HARKING BACK TO THE PAST IN A SOCIETY FORCED INTO THE FUTURE — Part 1
“Physically and mentally stuck, nostalgia is now our time machine to another more preferable state of mind.” — Neel Burton M.D.
Put simply, nostalgia grants us stability and familiarity, and in times of such severe disruption, we long for ‘the known’ that provides us with the greatest comfort. Although nostalgia has long played a role in culture, its importance has grown exponentially in response to the abnormal existence we now find ourselves in.
Originally a medical diagnosis, coined by Johannes Hofer in 1688, ‘nostalgia’ was defined narrowly as a feeling of homesickness for a native land, and it wasn’t until 1970 that the term took on a more bittersweet connotation. In the 1990’s, a group of psychologists led by Krystine Batcho argued that nostalgia could in fact be a positive emotion; a self-soothing tool for adapting to discontinuity. Batcho added that sudden and unexpected life changes can induce pangs of sentimentality, because the primary function of nostalgia is to help us create coherent mental narratives of our lives — even in a time and space that denies us this.
A beacon of hope in uncertain times
Nostalgia’s current (and unprecedented) outburst has flowed in two distinct streams; there are those of us that have latched onto films, photographs and hobbies from years gone by as a means of reconnecting with their pre-Covid life, but there are also those of us seeking out sentimental pastimes and ‘simple pleasures’ as a rejection of our new online reality.
Distressing experiences, however big or small, have been identified as a trigger for nostalgia, and play to our inherent need to overcome loneliness, boredom and ‘self-discontinuity’ — all of which are now daily norms in isolation. When the “sense of connection between ones past self and present self” is disrupted by such a watershed moment, nostalgia can counter the disruption by promoting “feelings of continuity”.
But when times are tough, our desire to escape to these safe or familiar places becomes even more tempting. Nostalgia has become the safety blanket we all so desperately needed.
We have identified three ways in which people are currently exploring nostalgia, and explain why they are having such a beneficial emotional impact on people as they navigate an existence limited to the four walls of a Zoom call.
** we will explore a further three themes in ‘Part 2’ — so watch this space!
1. THEY THINK IT’S ALL OVER…IT IS NOW
As a fan of all things sport, the prospect of a Summer without the green turf of Wimbledon, the ups and downs of a European finals, the national pride of an Olympic Games, and all the beer garden debates that come with this, was almost as unthinkable as the prospect of four months inside.
Sport talks to our need for competition, our love of rivalry and our inherent desire to be part of a tribe. On an emotional level, it provides us with a sense of pride, a sense of belonging, and a sense of shared identity.
It can be said, the love and passionate fervour we have for our teams, our countries, or our favourite athletes can only be matched by the love we reserve for our closest family and friends (not me, I promise Mum). When it comes to our sporting heroes, we live vicariously through them — hitting every baseline winner, kicking every ball, and jumping with them at every hurdle. Without our sporting tribe, many of us have become rudderless ships, floating in an ocean of ambiguity.
However, once more, nostalgia has become a central pillar to support our waning sense of sanity. As we search for a sense of normality in troubled times, fans around the world are taking comforting trips down memory lane and desperate broadcasters looking to fill a scheduling void are more than happy to oblige.
In July, the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics will be replayed on the BBC alongside highlights from the rest of the London Games and Rio 2016, replacing coverage of the postponed Tokyo 2020. While there is little doubt that repeats of past matches and events will be unable to conjure up the magic and intrigue of live sport, these images transport us back to a happier time — a time where the country was united in the agony and ecstasy of very different landmark moments.
While we may already know the outcome, the fond memories of victory (and even heartbreak) connect people, spark conversation and give us a sense of excitement for the events we might enjoy together in the future. This, more than anything, is what we’re missing right now!
2. LOOKING INTO A BLACK SCREEN TO FIND OUR PAST
We have also seen streaming giant Netflix succumb to an eager public who have been clamouring for the early release of Michael Jordan’s much-anticipated docuseries, ‘The Last Dance’. From the electric anticipation of Alan Parsons Project’s ‘Sirius’ to inspiring images of ‘His Airness’ grasping the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the documentary makes every fan feel like a kid again. People can once again appreciate the iconic genius of Jordan and ultimately experience an inspiring story of overcoming hardship — which is perhaps now more relatable than ever.
