The pandemic has sparked a wave of cultural reflection for what feels like simpler times. But if we remove our rose-tinted glasses, what are the benefits of escaping our present to relive the past?
From baking banana bread to table quizzes over Zoom to perfecting the latest TikTok dance craze, people found myriad ways to entertain themselves during multiple lockdowns. While there has certainly been a demand for newfangled distractions, many of us have taken the edge off our difficult present by looking to the past.
From the outset, the pandemic prompted audiences to return to what feels like simpler times. In 2020, Spotify reported a 54pc increase in users making throwback playlists, while in 2021 the analytics company Nielsen reported a jump in the consumption of classic sitcoms like Friends. RTÉ’s revival of much-loved kid’s programme The Den last November was as much about using nostalgia to lift the spirits of the now-adult children of the 1980s and 90s as it was entertaining their offspring.
In some respects, audiences’ habits during the last year-and-a-half reflect the longstanding way nostalgia tends to circulate. ‘The 30-year-cycle’, for example, refers to how cultural trends resurface roughly three decades after their first appearance. The 1990s phenomenon of Cool Britannia is a classic instance. The iconography of Swinging London inspired a raft of new artists including battling Britpop bands Blur and Oasis, who took inspiration from stars of the 1960s such as the Kinks and the Beatles.
More recently, Netflix smash-hit Stranger Things blended the sensibilities of 1980s era Stephen King and Stephen Spielberg with the spirit of the decade’s classic kids films like ET and The Goonies.
This ‘return’ to material from the 1980s and 90s shows no signs of abating. This summer’s Friends reunion proved hugely popular. Sex in the City is currently being rebooted, as is The Sopranos. Remakes of 90s favourites Sister Act, Home Alone and Hocus Pocus are all in the works.
Nostalgia is clearly good for business — and it can be good for the soul. For research purposes, I asked people on Twitter if they thought they had become more nostalgic over the last 18 months. Although not at all scientific, the response was overwhelmingly ‘yes’, with respondents describing using music and television from their youth to escape the news.
Our appetite for nostalgia is far from new but the internet has made it easier than ever to archive and share content from bygone times. Testament to this is the Irish website Brand New Retro. A trove of Irish pop culture memorabilia, it showcases a range of material from the 1960s to the 90s, such as advertisements, photographs and magazine articles. The site celebrates its 10th birthday this year.
“My brother and I created fanzines in the late 1970s when I was also in a few bands, but despite achieving some success, there was nothing online about us at all,” says the site’s creator Brian McMahon. “I realised that to get online I would have to do it myself but I never got around to doing it, until my father died in 2011 and that kickstarted the project.
“I began by digitising my personal stuff, photos and recordings of my bands, pages from the fanzines etc, but soon realised that there was a whole chunk of printed Irish material from the 1960s to the 90s that was never digitised and not online. So, I created the website and adopted a policy of only digitising and posting content from my collection that was previously not available online. That’s where the ‘brand new’ bit of the name comes from.”
McMahon sees nostalgia as something of a mixed bag emotionally. “It sometimes gets a bad rap, often deserved, but it has many positives. It triggers the senses and unlocks memories and warm feelings of good times — what’s wrong with bringing a smile to your face? Of course, it’s usually an enhanced recollection of the memory, like an advert version of life. Maybe that’s why the vintage magazine adverts are so popular on the site.”
Visitor numbers to the site have been “consistently higher” over the past 18 months: “I think people have had more time on their hands but also more time to reflect on their lives and their past,” McMahon says. “Our lifestyles will now change forever so I think people have come on to the site and look back at Irish lifestyle changes over the past 70 years.
‘A 17th century disorder’
“Nostalgia does also show how we’ve overcome major disturbances in the past — there’s plenty to learn from how we did and didn’t cope with change. And perhaps people are preparing and already pining for things that won’t exist any longer.”
Given its modern-day popularity, it is interesting to note that nostalgia was originally conceived of as a disorder. The term was coined in the 17th century by Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer, from the Greek words for “homecoming” and “pain”. Hofer first observed the condition in soldiers whose work took them far from home, producing a low mood and illness. Over the course of the 20th century, this understanding gave way to a much more nuanced, positive account of the phenomenon.
“Nostalgia can act as a buffer that protects people from psychological distress,” says Dr Paul Maher, a social psychologist at the University of Limerick. “People who engage in nostalgic reflection experience feelings of positivity, strong social connectedness, and a sense of self-continuity.
“Nostalgic memories tend to involve the presence of people who are important to us — family, friends — and in this way it provides a means to access social bonds at any given time.”
This effect is something Maher has observed in his work studying those suffering with feelings of disillusionment.
“Nostalgic reflections help replenish the sense of meaning that disillusioning experiences deplete,” he says. “People who are disillusioned feel disconnected from themselves and others. Nostalgia boosts meaning by enhancing feelings of social connectedness and self-continuity. A sense of self-continuity, feeling connected to our past self, tends to enhance the perception that life has a purpose.”
