Nostalgia and the Ability to Mourn

July 10, 2013
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

According to the New York Times (July 9, 2013), research shows that nostalgia can “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.”

Chances are, you’re not surprised. Turning up as “sentimental memories,” nostalgia is a robust industry in popular culture. At the University of Southampton, a questionnaire developed by social-psychologist Constantine Sedikides seeks to measure nostalgia’s effects. Dr Sedikides distinguishes nostalgia from homesickness, because it’s not just about home, and it’s not a sickness, even though ” Nostalgia had been considered a disorder ever since the term was coined by a 17th-century Swiss physician who attributed soldiers’ mental and physical maladies to their longing to return home — nostos in Greekand the accompanying pain, algos.

The researcher’s method understandably focuses on a particular butterfly. But just for fun, let’s open up the frame a bit. For one thing, nostalgia is grounded in neurophysiology. When you dream, the process is reorganizing memory traces important enough to have persisted. The stories that dreams form usually have a problem-solving function. They’re sorting out past experience to create meaning. In this way dreams use memory as a source of parables that can help us interpret the world. As Mark Turner demonstrates in his beautifully lucid introduction to cognitive science, The Literary Mind (1996), we think in terms of parables: stories that condense complexity and create a more user friendly reality.

We’re meaning-making animals: it’s how we’re built. Sorting out good and bad memories, we’re boosting morale and reinforcing that lifelong project of creating a conviction of “what is right.” But at the same time, we’re also constructing a vocabulary to make life thinkable. Past experiences, in dreams or awake, function as “words” or story materials which imagination uses to “find” and construct meanings for today. When people gossip or tabloids gasp about the scandalous lives of celebrities, the story-tellers are exploring lives that can be useful materials of meaning. We think through analogies.

It’s not an accident that nostalgia has been associated with homesickness for so long. Like many other animals—only more so—we have a need to ground ourselves in the world. Many animals locate “home” through the senses. The cues can be familiar or unconscious, like the pheromones that enable a mother to identify her baby. Proust’s taste of madeleine cake took him back through his own lifetime to home and mum. The seven volumes of his novel are epic nostalgia.

Thinking through symbols and analogies, we conceive home as the ground of personality: the remembered source of feeling and “what is right.” It’s mom and apple pie, but it’s also whatever you associate with mom and apple pie. Some creatures are distinctly imprinted at birth on a mother or mother-substitute. You and I aren’t ducklings, but we too are in a sense imprinted by powerful embodiments of meaning. You see it in love and hero-worship: transference.

This starts to get at the core of the behavior. We orient ourselves around “home” in this expanded sense because we’re the animals uniquely aware that we’ll die. The terror of being annihilated stems partly from living in a wink of time, with no ground. Beyond a few generations, we have only mythic ideas about where we come from. We—and everybody else, including ancestors—are irreducibly mysterious to one another. We cope with this inconvenient anxiety by devising shelters: culture, home, family, mum, the past. They make us feel that our lives have enduring meaning: or as Ernest Becker puts it, “symbolic immortality.”

It’s the opening to death that has given nostalgia its ancient association with pain and the demonic.

And this is why research can conclude that “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.” In creating that “net effect,” that is, people are devising symbolic immortality and easing death-anxiety. The Times quotes one researcher who comments that “Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function . . . . It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.”

In this larger frame, nostalgia is not a niche experience but a basic cultural practice and creaturely behavior. “Most people report experiencing nostalgia at least once a week,” says the Times, “and nearly half experience it three or four times a week. These reported bouts are often touched off by negative events and feelings of loneliness, but people say the “nostalgizing”—researchers distinguish it from reminiscing—helps them feel better.” In effect, people are developing a cultural strategy that can convert death-anxiety into energy for life. Dr. Sedikides imagines “building” nostalgia into a “memory bank,” which evokes the cultural values of fitness training and piggy banks. Whatever works.

Just this behavior is what Peter Homans calls The Ability to Mourn (1989). Life is always dying away from us. In time you lose your childhood, friends, pets, the freshness of some cherished experience. True enough, says Homans, but we have the ability to mourn: to transform what’s lost into some symbolic equivalent. You don’t “lose” your childhood, for example: it’s still with you in memory and all sorts of modulated behaviors.

In this sense, nostalgia is one phase of the creative conjuring trick that makes being alive lively, and makes you who you are.


Sources mentioned in this essay:

John Tierney, “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows,” NY Times (July 8, 2013).

Mark Turner, The Literary Mind (1996)

Marcel Proust, A Remembrance of Things Past (A la Recherche du Temps Perdu)

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973).

Peter Homans calls The Ability to Mourn (1989).



  1. Nostalgia is then a creation parallel to what Rank referred to as “Art,”, born of our deepest terror. Therefore, it seems to me that Becker might have identified the comfort of fond memory as a coveted addiction deep within our soul which man will protect at all cost. The paradox therefore, is as long as we need to sit by the fire after Christmas dinner and remember Yulelogs past, we are doomed to brutal winters.


    • A less dramatic framework could see nostalgia as simply another tool by which the high strung hominid daily manages its morale. Behavior is richly infused with rituals and practices that fine tune the moment. While many, if not all, such behaviors are working on denial, denial is routine and a necessity for the animal to function effectively. So nostalgia can mean “doom” (think of Hitler and Goebbels sitting up the night of D-Day listening to operettas and musing on past glories).
      But it doesn’t have to be.

  2. Proust as epic nostalgia — I like that. One interesting note: you’ve used a common but I think less apt translation of this epic’s title: A Remembrance of Things Past. That rendition of the French suggests merely reminiscing, but the title is more directly translated as ‘In Search of Lost Time.’ I think this interpretation more fully reflects Proust’s nostalgic theme and the process of meaning-making through memory that you’re talking about here.

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