Swiss National Museum
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A 1778 print shows four Swiss mercenaries—some of the earliest subjects of medical reports on nostalgia—at rest during a moment of calm.

Swiss National Museum

The surprising way nostalgia can help us cope with the pandemic

Once considered a brain disorder caused by clanging cowbells, nostalgia is being embraced due to its psychological benefits in times of crisis.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, single mom Mary Widdicks has been cooped up at home with her three small children, three dogs, and three cats. After months of homeschooling while also working from home, she felt the days blending into each other. So in late May, Widdicks loaded the kids into her car and headed to the Harvest Moon Twin Drive-in, in Gibson City, Illinois. A long-time movie buff, Widdicks appreciated the break from cabin fever, as well as the venue’s 1950s vibe, complete with retro intermission breaks featuring a dancing hot dog.

“The first time I went to a drive-in, I was nine years old, exactly the age of my oldest now,” Widdicks says. “There was something incredibly comforting about telling my kids stories about how I'd done something exactly the same when I was their age.”

As movie theaters and other family entertainment options have closed up shop due to the coronavirus, drive-ins have enjoyed a resurgence, with makeshift versions popping up all over the country in diner and mall parking lots. For many parents and grandparents, these places let them share one of their childhood joys. But the rise of drive-ins is just one way we've embraced nostalgia during the pandemic.

“I believe many are turning to nostalgia, even if they do not consciously realize it, as a stabilizing force and a way to keep in mind what they cherish most,” says Clay Routledge, a psychology professor at North Dakota State University and author of Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource.

In one recent study tracking the effects of COVID-19 on entertainment choices, more than half of consumers reported finding comfort in revisiting both television and music they enjoyed in their youth. Online, virtual cast reunions for shows such as Taxi, Twin Peaks, and Melrose Place offer a return to beloved characters from the past. Increasingly, we are weaving nostalgia into our games, our fashion, and even our dreams during the pandemic.

Krystine Batcho, a psychology professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, sees the resurgence of nostalgia during COVID-19 as a natural response. “Generally, people find comfort in nostalgia during times of loss, anxiety, isolation, or uncertainty,” she says.

The modern definition of nostalgia is “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” But its history is far less pleasant and much more complex. Once considered a disease, with odd and potentially harmful treatment options, science shifted its views on nostalgia in the latter part of the 20th century, and studies over the past several decades have revealed both its good and bad psychological effects.

Cowbell connection

Various people attempted to medically describe the specific feeling of longing and heartache starting in the 1600s, including one medical diagnosis that appeared toward the end of Central Europe’s Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) that dubbed the phenomenon el mal de corazon, which translates to “the evil of the heart.” But it was Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer who actually coined the term “nostalgia” in his 1688 dissertation by combining two Greek words: nostos(“homecoming”) and algos (“pain”).

Hofer studied the effects of nostalgia on Swiss mercenaries and concluded that it was a “cerebral disease of essentially demonic cause.” He described symptoms of nostalgia including an obsessive longing for home, loss of appetite, palpitations, insomnia, and anxiety. He believed that an obsession with the homes the mercenaries left behind allowed animal spirits to enter their brains and inflict damage. Swiss military physicians later suggested that nostalgia was instead caused by the unrelenting clanging of cowbells in the Alps, which damaged the soldiers’ brain cells and eardrums in ways that triggered the perilous symptoms.

Nostalgia was viewed as a neurological affliction for the remainder of the 17th and 18th centuries. At one point, some doctors thought a “pathological bone” in the body was the cause of nostalgia, though it was—of course—never located. It wasn’t until the 19th century that medical science shifted to categorizing nostalgia as an affliction of the psyche.

In the 19th century, going to the doctor could kill you Seeing the doctor used to be dangerous. But then in the 19th century, germs were discovered—a discovery that catapulted the practice and potential of the entire medical profession.

The medical community during that time considered it a psychopathological disorder that was a form of depression and melancholia. When immigrants flooded to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, doctors referred to nostalgia as “the immigrant psychosis” due to people pining for their home countries as they attempted to process life in a new one.

