What Explains Nostalgia?

I’ve been puzzling over the concept of nostalgia for some time.  What is it?

That bittersweet pain you have as a parent when you see your kid growing up and remember in a flash their babyhood.  Or the feeling when a song from your youth comes on the radio.  It’s a very distinct kind of pleasure mixed with sadness.

What would be the evolutionary advantage of nostalgia?  Why would this unique emotional mix of both happiness and sadness be beneficial?

Appreciation of the past makes sense.  It prevents us from ignoring emergent ideas and traditions we don’t understand, because we have some built in reverence for the past.  I get the value of that.  But why the sadness?  Why does the past make us sad?

Yes, perhaps it’s just that it’s a reminder of the passage of time, which is a reminder of our own imminent death, and death is something we fear and feel sadness about.  But nostalgia seems to have a slightly different quality than this.  This answer strikes me as too simple.

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Isaac Morehouse is the founder and CEO of Praxis, an awesome startup apprenticeship program. He is dedicated to the relentless pursuit of freedom. He’s written some books, done some podcasting, and is always experimenting with self-directed living and learning. When he’s not with his wife and kids or building his company, he can be found smoking cigars, playing guitars, singing, reading, writing, getting angry watching sports teams from his home state of Michigan, or enjoying the beach.

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Alex Knight
Alex Knight
2 years ago

I think it’s that we yearn for the irreproducable atmosphere and specificities of a given bygone era. It’s like trying to recapture the quality of a dream, and we of course can never live it again. So, invariably, we also tend to overglorify it. But that too, is only natural.