Why you should care
It’s now recognized as a universal, and even psychologically beneficial, feeling. But that wasn’t always the case.
There are many memorable lines in the closing moments of the 1942 film classic Casablanca, but perhaps none cuts to the bittersweet heart of the moment more than Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) declaration to his former lover Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) that “we’ll always have Paris.” That reference to the cherished memory of a finished, but not forgotten, romance helps to fortify the resolve of the former lovers who claim they will never really leave each other, but who are getting ready to do precisely that.
Such is the wistful beauty, emotional power and sometimes ruthless practicality of nostalgia — that sentimental longing for the past, including people and places long gone, that affects us all to a certain degree and that researchers today are increasingly discovering the psychological benefits to feeling. But that wasn’t always the case. For centuries, nostalgia was considered to be more of a psychological disorder than a mawkish emotion, a debilitating longing that could require medical attention in those suffering under its influence.
By the 17th century, nostalgia was regarded as a form of psychological disorder.
The term “nostalgia” comes from the Greek “nostos,” meaning a longing to return home, and one of the earliest nostalgists was Odysseus, who relied on memories of his family back home to cope with his long and hazardous journey. “In The Odyssey, Homer depicts Odysseus as using nostalgia as a resource, as a vitamin to cope with the vicissitudes of every day,” says nostalgia researcher Constantine Sedikides, a professor of social and personality psychology at the University of Southampton.
By the 17th century, however, nostalgia was regarded as a form of psychological disorder. Johannes Hofer, the Swiss doctor who coined the term in 1688, called it a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause,” and the first cases were identified in those, like Odysseus, who had served in war. Swiss soldiers at the time, for example, reportedly grew overwhelmed by nostalgia when they heard a traditional milking song from their homeland, and at least six men were discharged from the Spanish army during the Thirty Years’ War for suffering from el mal de corazón.
The symptoms of the disorder exhibited by the soldiers ranged from the mild — melancholy, loss of appetite, fever — to the more severe: suicidal thoughts, cardiac arrests and brain inflammation. A host of causes were suggested, from unfulfilled ambitions to masturbation to “happy love.” No one knew quite what to make of what Scottish physician William Cullen would later label the “uncertain disease.”
“The idea of an unclear, or ambiguous disease is there right from the start,” says Thomas Dodman, a historian at Columbia University and author of What Nostalgia Was. “Hofer himself hesitates on what exactly to call this disease, whether it should be a form of madness or a milder neurosis akin to melancholia, what exactly causes it, and whether soldiers are particularly prone.”
The debate over the nature of nostalgia continued to rage during the 18th and 19th centuries about whether it was a physiological or a psychological condition, an indication of mental frailty or a benign coping mechanism. Dozens of medical dissertations were written about it and it became one of the most studied disorders in Europe. Treatments for the disorder were equally varied … and not only employed by doctors. One Russian general in 1733 took to burying sufferers in his ranks alive as a warning to any other men whose nostalgia might be getting the best of them on the battlefield. Soldiers suffering from nostalgia during the U.S. Civil War — there were more than 5,000 recorded cases in the Union army — were often subjected to shaming and bullying tactics. Such soldiers were likely suffering from a variety of conditions, from PTSD to depression to extreme exhaustion, which were unhelpfully lumped together under nostalgia.
Eventually, the idea of nostalgia as a problematic disorder related to soldiers and homesickness fell out of use and it became more synonymous with the bittersweet emotion we know today. But it wasn’t until the current century that researchers began to gain a greater appreciation — and accumulate evidence — for nostalgia’s true psychological benefits. Sedikides and his colleagues at Southampton’s Nostalgia Group have researched nostalgia for years and their findings suggest that it’s a neurological defense mechanism, one that can be found across cultures and countries and that is particularly useful for counteracting feelings of depression or meaninglessness in times of hardship or difficulty. Those in nostalgic states are more likely to engage in acts of altruism, strengthen bonds with loved ones and reach out to strangers.
Nostalgia helps us feel a connection to the past and to our fellow humans, it imbues our lives with more meaning — it is once again the vitamin that it was for Odysseus. And it is perhaps little wonder that we find the final moments of Casablanca, when Rick and Ilsa turn to nostalgia to cope with a devastating and likely final parting, so bittersweet, but also so compelling.