Nostalgia And Resilience

January 20, 2015


Posted in: Families

Over the recent winter holiday, my family once again pulled out the old photographs.

Because I was visiting my mother-in-law, the photos this time were limited to my wife’s side of the family.  The colors were soft, all hues of brown and beige, and the clothing of choice was polyester.  There were pictures of my wife as a baby smearing baby food on herself and the nearby wall, and of her mother looking glamorous, scarf flapping in the wind, as she rode shotgun in a 1960s convertible.

Stories, of course, were exchanged about each photo, each impossibly happy.  But we all knew that there was no way my wife’s childhood—that anyone’s childhood—could transpire with such Disney-esque bliss; that we were, in essence, rewriting history.  We were carefully editing our recollections to match the nostalgic reverie that matched our moods and our needs.

This is not an uncommon scene.  We re-sculpt memories all the time, and when those memories mix personal happiness with just a tincture of melancholy, we are quick to acknowledge that we are having a “nostalgic” moment.

But nostalgia is not limited to personal recollections alone.  Watch an old Western film; I’m talking about the old black-and-white stuff, with frontiersmen whose teeth are intact and hair neatly-styled.  We know on some level that this is not the way the frontier was. In actuality, the frontier was nasty and filled with death.  Yet, when I watch those old Westerns, I am totally willing to suspend my understanding of history.  Instead, I think of the West as being comprised mostly of romantic kisses, heroic battles and the best-tasting baked beans this side of the Mississippi.

Nowadays, we call these false recollections “nostalgia.”

But, what do we mean when we use this term?  Is there a formal definition?  And, why would a website devoted to child and adolescent resilience care about nostalgia in the first place?

It turns out that nostalgic reckoning is associated with psychological resilience.  How we’ve come to understand this process is more complicated than you might think.

Nostalgia is a Greek word coined in 1668 by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer.  Mr. Hofer observed the intense homesickness of Swiss soldiers fighting abroad, and decided that they suffered from a new syndrome he called “Nostalgia.”  The term parses, literally, to “homecoming pain.”  Mr. Hofer thought that remembering home during difficult times was a kind of medical syndrome, as it was often accompanied with, what he felt to be, a particularly severe state of sadness.  By that he meant to suggest that memories of a home one might never see again could dangerously damage the psyche of vulnerable individuals.  In this sense, “nostalgia” was a diagnosis—it was a disease.

The term held on to its negative connotation for about two hundred years.  Slowly, however, the literary and artistic world co-opted the word, and started to associate it with a different and more positive slant.  Nostalgic stories were common in late 19th and 20th century periodicals.  Norman Rockwell practically made a career out of capturing the rosy aspects of early 20th century life, his work being called “a nostalgic vision that wards off the sordid, threatening aspects of modern existence.”  In other words, Rockwell painted our memories with the same hues my family used to trade stories over winter vacation.

This shift in definition has, ironically, brought nostalgia back into the medical world.  There are increasing bodies of research suggesting that nostalgia is itself a powerfully positive psychological force.  Researchers have noted that indulgences in the positive aspects of nostalgia can stave off dementia, solve international crises and prevent depression and anxiety.  Some have even argued that we NEED nostalgia as a means of reshaping the truth so that it is psychologically easier to tolerate.  Put more succinctly, in ways that we are just barely aware of, we lie to ourselves and to each other as we recreate our pasts.  And, most importantly, these lies are good things.

Think of nostalgic memories as censored fairy tales.  Nostalgia, therefore, truly is Disney-esque; Disney has taken some very dark stories and simply wiped away the blemishes.  As we’ve stressed, this is not necessarily a bad thing—we all need to drink from the well of our own memories with varying amounts of sugar.  It wouldn’t, in other words, have done anyone any good if I had interrupted the recent bout of stories that were swapped about my wife’s childhood, and decided to steadfastly challenge their veracity.  My family was enjoying these stories—absent of the trials and tribulations that they undoubtedly endured—precisely as a means of coming together in celebration.  Researchers have noted that when we alter our life stories by filtering them through positive lenses, we improve self-esteem and self-worth.

However, don’t misunderstand.  This is not the same thing as saying that we’re knowingly withholding the truth when we indulge in this kind of reverie.  For nostalgia to have its resilient potency, we must also be well aware of our own ruse.  If your kids ask you, for example, what life was really like for you, be honest.  In a developmentally-appropriate way, tell them the truth.  You owe it them and to yourself to be forthcoming.

Otherwise, you run the risk of allowing your children to think and to believe that life really is a Disney movie.


Steven Schlozman

Steven Schlozman, M.D.

Steven Schlozman, M.D. is associate director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is als...

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