Over the recent winter holiday my family once again got out the old photographs.
Because I was visiting my mother-in-law, the photos this time were limited to my wife's side of the family. The colors were soft, all browns and beige, and the clothing was polyester. There were pictures of my wife as a baby smearing baby food on herself and the nearby wall, and of her mother looking glamorous in a scarf flapping in the wind as she rode shotgun in a 1960s convertible.
Stories were of course exchanged about each photo. These tales were, we all knew, impossibly happy. There was no way that my wife's childhood -- that anyone's childhood -- could transpire with such exclusively Disneyesque bliss. We knew that we were rewriting history. We were, in fact, just barely aware that we were sculpting memories, carefully editing our recollections to match the nostalgic reverie that matched our moods and our needs.
This is of course a common scene. We re-sculpt memories all the time, and when the memories mix personal happiness with just a tincture of melancholy, we are quick to acknowledge that we are having a "nostalgic" moment.
But nostalgia is not limited to personal recollections alone. Watch an old Western film. Not a new one, where the emphasis is on gritty realism, but the old ones, in black and white, with frontiersmen whose teeth are intact and who enjoy near-perfect hair. We know at some level that this is not the way the frontier was. The frontier was in reality nasty and filled with death. Yet when I watch those old Westerns I am totally willing to suspend my understanding of history. When I watch those movies, I think of the west as comprised mostly of romantic kisses and heroic battles. I think of the best tasting baked beans this side of the Mississippi.
Nowadays, we call these false recollections "nostalgia."
But do we mean when we use this term? Is there a formal definition? And why does this matter in today's sometimes grim world?
First, it isn't lost on anyone that we're enjoying a spate of nostalgic storytelling. Movies well beyond Disney are getting in on the act. We could, for example, argue that all of the superhero movies are grounded in nostalgia. We could say the same for the resurgence of horror films and even of the immense popularity of YA novels. Why do these stories sell? Why do we keep coming back for more?
It turns out that nostalgic reckoning is associated with measurable psychological resilience. How we've come to understand this process is more complicated than you might think.
Nostalgia is a Greek word coined in 1668 by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer. (1) Mr. Hofer observed the intense homesickness of Swiss soldiers fighting abroad and decided that they suffered from a new syndrome which he decided to call nostalgia. The term parses, literally, to "homecoming pain." Mr. Hofer thought that remembering home during difficult times was a kind of medical syndrome because it was often accompanied by what he felt was a particularly severe state of sadness. By that, he meant to suggest that memories of a home that you might never see could dangerously damage the psyche of vulnerable individuals. In this sense, the word nostalgia was a diagnosis. It was a disease.
The term held onto it negative connotation for more than a century. Slowly, however, the literary and artistic world co-opted the word nostalgia and started to associate it with a different and more positive slant. Nostalgic stories were common in late 19th- and 20th-century periodicals. Norman Rockwell practically made a career out of capturing the exclusively rosy aspects of early 20th-century life. His work has been called "a nostalgic vision that wards off the sordid, threatening aspects of modern existence." (2) In other words, Rockwell painted our memories in the same hues with which my family was trading stories over winter vacation.
This shift in definition has, ironically, brought nostalgia back into the medical world. There are increasing bodies of research suggesting that nostalgia is itself a powerfully positive psychological force. Researchers have noted that indulgences in the positive aspects of nostalgia can stave off dementia, solve international crises, and prevent depression and anxiety. Some have even argued that we NEED nostalgia as a means of reshaping the truth so that it is psychologically easier to tolerate. Put more succinctly, we lie to ourselves and to each other as we recreate our pasts. And, most importantly, these lies are good things.
Think of nostalgic memories as censored fairy tales. Nostalgia therefore truly is Disneyesque. Disney has taken some very dark stories and simply wiped away the blemishes. As already stressed, this is not necessarily a bad thing. We all need to drink from the well of our own memories with varying amounts of sugar. It wouldn't, in other words, have done anyone any good if I had interrupted the recent bout of stories that were swapped about my wife's childhood at winter vacation and decided to steadfastly challenge their veracity. My family was enjoying these stories, absent the trials and tribulations that these stories undoubtedly endured, precisely as a means of coming together in celebration. Researchers have noted that when we alter our life stories by filtering them through positive lenses, we improve self-esteem and self worth.
However, don't take this too far. Celebrating the positive aspects of this kind nostalgia is not the same thing at all as saying that we should knowingly withholding the truth when we indulge in this kind of reverie. For nostalgia to have its resilient potency, we must also be well aware of our own ruse. If your kids ask you, for example, what life was really like for you, be honest. In a developmentally appropriate way, tell them the truth. You owe it them and to yourself to be forthcoming.
Otherwise you run the risk of allowing your children to think and to believe that life really is a Disney movie.
Steven Schlozman, MD is a child psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and the Associate Director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also the author of the novel The Zombie Autopsies and a frequent commentator on popular culture.
1. Fuentenebro de Diego, F., & Valiente Ots, C. (2014). Nostalgia: a conceptual history. History Of Psychiatry, 25(4), 404-411
2. Halpern, Richard (2006). Norman Rockwell: the underside of innocence. University of Chicago Press