Looking Back on Our Past to Cope with a Troubling Future

Nostalgia is a source of meaning that can help us deal with troubled times.

Posted Jun 25, 2019

Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

If you pay much attention to the news, or even to the weather outside your front door, you have reason to be concerned.

Atmospheric CO2 levels are the highest they’ve been in 3 million years and getting higher every day. Arctic sea ice is melting at a much faster rate than climate scientists had predicted, and rising sea levels are already beginning to swallow up low-lying coastal regions around the world. Up to a million species face extinction within a couple of decades.

And as if this steady drumbeat of bad news isn’t distressing enough, a recent policy paper from Australia sums up the kind of future that all of this bad news adds up to: “In reality, climate change now represents a near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization.”

Regardless of any disagreements people may have about how best to address these problems, and the “existential threat” they pose to human civilization, most human beings are now at least aware that the world as we know it is in serious jeopardy, and this constant background awareness of imminent peril is taking quite an emotional toll on us.

Psychologists report an increasing number of people suffering from “eco-anxiety,” described by the APA as “a chronic fear of environmental doom” which includes symptoms such as “panic attacks, obsessive thinking, loss of appetite, and insomnia.” Given the inescapable fact that, whatever methods we may employ to mitigate the problem, climate change will be with us all for the rest of our lives, the pressing question facing each of us individually is, how do we deal with the chronic anxiety and stress of living under this dark cloud? Without burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the climate problems that face us, how do we preserve our mental health so that we can carry out our daily business of the here and now?

One somewhat paradoxical means of coping with a troubling and uncertain future is to look back at the past. A growing body of research has revealed that nostalgia, in addition to being a source of emotional pleasure, actually offers a number of tangible wellness benefits, some of which may be particularly useful in helping us cope with the stress and anxiety attending our awareness of the threats of climate change.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that nostalgia “increases positive affect” and even “serves a mood repair function.” In other words, whenever we’re feeling blue, recalling happy memories from our past can serve as an emotional pick-me-up. And the capability of nostalgia to elevate our moods is not confined to run-of-the-mill bad days but can improve our emotional state in the face of much graver, even life-and-death issues such as the collapse of human civilization. By increasing our perception of the meaning of our lives, nostalgia “facilitates coping with existential threat.”

Our distinctly human awareness of our own mortality and the transience of life in general threatens our underlying sense of human life as being meaningful. The knowledge that our lives will inevitably come to an end someday can lead us to wonder what we’re living for in the first place. Religion, of course, is one means of finding meaning in the face of transience and death, but nostalgia researchers have found that another effective way to perceive our finite lives as meaningful is simply to recall happy memories from our past.

The experiences that form the content of most of our nostalgic memories are those that were in some way meaningful to us when we lived them, and mentally reliving those experiences reminds us that, regardless of what may lie ahead, our lives have had meaning in the past, and that meaning carries over into the present—a present from which we try to make sense of, and prepare for, our future.

In studies designed to explore the mitigating effect of nostalgia on the existential threat of mortality, people who engaged in nostalgia did not experience a reduction in perceived meaning when thinking about death, as compared to people who were less nostalgic. In fact, nostalgia not only helped people maintain their sense of meaning when thinking about death, it actually helped them to think less about death in general. When faced with a prompt designed to remind them of mortality, nostalgic people exhibited a reduction in “the accessibility of death-related thoughts.” The studies revealed that, when “people are reminded of death, nostalgia counters these thoughts and reduces their accessibility.”

While a reduction in the accessibility of death-related thoughts is a welcome benefit of nostalgia, worry over the possible collapse of human civilization is not the only source of emotional distress related to climate change. Even if we are able to keep troubling thoughts of environmental apocalypse at bay long enough to conduct the business of our daily lives, the present in which we conduct that business is every bit as unsettling in many ways as the future.

Natural patterns and rhythms, which a lifetime of experience has led us to view as eternal, have become as wildly unpredictable as the stock market. The world we thought we knew is rapidly becoming alien and nonsensical. So pervasive is this feeling of dislocation and alienation among people throughout the world that is has been given a name: “solastalgia.”

First coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht but now widely adopted by psychologists to describe the phenomenon, solastalgia is “the pain or sickness caused by the loss or lack of solace and the sense of isolation connected to the present state of one’s home and territory.” A natural reaction to unnatural developments in the world around us, this increasingly common feeling distresses us because, like mortality in general, it shakes our belief in the fundamental meaning of life.

Proceeding from the assumption that “perceiving the world as structured and predictable contributes to perceptions of meaning,” researchers presented subjects with a stimulus that violated their expectations about the world (an absurd painting), and then “assessed their desire to see the world in a clear, unambiguous, and orderly way.” Viewing the painting increased participants’ desire for structure, but in a later assessment of their perception of the meaning of life, those who had been instructed to call a nostalgic memory to mind exhibited higher levels of perceived meaning than those who had not thought of a nostalgic memory.

The confrontation with a stimulus that challenged their expectations about the world did not undermine their perception of meaning. Just as nostalgia mitigates the threat to meaning posed by a work of art that violates expectations about the visual world, perhaps it can also mitigate threats posed by environmental stimuli that violate expectations of the natural world.

While it is admittedly true that in both of these cases—the threat of death and the threat of violated expectations—nostalgia offers only a coping mechanism rather than an actual solution to the problem of climate change, coping with the emotional stress created by these threats is necessary in order for us to maintain our belief in the meaningfulness of life. And a fundamental belief that life is meaningful is necessary in order for us to generate and implement viable solutions to the problems that threaten not only our personal well-being but the future of human civilization as a whole.

References

Dunlop, Ian, and David Spratt. “We Must Mobilise for the Climate Emergency like We Do in Wartime. Where Is the Climate Minister? | Ian Dunlop and David Spratt.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 June 2019, www.theguardian.com/environment/commentisfree/2019/jun/03/we-must-mobilise-for-the-climate-emergency-like-we-do-in-war-time-where-is-the-climate-minister.

Fawbert, Dave. “Climate Change: Are You Suffering from 'Eco-Anxiety'? - BBC Three.” BBC News, BBC, 27 Mar. 2019, www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/b2e7ee32-ad28-4ec4-89aa-a8b8c98f95a5.

Routledge, Clay. Nostalgia: a Psychological Resource. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016.

Schlanger, Zoe. “There's a Word for the Feeling of Loss Due to Climate Change.” Quartz, Quartz, 15 Oct. 2018, qz.com/1423202/a-philosopher-invented-a-word-for-the-psychic-pain-of-climate-change/.

Wildschut, Tim, et al. “Nostalgia - from Cowbells to the Meaning of Life.” Nostalgia - from Cowbells to the Meaning of Life | The Psychologist, Jan. 2008, thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-21/edition-1/nostalgia-cowbells-meaning-life.