Dr Clay Routledge from North Dakota State University in the US is a leading researcher on nostalgia’s role in human psychology. He describes it as “a complex emotional experience” explaining that it “often involves a sense of longing and loss, which we normally think of as being negative, but those feelings can be beneficial because they help focus our attention on what we value most in life.
“Numerous studies conducted across many nations and cultures have shown that nostalgia makes people feel more meaningful, connected to and supported by loved ones, and even inspired and optimistic.
“In addition, nostalgia helps people have a strong sense of self, that they understand who they are as a person. I suspect many will be surprised to learn that nostalgia actually orients people towards the future, even though it involves thinking about that past.”
This ‘back to the future’ effect has been in evidence throughout the pandemic, as Routledge explains: “Nostalgia is often triggered by negative psychological states such as loneliness and anxiety because it is a mental resource that helps people cope with negative states.
“During the pandemic, when people felt uncertain and alone, nostalgia helped comfort them. But it also served as a resource for planning for a post-pandemic future. For example, people nostalgically reflected on past experiences with loved ones that they weren’t able to visit during the pandemic and this reminded them to not take such experiences for granted in the future. In other words, nostalgia helped people prioritise what is important in life going forward.”
Over-indulging in nostalgia is not without potential pitfalls, however. Routledge says that while “most of the time and for most people, nostalgia is a healthy activity that helps them appreciate life and inspires them to move forward with purpose” is it becomes less positive “if people romanticise the past in a way that prevents them from seeing the progress humans have made or from fully living in the present.”
This sentiment is echoed by Brian Hughes, professor of psychology at the National University of Ireland, Galway. “Nostalgia is a bit of a double-edged sword,” he says. “You can get warm and fuzzy feelings and you can think about positive experiences you’ve had or others have had or society has had, but it is a form of fantastical coping. You are escaping the present in order to relive the past.”
Hughes cautions that nostalgia, rather than providing an accurate depiction of the past, is often seen through rose-tinted glasses. “The nature of our memory is that we tend to relive selected elements of the past. We look at the bright side of the past and relive those.”
“Looking backwards for confirmation can be very comforting when the present is stressful but it’s not necessarily a type of coping that leads to a solution to the present. If anything, it might mislead us into expecting the present to be better than it actually is. It torments us with a false and overly optimistic version of that past.”
Hughes points to political slogans of recent years like Make America Great Again of the Trump campaign and Take Back Control from the Brexit campaign. Both tapped into notions of the past deemed troubling from the point of view of equality and inclusion. Both also traded heavily on emotion rather than fact to powerful effect.
While anyone can be nostalgic, the millennial generation, those born between 1981 and 1995, are often thought of as being particularly prone to it. Sites like Buzzfeed — aimed at and staffed by millennials — have helped solidify this impression via endless reams of content like listicles with titles such as “Ten Hilarious TV Shows Only a Nineties Kid Will Know!”
“I don’t know if it’s true that millennials are more nostalgic than generations before or after them,” says journalist and broadcaster Conor Behan, host of the Housewives and Me podcast. “I do think what has started happening is millennials are now, even though they’re perceived by certain people in the media and in society as this young group, are actually now holding positions in media and are tastemakers.
“I also think millennials are in an interesting position as they’re the last generation that can remember a pre-internet, analogue era where you were much more limited in what you were able to consume.”
Behan points to how the internet has changed our ability to easily access content from decades ago, something that would never have been possible in an analogue world. It has also made it easier to “obsess” over nostalgic content in niche ways through online fandoms and for such content to be remixed and remade for new audiences.
“I think in general the internet speeds everything up and it speeds up cycles of conversation and of interest,” he says. “What it’s done to nostalgia is kind of turbocharged it where suddenly everything that’s more than five seconds old has some kind of nostalgic element attached to it.”
As for the raft of remakes and reboots aimed at millennial audiences, Behan sees this as a natural consequence of an increasingly crowded marketplace as more new streaming services come online and audiences become ever more fragmented. It provokes positive associations, reminding millennial and Gen X audiences of a time before binge-watching, when seeing your favourite show was an experience shared with others who all sat down in front of the television at the same time on the same day, week after week.
“The idea [is] that existing brands and ideas will always have more traction with audiences than brand new ones,” Behan explains, highlighting how shows such as Friends, The Sopranos and Sex in the City have shown major staying power, retaining their fans from the 1990s and adding many more since thanks to boxsets and repeats.
“There’s a handful of [shows] that hit a pop culture sweet spot where it feels like everybody has an interest. I think all these reboots and nostalgia are a game of ‘which one can we do that has that pull for us?’”
Nostalgia therefore tends to focus on the hits while the less-known rarely get the reboot treatment. For every Friends there’s a Dark Skies or a Felicity. For an entertainment industry bruised by pandemic shutdowns and in need of readymade audiences, looking back is a safe bet.