What is it about the past that we find so attractive? Our desire to return to what we consider “better days” has become big business for marketers and others who’ve found a way to mine this vein for all it’s worth.
An email exchange the other day about the town where I grew up, Lisbon Falls, and the interest that many seem to have relative to a particular page on Facebook about the town that existed when we were kids (but has long ago disappeared) finds me curious about nostalgia, and what lies behind it.
The word “nostalgia” is characterized by “a bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past.” Nostalgia tends to be place or people-based, often both.
Compared to other areas of human emotions, there has been very little research done on nostalgia and its effects on humans and human emotions. Most of the research is related to consumer buying patterns and the emotional components of nostalgia that motivate buyers and their purchases.
It was interesting to me in looking at the available online research on the subject that during the 17th and 18th centuries, nostalgia was considered a disease. By the time we got to the turn of the 20th century, nostalgia was regarded as a psychiatric disorder, with symptoms characterized by insomnia, anxiety and depression. Only recently have psychologists begun focusing on the positive and potentially therapeutic aspects of nostalgia.
As mentioned, marketers have considerable interest tapping this vein of emotion and manipulating it to sell products. Nostalgia is viewed in practical terms by the marketing community as an important emotion because it can be used to make us happy. Since we buy primarily on emotion, using emotions tied to nostalgia has been a priority of marketers and advertisers. It becomes especially important during economic downturns, because marketers know that when people are feeling down about their situation, nothing makes them feel better than remembering the perceived happier times from our past.
A book by Danish author, Martin Lindstrom, Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, indicates that consumers “in the face of insecurity or uncertainty about the future, (we ) want nothing more than to revert to a more stable time”; hence, the lure of nostalgia and its use as a tool by marketers.
So with this background on nostalgia, we at least have some understanding about that longing for the past and those times that we view favorably; often they are when we were younger, more vibrant, or we remember that things were significantly better (at least in our minds and memories). We even have a name for them. We call them “the good ‘ole days.”
As a writer, this subject intrigues me. I’ve written three books on aspects of nostalgia, so I guess in some ways, I’m “guilty” of mining this emotion. I justify it by saying that I write about people and place, so my nonfiction is rooted in geography, and often a certain place in time.
Back to the aforementioned Facebook page and others like it; here are my thoughts about nostalgia and hearkening back to some golden past relative to the town where many of us grew up:
1) It’s easy (and related to how we’re wired) to find the memories shared by others so interesting, especially when they hearken back to an earlier time in our lives; we now see it as a simpler time and likely a “better” time. It may not have been when we were living it.
2) I enjoy looking at old photos and reminiscing about the past, but I try to limit doing it too often.
3) As we get older, it’s all too common to get caught up in talking about “the good ‘ole days.” It becomes a characteristic of older people. It also can make us seem old and out of date; we become like a nostalgia act, playing the same three songs over and over because they were once popular.
When I was small, I remember my Nana sitting on the porch of the house on the corner of Pleasant and Rand, reminiscing about when she was younger. When we’re very young, we have a difficult time imagining our grandparents, our teachers and other older people in our lives were ever young. My first three teachers at Marion T. Morse Elementary School were all in their 50s and 60s. We don’t really gain the perspective necessary for nostalgia until we’re a bit older ourselves.
Obviously, there are valuable lessons to learn from the past. When I read the comments from people reflecting back on the days when there were local businesses lining Main Street in Lisbon Falls, it makes me think about what happened to them, and about the possibility for the return of something similar.
In defending writing about the past, I always try to frame my books in some sociological context, even loosely, so that readers might look at what was good about former days and connect them with the present and even project out into the future. Maybe I need to be more obvious about this with my next book of essays and stories?
I laugh when I read these discussions about the past and someone inevitably mentions, “you should write a book about that.” I hear this all too often. Believe me when I tell you that mining the past is far from lucrative. You spend a great deal of time doing research, collecting stories, and setting them down in narrative form. Then, the same people telling others to “write a book” are happy to stand on the sidelines and clap.
Here are a few more observations I had about nostalgia and Facebook, and my aforementioned Facebook conversation.
1) People like to talk, but not enough of them are doing.
What do I mean by this; I mean that most of the economic challenges facing communities like Lisbon and Lisbon Falls won’t be solved by talking about the “good ‘old days.” They require work and a coming together by the very same people that are commenting on Facebook.
Social media might be ok; it also might keep us encumbered by feel-goodism and emotions that lead nowhere. I think Facebook promotes a lot of this kind of empty emotionalism that leads to a dead-end.
2) Rather than merely looking back nostalgically, what if these same Facebook commenters began looking forward and began thinking about what it would take to move towns like Lisbon forward?
Don’t get me wrong. There are some positive discussions that begin via social media, on blogs, and other places online. These then translate into action and serve as the catalysts leading to change.
The Lisbon Falls that I see almost daily when driving through the town didn’t happen in a vacuum. These changes are rooted in societal and economic shifts that have been occurring over the past 40 years, or during the period of time that’s passed since many of us were in grade school, and the present. We’re now adults and share responsibility for the world and the economic conditions we’re now experiencing.
I hear too many people lamenting that they “didn’t know” about some issue, or too often, wringing their hands in helplessness, or wallowing in nostalgia, reminiscing about the “good ‘ole days.”
Here’s my final thought. What was taking place when we were younger that led to the economic conditions that now find Main Street in Lisbon Falls lacking a bakery, a hardware store, a theater, and many other former amenities? These amenities and services now require us to drive to nearby towns and big-box stores. Many small businesses that were still in operation 20-25 years ago in small town America have been crushed by the cutthroat “cheaper at any cost” economic model that props up big-box retailers at the expense of those that are locally-owned.
Personally, I believe our future depends on trying to rebuild a local infrastructure that existed in places like Lisbon and Lisbon Falls 50 years ago. That’s the kind of looking back and conversation we should be having.