Old Days

In our research, we frequently see people describe a longing for their childhood -- a time when life was supposedly simpler and filled with fewer responsibilities.  (James had such an experience himself yesterday, when he  spotted a package of Mallo Cups at a grocery story near his home in Phoenix.  Suddenly, he was 10 years old again).

I just finished Homesickness: An American History by Susan J. Matt.  In this book, she conflates homesickness and nostalgia, which she persuasively argues are highly related concepts.  As Matt defines it, homesickness is a longing for a certain feeling.  It is the idea of home -- not necessarily a literal home -- that people long for.

Some interesting points from the book:

  • Nostalgia is hardly a 21st Century phenomenon.  Matt has studied correspondence from settlers, soldiers, and immigrants going back to the 19th Century and finds that homesickness/nostalgia were prevalent even then.  If it’s not a human universal, it is at least very common.
  • During the Civil War, physicians considered nostalgia to be a dangerous illness that was capable of causing death.
  • People feel particularly intense longings for branded products – especially when people have been deprived of easy access to those products.  This explains why certain brands (like Mallo Cups!) can take on deeply personal meanings.
  • Organizations including the YMCA, the Welcome Wagon, and various fraternal and ethnic organizations were born of a need to “cure” nostalgia.
  • Technology now makes it possible for us to connect to family and old friends very easily over long distances.  The author wonders about the long-term psychological effects of this newfound ability to never leave the past behind, no matter where we may live.

Here is an op-ed piece the author wrote for the New York Times this spring.