Nostalgia is invading the world. From ‘Stranger Things’ to ‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ entertainment is drawing a broad audience to the romanticized magic of the past. The phenomenon seems to be growing in marketing and politics, too.
Nostalgia is the longing feeling for a better past that no longer exists. Recall Marcel Proust’s intense nostalgia triggered by madeleines in ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ (1913-27): ‘No sooner had [the madeleine] touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses. […] The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which, on Sunday mornings at Combray […], my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime flower tea.’
Nostalgia finds its origin in individuals’ separation from their mothers. It represents a form of ‘homesickness’ related to the loss of childhood innocence, of that irrevocable time when the world was simple, and responsibilities, violence, and death were insignificant. Nostalgia is bittersweet. It is a celebration, but that of absence. It often relates to an idealized past that may have never happened. No matter, nostalgia is a powerful universal feeling generally considered healthy since positively contributing to a sense of identity, purpose, and belonging.
In marketing, nostalgia can be harnessed to boost pricing and revenues. Indeed, individuals are demonstrably prepared to part with money to ‘acquire’ that warm nostalgia feeling.
Nostalgia can also be politicized to sell an idealized past with an ardent call for a return to it. Many political slogans are defined accordingly, from making a nation great again to building it back. After all, the media, marketing, and politics have an objective in common: ratings. It is all fair game.
But what about the current bout of nostalgia? Here is a possible explanation: Western democracies, and perhaps others, are realizing that global peace and the easy times of ‘cheap everything’ are over, as argued in ‘A Rare Consensus.’ Living sustainably is more complicated than ever imagined. Success is being redefined. Meanwhile, the future appears particularly uncertain. The sentiment is well captured in an op-ed by Mr. Roubini, who discusses the transition from a ‘golden period’ to ‘the age of megathreats.’ The childhood period that followed a postwar renaissance is over. Society is finding solace in nostalgia as a defense mechanism against this painful realization.
Unfortunately, there is a malignant category of nostalgia. Pathological nostalgia occurs when there is a longing for a past without accepting that such a past is over. It thus includes a depressive element that hinders movement toward the future. As explained in ‘The Psychopathology of Nostalgia’ (1987), ‘this kind of nostalgia would produce distorted versions of life’s conflicts in which the fantasies become dominated by infantile and fixated versions of masculinity, heroism, physical beauty, [and] rivalry […] that prevents individuals from realistically confronting life.’
Will the elevated feeling of nostalgia facilitate society’s transition to adulthood, or will wallowing in a fantasized past prevent it from growing up? The same question can be raised at the level of any public or private institution, including firms, confronted with a need for change.
In all the cases, as in ‘Stranger Things’, the answer will determine whether the Upside Down can be defeated.