would be nostalgic about all that crap. I live in a tiny New York City apartment. My memorizes are exclusively of the TimeHop variety. And indeed, when I arrived at my childhood home and rifled through my baby clothes and toys, I felt nothing. Until I came across my parents’ old love letters. There, I felt my first pang of nostalgia.

The term nostalgia was coined in 1688 by Johannes Hoffer, a Swiss doctor who defined it as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.” By the 19th and 20th centuries, nostalgia continued to be negatively associated with “immigrant psychosis,” and “mentally repressive compulsive disorder,” until Constantine Sedikides, a psychologist at Southampton University, pioneered a new field of study over a decade research that said otherwise and concluded nostalgia is essentially healthy. But is it evolving? Am I less likely to feel nostalgic than my parents, and one day when my kids go through their childhood possessions, will they care even less than I do? Modern experts are not sure.

Utilizing Southampton Nostalgia Scale dozens of social psychologists have produced studies that suggest nostalgia can foster creativity, improve relationships, and bolster motivation. In the digital age, some studies suggest nostalgia has shifted from items that evoke memorize to images snapped with our smartphones. “People could be so focused and content with the digital reminders of the past they feel nostalgic about that the actual items have less value for them,” Bettina Zengel, a nostalgia expert at the Southampton School of Psychology told Fatherly. Then again, she says, the research is in its infancy. Perhaps digital photos make people more nostalgic. “The always-available digital medium could tune them in so much to their past that other reminders, like real physical items, could be harder to part with.”

While the digital nostalgia theory has yet to be thoroughly explored, the preliminary research suggests that it may influence how future generations process nostalgia. Access to digital images that evoke nostalgia for other people’s memories—think of anything with an inkwell instagram filter—have made videos and blogs that feature such images increasingly popular among teenage girls, one study suggests. And digital displays of nostalgia have also changed how we experience and share that elusive emotion. In 2015, one of the first studies on nostalgia and social media concluded that nostalgic posts tended to be more reflective, emotional, and occasionally bittersweet than average.

At the same time, the prevalence of such images online means that this generation feels more pressure than previous generations to experience (and share) nostalgia. Ironically, findings from a 2012 study suggest that people who worry about experiencing nostalgia often spend more time worrying about not feeling it than actually feeling it, minimizing its positive effects. “When much of the day is focused on reliving the past and basking in the emotions that these memories bring up,” Zegel cautions. “Then the future-orientation that nostalgia evokes might never be realized.”

Perhaps that’s what happened to me when I arrived at my childhood home. Maybe I was so hopped up on digital nostalgia that my ability to appreciate the analog version atrophied. Or maybe I was so anxious about not feeling nostalgic that I let that worry overpower my natural urge to remember the past. Whatever my problem was, it wasn’t my own belongings that ultimately brought me out of that slump—it was my parents’ memories. The nostalgia Holy Grail? My dad’s love letters to my mom, from the year he moved to Los Angeles to become an actor.

Admittedly, learning that my father’s nickname for my mother was “Butter” felt like a gross violation. But my mom, convinced that the intimate intellectual property belonged to her, insisted I had every right to look. In a pile of hundreds, the first one I picked was a declaration that he was officially giving up on acting to build a life with her. He wrote about wanting marriage and kids more than fame and fortune. I always knew my parents’ story, but seeing my dad’s own writings—about how he had never been a good gambler, how my mom was all he needed, how he hoped to marry her and start a family as soon as he returned to Chicago—nearly knocked me out of my chair with nostalgia.

“Evoking social connectedness in children by sharing nostalgic memories with them could make the children themselves feel more connected with others,” Zengel says. Indeed, that one letter made me feel more connected to my dad than I ever had before—but it also made me think of all of my other relationships, sort of a nostalgia contagion.

In the end, I didn’t save very many of my childhood possessions. Sure, my vintage Baby Uh-Oh was cool and Instagram worthy, but the one item that mattered the most, those love letters, I refused to photograph and post. It wasn’t for my dad’s privacy—any concern for that got thrown out along with my old report cards. It was because I didn’t need the letter, or a picture of it, to access that emotion anymore. And to my relief, it didn’t require any additional storage.

If Zengel’s expertise and my personal experience are any indicators, technology may change how we experience nostalgia, and future generations may process those feelings differently as technological advances continue to influence every aspect of our lives. But I just don’t think technology—or fear of not feeling nostalgic enough—will obliterate it completely. When a keepsake (or a letter) truly means something to us, we feel the same nostalgia our parents felt, and commemorate it much same way they did. Not with Facebook posts, but with cardboard boxes of memories.

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