Pandemics, recessions and other bad stuff create an emotional longing for an idealized past.
Nostalgia is a powerful and often necessary emotional cloak— a way for humans to shield themselves from unpleasant contemporary challenges.
During this pandemic, haven’t you found comfort and consolation in favorite foods, music and TV shows? Think about how many of those comforting things have percolated up from your past. Childhood memories are especially powerful nostalgic triggers because, for many of us, our childhood home represented comfort and security. This link to the subconscious mind reminds us of a happy, carefree time when problems could be offloaded to parents.
One of the nicest attributes of nostalgia is that it crosses ages, races and gender. We all have the ability to dwell in the past and feel the warmth of days gone by. This can act as a soothing salve to stress and strife.
In fact, research into nostalgia suggests remembering the past has tangible benefits. Reporting for The New York Times about nostalgia research, John Tierney wrote, “Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.”
Of course, we humans are exceptionally good at sanitizing the past so that our memories become idealized versions of what really happened. Today, your first kiss is remembered as a romantic victory — even though you may have actually locked braces and bruised your lips. Today, that past trip to Europe is a cherished memory — even though, in reality, you were beside yourself when you thought you lost your wallet. Despite the flaws in these memories, feeling good about the past is a whole lot easier than facing an unforgiving present or an uncertain future.
As a marketing guy, I find the need for nostalgia particularly intriguing when it comes to brand marketing, which more often than not reflects current consumer trends. There is currently a concerted effort by brand marketers to engage in throwback marketing. This was clearly evident in several commercials shown during the Super Bowl in February. That’s why we saw stars from the past appear; just one example: Mike Myers and Dana Carvey reprising their decades-old roles as the loony duo of Wayne and Garth on behalf of Uber Eats.
The digital research firm eMarketer recently suggested that nostalgia marketing will be one of the “transformative developments” of 2021. Jeremy Goldman wrote, “Nostalgia saw an uptick after 9/11, during the Great Recession, and amid the pandemic as well…”
Victoria Petrock, eMarketer’s principal analyst at Insider Intelligence, added, “During times of stress, it’s a natural coping mechanism for people to want to think about happier times. People are baking homemade bread, doing jigsaw puzzles, and listening to classic music from decades past to try to find comfort in those experiences.” Petrock also noted a seeming contradiction: “On the surface, this turn toward nostalgia may seem as if it’s signaling a return to low tech. But this isn’t completely true. New technology is actually making many of these nostalgic indulgences possible.”
Petrock makes a valuable point. While we’re clinging to past feel-good memories, we embrace rather than abandon modern-day technologies to facilitate our nostalgic meanderings. Many of us watch movies and television shows from earlier, happier years on streaming services. We join social media groups that highlight past decades and rekindle our memories. Media moguls have picked up on the trend, as a recent spate of TV and movie retreads demonstrates. You might even say nostalgia has become a thriving business segment.
It all comes down to a pretty simple universal human need: Protecting ourselves by retreating to a place that’s safe, warm and secure. So don’t worry if you find yourself reliving your past, even if you exaggerate the positive memories now and then. Nostalgia is good for you.
Barry Silverstein is a retired marketing professional who occasionally pines for the past and even writes about it, as he did in his book, BOOMER BRANDS: Iconic Brands that Shaped Our Childhood.