Nostalgia is a Liar
Nostalgia is suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return
They call it “nostalgia” and not “the past “ because nostalgia is a rose-tinted lens that distorts the past, a lens through which we bend and contort memories to fit our whims and desires, to have them slot neatly into narratives and weave seamlessly into wider stories we tell ourselves, stories about when we were younger, stronger, better, happier.
In short, nostalgia is a liar.
We all indulge in nostalgia. It’s an affliction, a condition, it’s the way we’re wired. Stories are how humanity passed on instruction and moral code for millennia. For humans, the past can’t just be the past, it has to have meaning, we have to contextualise it and use our present to justify what went before, we have to romanticise how got here through nostalgia’s deceptive lens. All past events get swept up by a narrative of the present, and nostalgia turns them into chapters in a book.
This would all be fine, but the truth is nostalgia makes us unhappy.
Czech author Milan Kundera noted:
“The Greek word for ‘return’ is nostos. Algos means ‘suffering.’ So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.” - Milan Kundera
Nostalgia is toxic. It removes us from the present, it takes us out of gratitude and mindfulness and plunges us into the movie playing in our head. It has us comparing our reality-based present to a fabricated, fantasy past.
And what present can compete with fantasy?
This fantasy is both built up by our need to contextualise and torn down by our inability to remember; the human brain is notoriously bad at remembering anything accurately.
Here’s some science.
Cognitive Neuroscientist Caroline Leaf explains on Impact Theory podcast that memories grow on physical “trees” in the brain — they take up actual real estate — that contain both information and the emotions attached to that information. The branches of the trees are memories of the thoughts, and, get this, we grow new branches on that arbour-like structure each time we remember a memory.
The memory tree in our brain grows more branches as we literally remember remembering.
Accurate recall of the past fades and memories distort over time, like a key endlessly copied, until it is stiff in the lock, barely resembling its original form.
Even if we cast aside all the trappings of nostalgia and focus only on our present and the potential future, we still couldn’t stop memories from disintegrating into inaccuracies and lies.
Worse than all this is perhaps the fact that nostalgia hampers our ability to learn, having us repeat mistakes over and over simply because we adjusted the past to suit our liking, rather than keeping it as a lesson.
Ever kept dating the same type of person and expecting a different outcome? Or keep finding similar employment only to remember once you’re back behind a desk or in a boardroom you hate it?
Experience is life’s greatest teacher, but if we take it for granted and rewrite what happened to us, lessons are lost and mistakes will be repeated.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, but what if you don’t realise you’re revisiting old ground because you’ve distorted the past enough to make each well-worn path seem fresh and new?
The Antidote to Nostalgia
I say all this because so many of us wallow in yesteryear glory.
How many of your friends talk incessantly about “the good old days” of 20 years ago, when they weren’t even so good?
Nostalgia is disempowering. The natural conclusion when in its thrall is to believe your best days are behind you and you’re powerless to change that.
Right now, in the present, is the youngest you’re ever going to be, so stop wallowing about past conquests and set sail once more. You’re still here aren’t you? Then get to work.
The antidote to nostalgia is action.
Nothing changes mindset quicker or more effectively than action. Nothing cures anxiety-like action.
Many like to compartmentalise mindset and action, as if they are two distinct camps, operating as individual steps to progress, whereas, in reality, they are the same step, the same thing.
Acknowledge that you, as a human, have a cognitive blind spot when it comes to analysing the past and focus only on now. I ask you, is there anything else to do?
Understanding we’re incapable of seeing the truth without moulding and manipulating it to fit self-serving narratives can be enough to free ourselves from nostalgia’s lies.
Our present and future can be anything we want it to be. The past has gone, and it doesn’t need to have a bearing on where we go next.
Good times are coming and you could realise this much more readily if nostalgia didn’t sit on your shoulder, whispering in your ear and feeding you lies.
Don’t believe it. You have that choice. Hear the whispers and realise they’re deception.
This doesn’t mean disregard your fond memories or abandon the lessons your past has taught you, it just means focus on the present without holding onto a false narrative about who you were, or who you are.
After all, it is only the present we live in. The present is your life; one long expanding present that rolls out in front of us all, a crest of a wave we are riding together.
Don’t look back, keep moving forward because, in case you hadn’t realised, nostalgia is a liar.