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.