Though many of us are desperately seeking things to fill our endless hours indoors, the Covid-19 experience has shown us that ‘new’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘better’. Netflix UK’s current ‘Trending Now’ is testament to this, with many of the shows adored in the 90s revived to cult-status through our nostalgic hysteria and is further evidenced by the early successes of the Disney+ platform. People young and old (and those of us sitting in the middle) look to tap into fond memories of the films that shaped our childhoods, that helped us understand right from wrong, the power of friendship and how very easy it is to lose your father in a wildebeest stampede.
We have also seen films and TV programmes return to prominence when they speak to habits and rituals that we’re currently denied, or when they talk to the situation we find ourselves in and the simple joys we can take pleasure in.
One of Amazon Prime’s most watched shows at the moment, The Office, talks to the former in a very real and authentic way. It combines nostalgia for a time with nostalgia for a place. Even if you once hated it, the office is likely to be the place you used to spend most of your time at, before all this happened!
At the same time, ‘You’ve Got Mail’ was recently added to the Netflix roster, and proved an instant success due to its uncanny situational relevance. The film follows a couple’s (played by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) blossoming online romance, built on a feverish flurry of emails, letters and chat room messages. Hanks’ and Ryans’ relationship in the virtual world ‘feels more real, more enticing, than anything going on IRL’, and this is something we can all relate to right now.
Film and television have always provided us with a distraction from our own reality. However, the re-emergence of old classics and the cult favourites has shown that this aspect of our lives has become a means of reconnecting with our past reality, rather than abandoning it.
3. LETTERS AREN’T WORDS ON A PAGE, THEY’RE THE FORTIFICATION OF A MEMORY
For digital natives, virtual communication is a frictionless means of connecting and it’s little wonder that the written word has lost some of its mystique. However, physical (and therefore emotional) distance has seen many revert back to writing letters, cards and post cards in order to preserve a special, human bond with loved ones. As ‘You’ve Got Mail’ taught us, these forms of communication force us to be “more open with our feelings, our hopes, our fears, and our dreams”. They force us to be human.
While it’s been incredibly painful to be separated from friends and family, the lost art of letter writing has certainly brought me real joy in these, often melancholy, times. Whether it’s simply wishing my Grandpa a ‘Happy 90th Birthday’ or formulating a list of those things ‘I’m most thankful for…’ with the girlfriend I’m currently unable to see, there is something intrinsically human and reassuring about this more ‘pedestrian’ form of communication.
Though online and social media platforms remain vital (and have undoubtedly played their part in keeping the world afloat), writing letters unlocks something deeper. With structure and routine a thing of the past, letter writing helps recapture a sense of purpose and discipline alongside creativity.
A letter from a loved one means so much more than a WhatsApp or an email — it’s a combination of the time spent thinking about the thoughtful words inscribed on the page, the money on a stamp, the effort of walking to the post box.
Letter writing results in something tangible and meaningful that will be preserved, re-read and cherished long after they’ve been sent. They’re the positive mementos we can keep long after the negativity of our current situation passes.
THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE (HX) LEARNINGS
Even as we leverage nostalgia to cope with the bleakness of our reality today, it’s possible we’ll eventually look back on this time with a degree of fondness. Despite the desolation, new habits, rituals and relationships have been formed. As anyone in the world of innovation knows, new norms are not always a bad thing!
In times of uncertainty people look for the emotional life rafts that help them survive. We all seek the sights, sounds, habits and rituals that speak to our innate need for familiarity, stability and continuity.
As such, brands that can create products and services that represent a new twist on the familiar or provide consumers with an entry point that’s rooted in ‘the known’ will have far greater resonance with a consumer set seeking out nostalgia.
This does not mean brands should stand still, but instead that they anchor themselves to those principles — in formats and messaging that consumers trust, understand, and believe in. With every aspect of our lives rapidly shifting and changing, people need those fragments that remind them of what life once was.
Simon Hall is a consultant at Brand Genetics, an agency specialising in human-centred insight and innovation. With a background in reinventing big businesses at pace, he has experience in creative problem solving, thought leadership and reframing human insight and has worked across strategy, leadership and brand.