In western society, we often discourage each other from “living in the past,” and instead emphasize the practice of living in the moment, assuming that is the best way to enjoy life. A healthy amount of reminiscing can be a beneficial, unifying experience. According to Dr. Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at LeMoyne College in New York, nostalgia aids in synthesizing our sense of self over time by reminding us of our personality in the past and combining that with who we are in the present. A prosocial emotion, nostalgia also facilitates connections between people, correlating with emotions such as compassion, empathy, and altruism.
Dr. Batcho identifies two types of nostalgia: personal and historical. Personal nostalgia is when a person reflects on their own experiences, longing for times in their lived past. Conversely, historical nostalgia is the emotional attachment to never-experienced times in history. A combination of these emotions explains the popularity of “'90s nostalgia,” characterized by the “remakes and sequels of prominent ‘90s texts on streaming platforms… and the plethora of reformations of influential bands” (Ewen, 2020) popular in the '90s. Adults who grew up or raised their children in the ‘90s remember those times as a “glorious past” (Ewen, 2020). This idealized recollection of the ‘90s stems from its reputation as the point in history “immediately before anxiety became the defining issue of the present era” (Ewen, 2020) due to such events as the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the 2008 financial crisis. More notably, it was also the point in history before smartphones and social media became widespread. Older generations remember the ‘90s as an “era in which relationships and social interactions were more ‘authentic’ than they are today,” (Ewen, 2020), a view that younger generations have inherited despite not remembering the ‘90s.
While Dr. Batcho lauds this aspect of nostalgia as being one of the healthiest forms (to connect each generation to the next by passing along the best of the past), the modern age of social media may be exacerbating these nostalgic connections. The prevalence of social media could be why the younger generation idealizes the '90s; why ‘90s nostalgia exists but not ‘70s nostalgia or ‘30s nostalgia. In addition, Dr. Batcho explains elevated levels of nostalgia demonstrate the belief people have that they are missing something in their current lifestyle, namely the social connectedness brought up by Ewen. The reason for this is that nostalgia “facilitates our understanding of meaning in life” (Batcho). By observing how people are so often returning to the past as seen through new popularity in shows like Friends and Seinfeld, and all of the reboots of ‘90s TV shows and movies as well as the resurgence of ‘90s bands, we can infer that people “aren’t 100% satisfied with the current lifestyle.” (Batcho, 2019).
So, one cause for '90s nostalgia might be an escape from the present to the past, but there is another possibility: people losing track of their sense of purpose and meaning in life turn to nostalgia to keep them on track. The way this works is that nostalgia, a prosocial emotion, correlates with healthy coping mechanisms such as seeking out others when facing difficulties. As Dr. Batcho expresses, “we don’t want to stay in the past.” We feel nostalgia to reflect on the sweet times of the past, but the “bitterness of knowing that it actually no longer exists reminds us we must return to the present'' (Batcho, 2019), meaning there is no danger of becoming too caught up in the past through reminiscing that it impacts daily life. And, when we do seek out others after feeling nostalgic, Dr. Batcho emphasizes the importance of gravitating toward people who stimulate the best of what you can bring to today from your past.
Despite its potential indication of dissatisfaction with current life, nostalgia is not an emotion to avoid – as a comforting phenomenon, nostalgia reminds us of times, especially in childhood, when we were accepted and loved unconditionally. Recalling those fond memories helps us face conflict or turmoil in our present lives.