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Nostalgia in the times of COVID-19

June 3, 2021
By Tanya Singh

Credit: Tanya Singh

As the smell of a boozy, fruity Christmas cake wafted through the air, I was instantly transported back to my childhood. Weeks before Christmas, my mother would marinate all manner of fruit in a generous quantity of rum and orange juice, to be baked into a delicious confection on Christmas eve. As COVID-19 hit, I (like most of us) couldn’t travel to see my family over the holidays, and so decided to relive my childhood Christmases by attempting to bake this cake.

Nostalgia. It’s what so much of us were feeling as the pandemic raged on, spreading everywhere, forcing us to cut ourselves off from our loved ones. We all pined for “pre-COVID” times, when we could carelessly share a meal with friends, jump into a crowded train with sweaty strangers, we even missed that annoying colleague from work! As the stress of the pandemic and isolation peaked, I reached for the familiar – binge watching my favourite 90s sitcom (it’s Frasier, btw), baking cakes my mother made, and endlessly scrolling through old photos on my phone. I wasn’t alone in my nostalgic pursuits – a 2020 reboot of the 2001 game animal crossing had over 13 million subscribers and shows like Cobra Kai, the continuation of the iconic Karate Kid story, shot to number one. I thought that reliving these memories would comfort me, but it didn’t. I began to wonder why.

Credit: Wikimedia commons, author: vauxford

Scholars who study emotions have defined nostalgia as a sentimental longing for the past. Even though this definition is pithy, the actual emotion of nostalgia is fuzzier – it is often positive with notes of melancholy – often hard to describe. Although it was initially considered a psychological disorder, because it indicated an unhealthy attachment to one’s past, recent research has shown that nostalgia can serve a positive purpose. Researchers have found that we turn to nostalgia during times of uncertainty because these memories make us feel secure and combat the anxiety of an uncertain future. It’s why we love “retro” products – the VW Beetle was able to shake off its checkered past and become a symbol of a bygone era. We know the past was not perfect, but we tend to idealize it and skew our memories towards the positive.

Contrary to these expectations, I wasn’t feeling any more safe and secure after my trips down memory lane, and sometimes I felt worse. That’s when I started to think that nostalgia may sometimes backfire – thinking about “pre-COVID” get-togethers and fun times may actually increase our frustrations with being isolated.

To test this idea, I (along with a few other researchers) ran a couple of short surveys with online participants. We asked participants to think about an event that they’re nostalgic about (something that occurred “pre-COVID”) and then asked them to report their emotional states. We also asked participants how quickly they’d like things “to go back to normal” after the pandemic subsided. Our results were mixed, but we did find that those who engaged in nostalgia reported being more impatient, fearful, and annoyed. Those who experienced nostalgia also wanted things to return to normal much faster than those in the control condition. Although we don’t know the exact reason for these results, it is definitely interesting to note that nostalgia can have negative effects.

As I continue to explore this question (both personally and as a researcher), I think that it’s possible that our yearning for the “good old days” only gets worse after a bout of nostalgia. The inability to go out and see our friends is underscored when we think about all the lovely birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and movie nights we’ve spent with our loved ones. This opens up a fresh way to examine nostalgia – a complex emotion for these complex times!

About the author

Photo of Tanya Singh

Tanya Singh is a doctoral candidate in Marketing at the John Molson School of Business. Tanya holds a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Bachelor’s in Engineering in Biotechnology. Prior to starting her PhD in marketing, she carried out research in genetics.

Tanya leverages her interdisciplinary background to study consumer decision making. She examines the consequences of putting off choices on consumer behavior. Her dissertation examines how putting off decisions can have significant impact on subsequent consumer decisions. She is the recipient of the Howard Webster Award for Graduate Excellence. She is also involved in developing and delivering a data analysis workshop at targeted towards graduate students at Concordia University.

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