In his 1992 song "Homesick," David Pirner of Soul Asylum expressed a longing for a past he hadn’t known: “Oh, I am so homesick. But it ain’t that bad, 'cause I'm homesick for the home I never had.” Memory is certainly fallible. We often remember the main components of an event or an experience, but not all the details. Despite the inaccuracies and missing details, we assume that the event did happen or that we did have the experience. When we feel nostalgic for our past, do we miss a past that is essentially the one we lived through? Do we remember through a “rose-colored” filter that brings the good parts to mind while ignoring the negative? Or do we at times miss that which never was? All these options are possible and represent different uses of our ability to process our experiences. Recalling every detail of events would be neither necessary nor helpful. What we need as we move ahead in life are the lessons we’ve learned from our past, both good and bad. Life is dynamic, so our needs change along with our abilities and circumstances.
Missing or nostalgia is an emotion that accompanies certain memories. It is easier to recall pleasant memories when in a good mood, and easier to recall sad memories when in a down mood. When we feel nostalgic, we experience a bittersweet mix of emotions that can retrieve sweet memories while we feel the sadness of their loss, but also less pleasant aspects while we feel wistful and sentimental for them nonetheless. The blend of conflicting feelings contributes to the unique bittersweet quality of nostalgia and to its psychological benefits in certain situations. For example, nostalgia can help one feel less lonely by reminding us of the support we have enjoyed from the people in our lives.
But missing without a memory, or missing what we had never experienced, reflects a different type of phenomenon. On a philosophical level, one could argue that the imperfections and unreliability of our memories indicate that all nostalgia is yearning for what never was to some degree. But on a psychological level, there is a meaningful difference between missing a past we have lived and missing one we have not. Lived experiences inform us in ways that an imagined past cannot. As we filter the recollections of our past, we have the opportunity to interpret the significance of the experiences that help us discover meaning and purpose in our lives.
Missing someone else’s past, as in wishing we could have had a childhood of experiences we believe others have had, could be an instance of what has been labeled vicarious nostalgia. An attraction to someone else’s past may rest upon dissatisfaction with our own past. An unfavorable past can be the impetus to believe that others have had more favorable experiences. Without having lived those imagined experiences, we can form a romanticized or idealized image that captures more of what we wish could be true than what had accurately happened. In his 1995 autobiographical song Childhood, Michael Jackson acknowledged criticisms of his lifestyle and behaviors: “No one understands me. They view it as such strange eccentricities 'cause I keep kidding around like a child.” He responded to such criticism by explaining: “It’s been my fate to compensate for the childhood I’ve never known.” Having disclosed memories of early abuse, Jackson conveyed in Childhood images of what he believed had been lacking in his childhood: “I’m searching for that wonder in my youth like pirates in adventurous dreams of conquest and kings on the throne” and “fantastical stories to share, the dreams I would dare, watch me fly.”
Nostalgia for such idealized versions of the past can stem from dissatisfaction with the present. When such dissatisfaction is accompanied by a lack of faith that things will improve, vicarious nostalgia can be associated with pessimism or cynicism and less favorable opinions of human nature and society. This type of nostalgia is not the same as missing a past we have lived, referred to as personal nostalgia. Research has shown that there are a number of psychological benefits associated with personal nostalgia, as assessed with the Nostalgia Inventory. Proneness for personal nostalgia has been shown to be related to favorable impressions of one’s childhood, as assessed with the Childhood Survey. Research has not yet explored the relationship of unfavorable childhood experiences to vicarious nostalgia such as that described here.
Research has shown, however, that a negative attitude toward one’s past, at times characterized by pain, trauma or regret, can be related to less adaptive psychological attributes such as greater distress, difficulty in relationships, and poor planning skills. On the other hand, nostalgia has been known to serve restorative functions. It is possible that vicarious nostalgia can help a person rise above maladaptive grief for the good qualities missing from his or her childhood. Acceptance of the reality that time is irreversible and that a lost childhood cannot be recaptured and made whole can lead to different outcomes depending upon the associated feelings. Feeling nostalgic rather than simply bitter or hateful provides the opportunity to transform adversity into more than survival. Longing for another’s childhood can provide a sense of what might have been and, therefore, what life could be—if no longer for oneself—then at least for other children. The representation of what one wishes had been can form the vision that inspires one to make that dream a reality for others.