Have you found yourself turning back to simpler times? Watching the shows you watched as a child, listening to the music from your childhood, cooking your old favorite meals, or even missing being busy or being productive? Then have I got the hot new thing for you: using nostalgia as a coping method! National Geographic traces the history of this sense of nostalgic longing, starting with the medical diagnosis of el mal de corazon or “the evil of the heart,” which emerged towards the end of the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648). However, it wasn’t until 1688 when Johannes Hofer combined the words nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain) that the word nostalgia first came into being. It is no surprise, then, that in the midst of a global pandemic that has run particularly unchecked in the U.S., many people find themselves turning to familiarity for a sense of comfort. This nostalgia manifests itself in our viewing patterns, our activities, and even our food (and, arguably, the echoes of Nixon and Regan era politics).
When Avatar: The Last Airbender first came to Netflix in May, it dominated conversations and quickly rose to the third most in-demand show on Netflix, having 31.83 times more demand than the average show in May — and The Legend of Korra’s popularity is not far behind. Given that Avatar: The Last Airbender aired its first season on Nickelodeon in 2005, the audience that grew up on it are in stages of life from graduating high school to graduating college. We are faced with a rapidly and dramatically changing world full of uncertainty in regards to jobs and even our political landscape. Most of us are cut off from the familiarity of our college or high school campuses, potentially miles away from friends and social opportunities. What are we left to do but turn to our childhood favorites in search of a sense of normalcy? Curling up in front of a TV flashing with the vibrant colors of our animated favorites brings back a sense of simplicity that is far less bleak than our day-to-day reality.
Other classic shows and movies have turned to Zoom for cast reunions and readings. In April, the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation, which has been off the air since 2015, was one of the first to host a virtual reunion. Since then, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Princess Bride, and others have virtually rekindled their performances. These virtual table reads and reunions are enjoyed specifically because they are not high quality remakes of the originals. They are homey and provide just enough nostalgia to transport us to our memories of the shows and movies without completely recreating them.
However, television and film are not the only ways in which nostalgia serves as a comfort. Comfort foods usually stem from nostalgia, but this seems to be the case now more than ever. The Washington Post found that nostalgia was a common theme in their “Top 10 summer recipes.” Of course, dare I say it, even the sourdough trend likely stems from a place of nostalgia. While most people likely didn’t have family spending hours in the kitchen making bread and other baked goods, nostalgia can still take credit for the trend in a couple of ways: nostalgia for a rewarding sense of productivity, and nostalgia for creating something. The beginning of the pandemic marked the first time people had free time in, well, a while, so, of course, people turned to hobbies of old and new. When was the last time we had the ability to spend energy on creative crafts just for fun?
Nostalgia isn’t just fun conjecture, there’s scientific reason to why we turn back to seemingly simpler times for comfort. “Trauma takes away our gray areas. It divides our timeline into a before and an after,” Dr. Stoycheva, author of The Unconscious: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications, said, according to the New York Times. “And while it has the danger of creating this longing for the before, when things were maybe safer, and when we were unaware of all of this and protected by our naïveté, there’s also something about nostalgic behaviors — fashion, clothes, movies, music — that serve as a transitional object.” This suggests that we use nostalgia to comfort us here and now to help get us to the next stage. When the next stage is so uncertain, it is only logical that we will turn to nostalgia for that sense of comfort and support.
Yet, I find myself coming back to the example of Avatar: The Last Airbender to show that, even in the middle of a pandemic, nostalgia has its limits. When Netflix announced it was making a new live action movie adaptation of the series, fans were hopeful the streaming platform wouldn’t make the same mistakes as the first adaptation (namely: whitewashing).
However, when the original creators announced they were leaving, some fans on Twitter quickly called for Netflix to just call it quits. This shows that we are using these shows, movies, etc. to recall memories that make us feel safe and secure. To step away from the similarity of our memories is to remove this temporary safety net. Whether nostalgia is good or bad is still debated, but there is no denying that when your routine is turned upside down, experiences from your past can act as comfort.
Feature image: Courtesy of Newsweek.