Looking through Rose Colored Glasses—Does Nostalgia Make You Old?

Nostalgia is a double-edged sword

Posted Dec 31, 2010

            Ahh-back in the good old days!  Nostalgia is a peculiarly bittersweet emotion.  Fondly recalling the past is both pleasantly satisfying and at the same time sad.  But does indulging in nostalgia make you old?

            That depends on what you mean by "old."  Surprisingly, the definition of "old age" is remarkably vague and flexible.  Some people who are categorized as aged do not self identify as old.  Indeed the very concept of "old" is conflicted.  It is defined both by unique strengths but also weakness.         

            "Old age" can mean weak, dependent, in poor health, lonely, inactive, conservative, and resistant to change or it can mean experienced, knowledgeable, responsible, authoritative, and wise.  Traditionally old age is defined in society by production and reproduction-retired (non productive) or beyond the age of major family responsibility (reproduction).  In her study published in the Journal of Aging Studies, Anna Lundgren of the Umea University in Sweden concluded from interviewing grandparents volunteering in the classroom, that expressing nostalgia can define a person as old in either of two ways, depending on how it is used.

            Nostalgia can be used as an attempt to reconstruct an idealized past with the awareness of the impossibility of going back.  These are expressions about thriving in a distant past that is long gone, and yearning for the things that are lost with feelings of uncertainty about the present.  Or nostalgia can be used as a point of reference and evoked to express a person's feelings about themselves and a present situation by way of comparison. 

            The first type of nostalgia will define the speaker as old in the sense of being past the age of usefulness, whereas the latter form of nostalgia will define the person as authoritative and experienced.          Such nostalgia is an offer, rather than a yearning.  It is a comparison of the past that can relate to the present time, and if used in this way nostalgia will define the speaker as an elder in the sense of having important knowledge to contribute.  This undercuts the old-age negative stereotypes, and defines the speaker as productive and an active participant contributing to society.  The speaker is perceived as occupying a position of authority offering shared feelings of mutual understanding.  Shared feelings between listener and the speaker draw them together into the same group.              Used in this way, nostalgia can be very persuasive.  The power of this form of nostalgia lies in its poetic vague appeal to feelings rather than to the listener's intellect. 

            Nostalgia is a double-edged sword.  Wield it carefully.