Over the centuries, treatments for nostalgia ranged from foolish to deadly. Patients withstood leeches, stomach purges, blood-letting, opium, “warm hypnotic emulsions,” bullying, threats, and even bodily harm up to and including death. In 1733, a Russian general threatened anyone under his command who fell into the clutches of nostalgic yearnings with being buried alive. When he made good on his promise, his soldiers reportedly set aside the past and focused on the all-too-real present on the battlefield.

Existential buffer

The latter part of the 20th century brought a shift in the way the world viewed nostalgia. For one, marketing and advertising researchers began documenting the power of nostalgia in driving preferences for consumer products, according to North Dakota State’s Routledge.

“Empirical research was also very important to this shift, as the old view of nostalgia as an illness was based on theoretical speculation and unscientific observations,” Routledge says.

In 1995, Batcho of Le Moyne College introduced the Nostalgia Inventory, a survey of more than 200 participants designed to measure how often and how deeply people feel nostalgic. The results helped set the stage for more scientifically sound research, and psychological benefits began to emerge.

A suite of studies published in 2013 found that "nostalgia counteracts the meaninglessness that individuals experience when they are bored." And a 2018 review of the scientific landscape concluded that nostalgia acts as a buffer against existential threats. Nostalgia is a way of offering ourselves hope and inspiration, Routledge says.

“Nostalgia mobilizes us for the future,” he says. “It increases our desire to pursue important life goals and our confidence that we can accomplish them.”

While nostalgia offers several psychological benefits, there are potential downsides to clinging to the past. A 2012 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that people with “a strong worry habit” who were exposed to some type of nostalgic stimuli exhibited “enhanced symptoms of anxiety and depression,” as compared to those in the control group.

Batcho says it is unlikely that nostalgia causes depression or anxiety, but “a person who is clinically depressed or is challenged by an anxiety disorder might be more likely to ‘get lost’ in nostalgia, becoming trapped in nostalgic reverie as an escape,” she says.

Nostalgia’s many forms

A key factor in whether nostalgia is a force for good or ill comes down to the type of nostalgia someone is experiencing.

Psychologists today recognize a beneficial type called personal nostalgia, which is when an individual reminiscences about details of their own past, often triggered by life changes and milestones such as graduations and weddings. By contrast, historical nostalgia is tied to valuing aspects of a time period that happened before a person’s birth, and it reflects a level of dissatisfaction with what is happening in the present.

“Personal nostalgia tends to be associated with psychological benefits, such as counteracting loneliness, promoting feelings of belonging, and healthy coping strategies,” Batcho explains. The same can’t be said for historical nostalgia.

The late literary scholar and professor Svetlana Boym also defined two types of nostalgia—restorative and reflective—in her book The Future of Nostalgia. The difference comes from how these two types of nostalgia look at the past, says Hal McDonald, a professor of languages and literature at Mars Hill University in North Carolina.

“Restorative nostalgia looks back longingly—even jealously, on the past, and desires to re-create or relive it in the present,” McDonald says. Restorative nostalgia, therefore, allows people to get caught in the past and long for it in a way that is self-defeating and potentially harmful. “Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, savors the past with the full knowledge that it is, in fact, past, and can never be relived again.”

With so much empirical research on nostalgia, scientists and healthcare workers today are finding ways to use it as a medical treatment. Reminiscence therapy, which the American Psychological Association defines as “the use of life histories—written, oral, or both—to improve psychological well-being,” uses photographs and music to help those with Alzheimer’s and other cognitive and neurodegenerative diseases. In 2018, the George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers opened Town Square in Chula Vista, California, a re-creation of a 1950s town where providers use reminiscence therapy to strengthen dementia patients’ memories.

For now, whether it’s listening to old songs or returning to childhood wonders, nostalgia mostly seems to be offering people a way to cope during the pandemic. Mary Widdicks adds that she’s grateful returning to one of her favorite pastimes brought her kids comfort, too. “My daughter even talked about taking her kids to a drive-in someday,” Widdicks says, “and how she would invite me.”