There’s no word for pandemic-induced nostalgia—a nostalgia for things that hardly seemed to matter only a few weeks ago but that aren’t really in the “past”: We will have them again, though no one knows when. I’m not even sure this counts as nostalgia, or if we should call it something else: “newstalgia,” maybe. Or something better if you have ideas.
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So far, the thing I miss most about New York City before the coronavirus is a night out that goes all over the place—the kind where you gather people as you go and visit multiple locations and take several cabs and maybe lie down in public somewhere. I am also viciously bitter that I can no longer kiss outside.
This nostalgia may not feel good, but, according to Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College, it’s kind of good for me.
Nostalgia was once regarded as uniformly terrible. It was originally a medical diagnosis, coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer, a 19-year-old Swiss doctor. He defined it very narrowly, as homesickness for a native land that became so severe it led to physical symptoms. It wasn’t until the 1950s that psychologists started talking about nostalgia as a feeling broader than homesickness, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that the term took on a more bittersweet connotation.
In the 1990s, Batcho was among a group of researchers who argued that nostalgia could be a positive emotion—that it was a self-soothing tool for adapting to discontinuity. I wrote to her to ask if my sudden obsession with the velvet paintings at my favorite bar—which I went to days before everything shut down, to stare at strangers and memorize stupid eavesdropped conversations—was nostalgia or something else.
“The present phenomenon you describe does qualify as a form of nostalgia,” she said. “Even though the ‘past’ is so recent.” In studies of nostalgia, even 4- and 5-year-old children understood the idea of missing something from their past, she told me. “One toddler said he missed naps with his mommy. Not surprisingly, some missed special toys or a pet. Their past couldn’t have been that long ago, since they hadn’t been alive all that long.”
Batcho added that sudden and unexpected life changes can bring on pangs of nostalgia, because one of the primary functions of the emotion is to help us create coherent mental narratives of our lives—even when the world around us is changing rapidly and in ways we can’t control. You were once the person who visited your grandmother and hosted dinner parties, and you’re still that person, even though you can’t do those things right now.
Nostalgia for something recent is definitely a phenomenon that predates the pandemic, says Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University who has studied the benefits of nostalgia. In studies he’s conducted with college students, they often talk about feeling nostalgia for things they did only a few months back, before they moved away from home. “Even though that was recent, it was still separation, and a connection [they] longed for,” he told me. People can also feel nostalgic for things that will eventually come back, he said, citing the example of military deployment. “You could be sent away and be like, ‘Well, I know I’m going to come home in six months or a year,’ but still have nostalgia for home.”