The Nostalgia Trap

Summer is a season that elicits nostalgia like none other for me. I long to recapture the lazy, sun-soaked days of my childhood when time stretched like Silly Putty. I want the carefree aesthetic portrayed in media – beach days, fireflies, and ice cream. In my mind, everything was great way back when. Except…it wasn’t.

It’s a quirk of the brain that we misremember the past and downplay negative events. We drop the bad stuff – sunburns, rain, fights with loved ones – and only remember the highlights. When we do remember the bad stuff, we reconstruct it to make whatever happened more enjoyable and entertaining. The time you broke your toe while hiking becomes more exaggerated, more colorful. It’s a yarn you trot out at parties to elicit laughter and pity. But there’s still some wistfulness about the past.


Nostalgia creates a warped view of things. Much like a view-master! Photo by Girl with red hat on Unsplash

Researchers call this “rosy retrospection” and we do this not only in our personal lives but also when we fantasize about how society was better “back then.” In a recent poll, six out of every 10 Americans said that “life for people like them is worse today than it was 50 years ago.” But as University of Calgary instructor Paul Fairie demonstrates in his Twitter thread, “A Brief History of Things Were Better 50 Years Ago,” we’ve been saying this since 1890!

To be clear, all humans do this and have always done this because it’s how our brains work. It’s not a relatively recent development dating back to 1890. We all fall into the nostalgia trap but the important thing to remember is it’s not true. There is no idyllic utopia in the past. Things were not better back then. Some of the bigger societal things like climate change and wealth inequality, yes, they were better years ago, but our day-to-day lives were not.

I put this to the test by rereading some of my journals and the time periods I thought were great were anything but. I was insecure or heartbroken or uncomfortable or not sleeping through the night. I was stuck or broke or irritated. In short, I was experiencing the entire range of human emotions because that’s what it means to be alive. There is always something stressful or bothersome happening just as there is always something fun or joyful happening.

A time when everything is perfect doesn’t exist except in snippets. We have perfect moments, hours. If we’re lucky, perfection stretches to days but never months or years. It’s just not possible because the nature of life is to change and move. It’s why my spiritual teacher says, “Here in the universe, nothing is stationary, nothing is fixed. Everything moves; that’s why this universe is called jagat. Movement is its dharma; movement is its innate characteristic.”

The best we can do then is feel gratitude for the perfect moments life grants us and keep our eyes trained ahead, not behind. One more quote from my spiritual teacher: “You are to look ahead, you are to look forward. If you look back, if you look behind, you are wasting your valuable time.” And time, as we all know, is precious.

I dream of a world where we remember that rosy retrospection is real and it’s likely we’re misremembering the past. A world where we understand things weren’t better in our personal lives five years ago or 50 years ago or 500 years ago. A world where we remember to keep our eyes trained ahead in order to avoid falling into the nostalgia trap.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

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