HARKING BACK TO THE PAST IN A SOCIETY FORCED INTO THE FUTURE — Part 2
“Time moves in one direction, memory in another” — William Gibson
In our previous piece, we explored the importance of nostalgia as a positive emotion. Through the rosy glow of film, television, sport and even letter writing, people are trying to reconnect with a ‘lost’ past and in doing so, to recreate happy memories to cope with current difficulties. This time we’re focusing on hobbies, cuisine and modes of socialisation to understand how and why people’s behaviours are shifting in the pursuit of nostalgia.
In its purest form, nostalgia makes us feel happy by reminding us of more meaningful, positive moments in our personal or collective past. It helps us to remember we have previously felt better than we do at present, and that we will feel better again one day.
More specifically, ‘The Atlantic’ defines a unique pandemic-induced feeling of nostalgia as “newstalgia”. This phenomenon refers to the feeling of yearning for the return of familiar, ordinary parts of life that were daily banalities only a few months ago.
However, the British Foreign Policy Group provide a more nuanced assessment, positing that “the landscape that awaits us on the other side will be truly distinct” with every aspect of our economic, social and political life needing to be “re-activated, re-imagined, and re-cultivated”. Described as a “scorched earth”, there will be a clear division between life before and after the crisis. In consequence, there will be a “a clear separation between those energised by the prospect of forging something new, and those who long with nostalgic force for the life we had before”.
In some cases, these two mindsets are not mutually exclusive. As we will discuss, many of these inherently sentimental practices and pastimes are in fact completely new for generations that have lost touch with the ‘simpler’ things from a ‘bygone’ era.
Bridging the social distance
Research suggests the most nostalgic memories are “peopled” with friends, family and acquaintances, so no matter how physically isolated we may be at present, we do have the ability to tap into the mind’s “peopled” souvenirs.
Professor Tim Wildschut, Social and Personality Psychology lecturer at the University of Southampton, goes further, suggesting that nostalgia is an inherently social emotion; “it’s a way of acquiring proximity to people who are special, even if they’re not physically present. For a moment, it’s like they’re there with you, and you feel less lonely”. While social connection is limited and everyday life disrupted, nostalgia can provide people with not only a distraction but some much-needed hope and happiness.
In this vein, social media has taken on new and heightened significance during lockdown. As COVID-19 continues to disrupt how we live our lives, people online are “tapping into old memories on social media to cope with a time when new ones might be difficult to make”.
Amid crises, it’s common for people to look back fondly on happy memories. With stay-at-home orders in place across the globe, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, nostalgia is being spotlighted on social media. Platforms like Twitter and TikTok, show many users taking part in viral nostalgia-fuelled photo trends like #MeAt20 and #ImJustAKid that give participants the opportunity to connect with their followers by sharing snapshots from their pasts.
The subreddit r/Nostalgia has seen steady growth since March, and r/90s has grown +9.7% over the same time. Hashtags #TBT and #ThrowBackThursday have been used +43% more frequently over the last month, while Tweets containing “I Miss” are being posted +63% more frequently on a daily basis. Even Google is resurfacing old Doodles in a “Throwback Series.”
With the summer holiday season creeping ever closer here in the UK, prepare to see your social feeds overwhelmed with a torrent of posts proclaiming “this time last year”, #tbt and “this is where I should be right now”.
Robyn Vinter, a Leeds-based journalist, tested societies’ propensity for wistfulness with an innocent Saturday morning tweet containing a simple request: “I would like to see the last normal pic on your phone.” 8,000 responses later, it is clear that across the globe, there is a strong desire for both familiarity and social connection.
Though Zoom meetings, video calls and Instagram Live have attempted to fill the void physical social contact left behind, online options offer a “thinner experience”. As such, our memories of a BZ (*Before Zoom) era remain the comfort blanket we cling to.
No one is really happy or safe without a hobby
As our social lives have been transformed exponentially, alone time has taken on new meaning during lockdown. While many of us have taken the time to learn something new — a skill, language or indeed TikTok routine — others have looked to rediscover (or indeed uncover) the joys of board games, solace of arts and crafts and the freedom of running around in a green, open space.
