To me, nostalgia is ecstasy. It’s a warm, fuzzy type of feeling—the act of temporary reminiscence being an almost hallucinatory experience. To describe nostalgia through tangible means is a disservice because attempts at finding an appropriate metaphorical equivalent only undercut its power.
Nostalgia holds a distinguishable wonder, and as far as I’ve researched, it’s a feeling unique to the human experience, one that allows us to confront questions concerning our existence and what awaits after we die. First coined by Johannes Hofer in the 17th-century to describe the anxieties of Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home, nostalgia grew in application, eventually transitioning from its medicinal origins to a concept heavily considered during the Romantic period.
Nostalgia is a feeling I wish to covet, bottle up, and hoard, but like all emotions, nostalgia is temporary. The sweeping sentimentality for simpler times is instant, yet its onset lacks true and complete satisfaction. Once I’ve become conscious of its presence, the dint of its pleasure is already gone, and all I’m left with is the intense longing to recapture a far gone past.
My first year away from home and snowfall powders the ground as I leave my morning lecture. I’ve made a ritual of walking back to my dorm, always stopping to grab coffee at the café nearby and finishing my drink by the large window overseeing the Quad. Winter gnaws in Reno, the luster of once spritely trees and clear skies, replaced by a sad, grey filter. It’s in this moment of notice and careful sips that nostalgia appears.
The memories are rapid, fluttersome, and range in context—blasting Mariah Carey as my sister and I sing in unison; dinner with my Dad at the Chinese buffet after piano recital; tugging my Lab’s leash as we walk dirt trails. It’s difficult to identify the locust behind this instance of nostalgia, but it dawns that each memory’s emotional depth is grounded in a longing for the comfort and familiarity of home.
During this time, my adolescent mind believed that distance from home equated to one’s commitment towards independence, so the decision to enroll in a university located 400 miles away seemed optimal. Yet, nostalgia planted doubt for this mindset. The allure of home felt too wondrous a thought to idly forget, but was it possible to re-route my circumstances and still retain that individuality I craved?
Images of dogs with their tail caught between their legs have always unnerved me, the unapologetic display of vulnerability and regret for an ill-made choice being too pitiful a display to witness. The nostalgia brought a newfound appreciation for my past, yet with it, the damning realization that the desire to return home was too strong and meant the possible compromisation of beliefs I fostered. I scrutinized nostalgia and the feelings it elicited within me.
Before the advent of modern medicine and our current understanding of social psychology, history presents a darker, more sinister aversion for nostalgia. Practitioners viewed the emotion as a disease and sought ways to treat and cure it. French doctor Jourdan Le Cointe believed that “inciting pain and terror” upon a patient diagnosed with nostalgia would alleviate their turmoil. American military doctor Theodore Calhoun thought nostalgia was shameful, a disease for the “unmanly, idle, and weak-willed.” Patients were told to purge their stomachs and participate in leech therapy.
Grappling with the homesickness brought upon by nostalgia, I ignored phone calls from my mother, stopped listening to songs I found too melancholic, and avoided places around campus that reminded me of my impermanence. Ego took precedence over well-being and I sank into these habits with the intention of blocking all elicitation of nostalgia. But these actions were like applying a band-aid to a gangrenous limb. The nostalgia had already begun its process, seeping into my conscience and rewiring the thoughts I believed were absolute. It would only take time for these effects to gestate and manifest into action.
Around the time Hofer coined nostalgia, and described it as synonymous with feelings of melancholy and depression, military commanders forbid their soldiers from attempts to elicit the emotion, largely due to the prevailing belief that yearning for one’s past would cause desertion.
When spring arrives the following semester, I tell my parents I’ll be unenrolling from school and moving back home.
One of the most prevalent triggers for nostalgia is music. There are wonderful online videos of the children of middle-aged Japanese women recording their mother’s reaction to the song “Stay With Me,” by Miki Matsubara, a hit Japanese pop song during the 80s. At first, the mothers don’t recognize the song, but as the synths quicken and Matsubara’s voice takes over, they start nodding their heads and shimmying their bodies with a growing smile. I imagine that as the chorus comes, nostalgic thoughts of their youth play through their mind.
The stimuli provoked by listening to a memorable song from one’s past creates a reaction when passing through the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain. Other triggers for this reaction include smell, touch, and certain weather conditions. Research shows that by eliciting these reactions and creating nostalgia, we are led to higher levels of empathy and happiness, reduced stress, and ease during difficult emotional transitions.
I’m reconnecting with college friends visiting from out of state. We’re seated indoors to escape the Las Vegas heat, sipping cheap cocktails and nibbling at a basket of french fries. Our conversation deviates from upcoming vacations and post-graduate plans to recollections of our times together. It’s difficult to quantify, but every sentence for the evening’s remainder begins with the phrase “Remember when…”
There’s a gentleness to the situation as we reminisce, laughing and cringing at our shared experiences. It’s a moment that cements the idea within me that nostalgia is nothing to fear and hate. It's a wondrous and uniquely human emotion that reconnects us to feelings of happiness and pleasure. Life is comprised of opportunities to cherish, archive, and look back towards so every instance should be met with the goal of creating nostalgic memories. By accumulating a repository of nostalgia, there is great potential when looking back to these moments during times of troubled thinking.
I wonder if nostalgia’s complexity is the reason why it was criticized and misunderstood for centuries? It’s an emotion that brings feelings of anguish and longing, yet with it, joy and appreciation. Nostalgia is one of the few and distinct occurrences manifesting within our lives that allow us to approach questions of existential significance and add meaning to the experiences we’ve had.
Nostalgia reminds me of a storm surge, and how do those start? With immense gravitational forces and the Earth’s rotational pull. Or is it a cosmic magic that human science has interpreted into logical means. Storm surges are a destructive feature of a forming cyclone, sweeping beaches in an upcurrent of fierce water. They last and linger, pounding against sand and rock, but after their wake and once the cyclone recedes, the skies clear and all there’s left is calm.
About the Author:
Aaron Talledo is currently pursuing his BA in English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He finds inspiration from literature, music, and film and expresses creativity through writing. In his free time, Aaron enjoys fitness, meditation, and video games.