Apr 21, 2009

Why do I long for the "good old days"?

in a bathtubIt's a natural human tendency to look back on a part of your life when you, your situation and your responsibilities were different, and to wax nostalgic for "happier times." Why else would we have phrases like "the good old days"? Sometimes I wonder about the purpose of nostalgia. Why do we look back to our past, and why do we do it with such unabashed and more often than not unwarranted good will?

I really liked college. I grew up in a teeny, tiny town in Northeast Texas. Mine was probably the only liberal, non-Christian family in the entire community. I was smart, wasn't interested in chasing boys, and had every intention of getting the hell out of Dodge as soon as I finished high school. (Note: Hometown will henceforth be referred to as Dodge.) I was, in short, the antithesis to pretty much everyone else I knew for the first 18 years of my life, and my stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb-ness wasn't lost on my peers...or anyone else I knew, really.

Going to a college in a city that everyone in Dodge referred to as the "queers" part of the "steers and queers" description of Texas was unbelievably liberating. Even though I struggled to make new friends at first, I loved Austin. And eventually, I made friends and I loved my friends. (*waves* Hi, friends!) And then I got into my upper division (and later, graduate) coursework, and I loved my classes and my research. In short, I was happy as a pig in mud. Or so nostalgia says.

Looking back on it, I know I'm leaving out a lot of the difficult stuff. I ignore the fact that I really struggled to make friends, and once I did have them, they were sometimes mean to me (or to each other) and that sometimes I got my feelings hurt. I ignore the fact that for several years, I barely slept or ate, and as a result, had recurrent bronchitis, chronic yeast infections, massive unneeded weight loss, crippling carpal tunnel, and a host of other bizarre health problems that kept Student Health Services busy for the five years I was in school. I ignore the fact that my work load was usually so high that I never got everything done, at least not to my satisfaction, and the never-ending self-flagellation over what I viewed as my subpar performance. I ignore (really ignore) the string of bad boyfriends and worse break-ups. Logically, I know it wasn't all sunshine and roses. But...

There are days when I really miss it. Like today when I come across a quote about the subaltern speaking, a phrase which references a key work by Gayatri Spivak that heavily influenced my graduate research. Or when I read an article about Austin or hear about someone going to visit Austin or read a blog by someone who lives in Austin. Or pretty much any time I see old pictures, or talk to one of my friends from college, or reminisce with the boyfriend about "the good old days." And sometimes even the bad stuff (e.g. bad breakups or not sleeping for five days straight) can be almost romanticized.

So why do I do this? Why do humans in general look back to the past with such fondness? I thought it might be "the grass is greener" situation. You look back, because you believe that any point in your life had to have been better then than it is now. But then, I think back upon high school and realize, no, I honestly don't think the grass was always greener in the past. So if it's not about the grass being greener, than what is it?

Patrick at Very Evolved wrote a really cool article about nostalgia and the brain. In part, nostalgia might be a sort of "natural anti-depressant." Because nostalgia is almost always associated with positive emotions, having something good to look back on, something that makes you feel good about yourself and about life in general, gives you something to hold onto when depression and/or apathy about yourself and your life might cause you to stop wanting to go on living. A little melodramatic, but definitely an interesting. I know when I'm feeling down about myself or my current situation, I just look back to my past and remind myself, "Hey! It hasn't always been that bad!"

Another theory is that you just feel good about yourself when you can accurately recall a memory. I've always prided myself on my long memory, and get a kick out of it when I remember something that no one else remembers, so maybe there's some truth to this one, too.

Whatever the reason:

"Nostalgia is exceptionally good at making us feel better when times are tough. It’s a little mental pick-me-up that reminds us of good times, good friends and a why it’s great to be alive."

So maybe it's not so bad that I look back over my shoulder. As long as I'm making some good memories now to be nostalgic about later, it can't be too bad, right?


  1. Exactly.....we go through stuff in our lives for a reason, and like you said, it's the good stuff you remember now--the bad stuff is kind of just a foggy memory, and the good stuff never fades. :)

  2. I definitely know that my college years were not my best and that my life now is way better. I actually have a harder time focusing on the good in the present. Not so much thinking the past was good or bad, but just not realizing that now is pretty good to. Sometimes I feel like I'm in a constant state of "it's just not right yet" or "everyone's life is always better than mine." It's an on-going thing, not really a past vs. present thing.

    But I totally get what you're saying and agree.

  3. and, you could always come visit :P

  4. Enjoy the spring of love and youth, To some good angel leave the rest, For time will teach thee soon the truth, "There are no birds in last year's nest."

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

  5. I do look at tje "good old days" from time to time. It's nice to zone out for a bit and snap back into the reality figuring out what you should do :)

  6. I recently retired. I'm fortunate, I don't have money worries, still look good for my age & enjoy good health. Only recently I have started looking back at my life & times. I have decided I don't like 2012 & the so called 'modern' age. Don't misunderstand me, I like modern music, love the availability of modern technology but society has gone to hell in a basket! I think back to the simpler times & know they were better. Of course youth of today has no knowledge of these so don't know what I'm talking about. Now everyone lives in their own cocoon, you know, "I'm alright Jack, pull up the ladder". No one gives a shit for anyone else. I guess that's progress for what it's worth!

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