The pleasures and perils of nostalgia (even about work?!)

John Tierney, writing for the New York Times, serves up a fascinating piece on the role of nostalgia in our lives. He features the research of psychology professor Constantine Sedikides (U. Southampton, UK), who challenges the popular notion that nostalgia must be associated with sad melancholy. Here’s a snippet:

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.

Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.

He includes a thought-provoking perspective from Dr. Sedikides:

“Nostalgia makes us a bit more human,” Dr. Sedikides says. He considers the first great nostalgist to be Odysseus, an itinerant who used memories of his family and home to get through hard times….

Not everyone regards nostalgia so positively. Writer and online “salon keeper” Stacy Horn, in her book Waiting for My Cats to Die: a morbid memoir (2001), calls nostalgia “both a self-inflicted wound and the morphine you take for the pain – a perfect reprieve from the cold, cruel light of an untampered-with day.  It hurts, but it’s a good hurt.” I tend to agree, seeing nostalgia as a simultaneous pleasure/pain kinda thing.

Nostalgia scale

The online version of the article links to Dr. Sedikides’s webpage. It includes a questionnaire called the “Southampton Nostalgia Scale,” which defines nostalgia as a “sentimental longing for the past.”

I answered the survey questions, and I clearly score off the charts. I think about my past a lot. I think about historical events and eras a lot, and I yearn to experience them. I probably could get soggy about the coffee I had with breakfast yesterday if the moment was right. I’ve been this way since I was a kid.

I understand how we often create memories that make certain times appear a lot rosier in the rear view mirror. Nevertheless, there are few times in my life that I’d truly like to live over again, not because I’ve had a bad life (overall I feel pretty fortunate), but rather because I know that the “do overs” we yearn for — the ones with the benefits of wisdom and hindsight — are impossible.

Nostalgic about work?

Because this is a blog mainly about work, here’s a question: Do you get nostalgic about any past work experiences? Why or why not?

I realize this may be a loaded question, especially for those who have found this blog because of very bad work experiences. However, even for those readers, perhaps memories of better jobs will serve as a salve to more recent experiences, and may provide some clues as to next steps. Or, for some, maybe they realize that the past should stay that way and that it’s time for something different.

Personally speaking

I get especially nostalgic about two work experiences. The first was my initial year as a Legal Aid lawyer in Manhattan, following my graduation from NYU’s law school. I was doing what I had set out to do when I started law school, working as a public interest lawyer. The pay was terrible (starting around $20,000, low even by mid-1980’s standards), but it didn’t matter that much. I enjoyed my work, and it was still possible to have a rich social and cultural life in New York City on a shoestring budget.

My second nostalgic focus: Returning to NYU after six years of legal practice as an instructor in its innovative first-year Lawyering Program. I had little idea that this would be the beginning of a teaching career, but I remember walking back to the program’s office suite after teaching my very first class, plopping myself on one of the couches, and exclaiming to our program administrator, “I can do this!” My three years of teaching in this program had a formative effect on how I think about education and learning.

Both clusters of memories, however, gloss over the fact that I was years away from discovering my true passions as a teacher, scholar, and advocate. I was clueless about a lot of things, and not exactly on the leading edge of emotional maturity. Perhaps that helps to explain why I don’t get nostalgic about the work I’ve been doing on workplace bullying, employee dignity, unpaid internships, and the like. It’s part of an ongoing present, a work-in-progress. There’s no sentimental past about this work, at least for now, even though I’ve been doing it for well over a decade.

So…thinking out loud…is being “in the moment” a “cure” for nostalgia? Dr. Sedikides probably would tell us that nostalgia doesn’t need a cure, but as a long-time sufferer I can attest to the hazards of excess and the need for balance.


Related post

The lessons of nostalgia (2011)

3 responses

  1. Dave, thanks for the interesting article and personal comments. I think if you’re fairly happy with your present lot in life, nostalgia can be a very positive experience since it allows you to look back at some of the life choices that got you to where you are today. Often shaking at your own stupidity and naïveté, but still enjoying the reminiscing. However if you are currently unhappy and using nostalgia merely as an escape, that is not a positive or healthy pastime. Anyway, please keep combing the web for thought-provoking news items to discuss.

  2. Interesting article, David. Your continuing willingness to share thought provoking themes, is most inspiring.

    I tend to agree that nostalgia plays a vital role in our lives, as we transition through the life stages.

    Even during troubling times, which many who visit this site have been and/or continue to experience, reviewing the past reminds us that we are more than a target of workplace bullying, for instance.

    Our experiences over a life span, as well as our ever-changing perceptions of our personal history on this planet provide us with an abundance of information and opportunities to place any one of our experiences-pleasurable/painful-into a perspective that enable us to view ourselves on a much larger continuum.

    To coin an old phrase, feeling is healing, and ‘feeling’ our past as it relates to our present enables us to experience ourselves as being more integrated as human beings.

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