Yesteryear wasn’t always that great!

Thursday, 26 Nov 2020


I made mention last term of some of those less obvious existential factors that increase our general sense of anxiety. I referenced our great social commentator Hugh Mackay (author of Australia Reimagined) who says that two ways in which we distract ourselves from anxieties, insecurities and uncertainties are to indulge consumerism and nostalgia. I wrote about the pernicious effects of consumerism referencing Frankl’s Man's Search for Meaning. And of course, it almost needs no explanation that overuse and non-educational use of devices lift levels of anxiety. Brain imaging studies and consistent research (likes, dislikes, check emails, WhatsApp, Facebook etc etc) points to the deleterious impact of this use on anxiety.


In one study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Bas Verplanken, a professor of social psychology at the University of Bath, discovered that, after being exposed to nostalgic stimuli, participants who exhibited a “strong worry habit” showed “enhanced symptoms of anxiety and depression” compared to those with the same predisposition in the control group. In other words, the nostalgic triggers caused those who worry “habitually” to become more depressed and anxious than they would have been otherwise. 

Mackay says that a popular response to anxiety (societal or personal) is the search for nostalgia. ‘A popular response to anxiety is to surrender to the yearnings of nostalgia for a bygone era’.
Many people experience increasingly difficult times coping with change and romantically reminisce and hark back to days of yesteryear that were (supposedly) better. Quite often this is just selective memory syndrome - even people in the 1960’s hankered for a period since past. Nostalgia in and of itself is harmless particularly if it doesn’t stop people from living in the present. There’s nothing too wrong with all the retro design and even the soporific radio stations that play songs of 80’s and 90’s are harmless enough. However, sometimes this sense of nostalgia can go too far.
 
‘Any displeasure one has with their current life tends to bring on exaggerated yearnings for the old days, mainly because what you’re experiencing now is vividly real, whereas what’s bygone is like a black and white movie that you can colourize at will. And in the process of remembering, we tend to erase with our own mental White-Out all the horrific aspects of old technology, like typewriters, which held us back.’ (Michael Musto 2019)


The Conversation (The psychological benefits – and trappings – of nostalgia 2017) states Nostalgia is a bittersweet yearning for the past. ‘It’s sweet because it allows us to momentarily relive good times; it’s bitter because we recognize that those times can never return. Longing for our own past is referred to as personal nostalgia, and preferring a distant era is termed historical nostalgia. Nostalgia can comfort us through difficult times and can help people cope with adversity better. However, it can also be seducing in ways that give us an idealized version of what was’.
 
In education, there are those (generally emanating from the political sphere) who want a return to the 3 R’s (we never abandoned them guys!) and who imagine that education of yesteryear was so much better. There’s even some inherent snobbery built into this assumption that one received a better education than what our children receive today. To these people I say this – we have to prepare our students for their future not for our past. 

 
Even though we now talk about the expansion of new literacies and personal dispositions that allow us to function in the present world and to deal with contemporary issues, there are those who still moan about the decline of standards and want to address these with simplified answers. This stresses parents as they wonder what on earth is going on with their child’s education.
 
This nostalgia trend is evident in politicians’ personal manifestos as many seek to deny the reality of what is, whilst at the same time push for simple outdated solutions to complex contemporary problems. Hearing simple solutions is appealing and for many, the idea that we just return to the ways that were and it will be solved – military service for young people, sing the national anthem each morning to flag raising – or whatever it may be - is appealing. All the fringe-dweller politicians not only exploit this but believe it. The ‘Hansonesque’ way this is done is galling but as Mackay says ‘the best strategy for diminishing our anxiety level is not to pretend we can wind back the clock, not to wish the world was different, but to find ways of living in the world as it is’. I would also add most strenuously, find ways to change what you don’t like.

Michael Musto (2019) argues that wearing rose-coloured glasses always leads to an unfair distortion — ‘looking back on the best of the past while comparing it to the worst of the present’.
I watched one of the TV shows recently which showcased the 1980’s. It actually made it look great but my recollection of university in those days is how dreadful it was. One had to go to a library and use a microfiche file and use reel to reel projectors in classrooms (if you were lucky).
 
I believe that too much of this nostalgia-speak disempowers many and makes some sentimental and that leaves us anxious about the present. If there are some aspects to the way we live now we don’t like we need to do our bit to change it rather than hark back to an imaginary bygone era. That gives us a sense that we are in control and can be an agent for change rather than a passive passenger of a journey that is preordained. 

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