In what the Daily Mail have called ‘the rise of the middle-aged millennials’, younger generations have picked up delightfully low-tech hobbies to pass the time during lockdown: turning their hands to everything from jigsaw puzzles to stamp collecting.
These ‘back to basics’ hobbies could be described as a return to a ‘bygone’ era but this could also be described as a retreat into the safety, comfort and simplicity of childhood.
Between social isolation, fear of contracting COVID-19, financial insecurity and the uncertainty about what’s on the horizon — is it unsurprising that revisiting childhood pursuits may be provide people with a sense of wholistic wellbeing.
Either way, re-reading books, drawing, and painting enables people to express themselves, explore their creativity, and experience an uncomplicated pleasure that is rare in the current times. Dr. Natasha Kate, a consultant psychiatrist from Mumbai’s Masina Hospital, suggests that “they help us direct our mental energies into a more positive space, help us connect to others in a more simple and uncomplicated fashion”.
One example from the Royal Horticultural Society has found thousands of Brits have been planting their own vegetable patches, nurturing seedlings and making their own compost during lockdown. With newfound passion comes horticultural responsibility and 750,000 Britons have visited the RHS website for advice on tending to their potatoes, tomatoes and strawberries at home.
This uptake in interest in gardening is not simply ‘a sign of the times’. It also highlights people’s inclination to return to a simpler, cleaner and more natural way of life. It’s one way in which people are relieving themselves of their dependence on what they perceive to be a fragile global supply chain — while saving a few valuable coins in the process. Lockdown has shown people how dependent we have all become on technology, but conversely it has given us time to explore what we can achieve when distance ourselves from it.
Social media suggests that we are all likely to emerge from lockdown as one of 4 typologies: ‘monk’, ‘hunk’, ‘chunk’, or ‘drunk’. It is the ways in which we utilise our (now abundant) spare time that will determine how we enter the “scorched earth” of a post-COVID world.
Just like mum used to make
Greater still than the emergence of growing our own food, has been the explosion of cooking our own food. From the primitive open hearth spits of the middle ages, to the high-tech chrome and marble utopias that grace the covers of Good Housekeeping — kitchens have been part of the home for thousands of years. However, it seems that until lockdown, much of society had lost touch with the warmth and sensory experience of home cooking.
Now, one fifth of the UK population are cooking every meal from scratch, and 35% of the country state they are creatively using leftovers to actively avoid food waste. In the absence of beloved local restaurants and ‘you-had-to-be-there’ events the communal spirit of sharing food and eating had to evolve.
With the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck passing on their culinary expertise on Masterclass, and with disposable income feeling far less disposable, home cooking may be shifting from an occasional Sunday afternoon undertaking to a staple of our everyday lives. While this return to in-home cooking and dining may have been involuntary, it seems likely to remain as we re-emerge from lockdown.
The danger and shock of a life upended has left us “grasping for our old lives and customs”. Not only is baking banana bread (as a nod to the past) or honing the art of a homemade sourdough (as a way of re-learning a lost art) satisfying our immediate physical hunger but cooking is also satisfying our emotional hunger for comfort, stability, safety and ultimately happiness.
Though we’ve discussed changes to hobbies, cuisine and modes of socialisation that have been necessitated as a situational response to lockdown, the last 3 months may be redefining people’s behaviours in the long-term. People seek to be less dependent on global retailers, businesses and brands. Rather than ‘pressing pause’ on normalcy, they have instead looked to reset and reboot — finding comfort, joy and a sense of purpose in the food, hobbies and memories of the past.
For brands to survive — and ultimately thrive — in a new and unpredictable environment, they must provide goods and services people are even willing to leave home for and prepared to pay for. Alternatively, they must find a way to utilise DTC avenues and form part of people’s new at-home existence.
To future-proof your brand, you must dispel assumptions of a total return to normal, now is the time to innovate!
If we have learnt anything from the recent BLM movements it is that while there are those “those who long with nostalgic force for the life we had before”, we must all now become “energised by the prospect of forging something new”.
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.