Activity Recreation//

Why Today’s Nostalgia Feels So Different and So Needed

A longing for simple pleasures from the past has hit a critical mass (Museum of Ice Cream, anyone?) And experts say it’s boosting our mental well-being in one crucial way.

 Photo Credit: Sean Gladwell/Getty Images

Last month, my partner Sabrina and I attended an 80s-themed birthday bash in Chicago that Sabrina’s sister Sophia threw for her husband Jay. Entering their Lincoln Park home, we were immediately transported to our early youths. Giant Rubik’s Cubes served as coffee tables throughout the house; piles of candies from the decade of shoulder pads and yuppies — Nerds, Now and Laters, Pixy Stix — were scattered across every surface. Video cassettes of E.T., The Breakfast Club, Ghostbusters and my all time favorite, Back to the Future, were stacked around the house. And vintage tunes — Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” A-Ha’s “Take On Me” — blasted from the speakers. Sophia, dressed as Pat Benatar, beckoned us to the front of the house, where Jay emerged from a rented DeLorean dressed as an 80s rocker, flanked by a friend sporting a Marty McFly-get up.

That night we used actual Polaroids to take pictures and shared a million memories about a time that seemed to move slower and render sweeter — and real-er — experiences than modern life, with its whiplash pace and virtual sociality.

The party captured a longing for the past that has seemed to hit a critical mass in our culture lately. It’s reflected in throwback TV shows (Stranger Things, The Goldbergs, This Is Us, all set in the 80s), beauty collaborations (Asos’s 58-piece Crayola collection boasts 95 vibrant makeup shades that recall childhood’s quintessential tool of creative expression, the crayon), clothing partnerships (Uniqlo’s Kaws x Sesame Street showcases favorite childhood friends like Cookie Monster and Big Bird), and brands from the 80s that have been brought back to life (Atari relaunched its iconic home video console last year).

The eminent historian Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, agrees that we’re seeing an uptick in pop cultural (and retail-based) nostalgia. “Every advertiser dreams of evoking nostalgia in their target audience because nostalgia is an emotion that literally makes people feel warmer,” she says. But Coontz warns that nostalgia can also have a darker side: “When nostalgia for a feeling or experience gets confused with the idea that everything was good in the old days, and all change has been bad, it makes people angry and suspicious, closing them down to new experiences and relationships.”

Nostalgia, in fact, wasn’t always associated with positive human emotions. Coined by a 17th-century Swiss physician working with homesick soldiers, the word derives from the Greek nostos (longing) and algos (pain) and was once considered a mental illness. But over the last decade, studies—many of them spearheaded by the Greek-born psychologist Constantine Sedikides, PhD, at the University of Southampton—have demonstrated nostalgia’s health benefits, including its ability to improve patience, boost overall wellbeing, and alleviate loneliness.

But, as satirist and author Peter De Vries once joked, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” And the present wave feels decidedly different. There’s an experiential component to it that’s new and invigorating, and reads as a response to our social media saturated culture, where much of our “socializing” happens from behind our screens. In fact, facets of the new nostalgia “actually encourage us to reach out to new people and experiences that promise to help us recapture good feelings from the past,” says Coontz.

Take the Museum of Ice Cream, for instance. Founded in 2016, the interactive event, which has popped up in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and New York City (perhaps the US cities most in need of a slower pace and meaningful connections) invites guests to jump into a sea of brightly colored sprinkles and toss balls reminiscent of ice-cream scoops. The whole experience evokes a sense of lightness, simplicity and fun evocative of childhood, though many visitors are adults who come without kids in tow, like pop star Katy Perry.

Then there’s the curious proliferation of sleepaway camps for grownups, like Camp No Counselors, which was featured on Shark Tank and boasts nine locations around the country. Campers partake in activities like crafting, archery and a mega-sized slip-n-slide for adults. Diesel Peltz, the son of billionaire investor Nelson Peltz, has a similar mission to bring people together in real time. He is unveiling twenty, an app designed to allow friends to alert one another to their exact location at crowded events like outdoor music festivals, so they can find each other and meet up. Newish dating apps are also going old school. Hinge rebranded itself as the “Match.com for the next generation” as a reaction to the fleeting quality of Tinder, encouraging “thoughtful dating.” Happn seeks to connect strangers who pass on the street, getting them off the app as soon as possible in favor of IRL encounters.

With skyrocketing levels of loneliness — nearly half of Americans sometimes or always feel lonely, according to a Cigna study released in May — the impulse to congregate around fun activities in person and bond in more meaningful ways feels like a sweet antidote to the isolation many of us feel.

Tethering our nostalgia to positive change, like using technology to facilitate old-fashioned, face-to-face connections, is a good thing. Wallowing in what life used to be like isn’t. These three microsteps will help you put your nostalgia to good use:

1. Connect With That Stranger Who Shares Your Love of the Dead

Krystine Batcho, PhD, a psychology professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY, who studies nostalgia and created app Nostalgia Inventory to assess our proneness to yearning for the past, encourages us to forge a connection when a stranger’s Grateful Dead t-shirt or Members Only jacket conjures happy memories: “Going public with our nostalgia,” or literally wearing it, she says, “increases our face-to-face interactions and strengthens our feeling of belonging as we connect with others who share our longing.”

2. Host an IRL, Nostalgia-Themed Get-Together

Another way Batcho suggests we harness the positive power of nostalgia is to organize meet-ups with friends or family around a historical or pop cultural event. You could hit up a local dive with a robust jukebox and ask pals to play the 80s hit that best captures their adolescence and what memories it evokes. “Nostalgia can occur spontaneously in impromptu meetings, but it can be accentuated in planned get-togethers with nostalgic themes,” Batcho says.

3. Don’t Get Lost in The Past

It’s good to remember, too, that nostalgia is more often than not a personal cast on the past and not an objective reality. As Coontz memorably wrote in The Way We Never Were: “It always involves a little harmless self-deception, like forgetting the pain of childbirth.” What’s real is the here and now, and that’s what we’ve got to work with. To that end, cautions Coontz, “People need to be realistic about what experiences and feelings they do miss from the past and what ones they do not miss,” she says, “and think about how to re-create the good ones in the present without turning back the clock.” 

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