Is That Nostalgia You’re Feeling?

Missing the daily pleasures of pre-quarantine life doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

illustration of a group of people
Rose Wong

Since the start of social-distancing measures in New York City, I’ve made a habit of scrolling through my Instagram profile every night, thinking about how bizarre it is that I was standing near my friends whenever I wanted to only a month ago. It already feels impossible that I used to enter bar bathrooms with abandon, look in the mirror, wipe errant makeup out of the corners of my eyes, and touch my mouth to get the wine stains off. Last week, I spent two full minutes stroking a free postcard from the pizza place I went to on Valentine’s Day. The sight of a crumpled movie-theater receipt in the bottom of my purse made me grab my knees. I’m nostalgic for February, which feels ridiculous.

These days, daily conversation is a mix of horrifying news and deep regret that we took so much for granted when going out and about was uncomplicated. “I just want to sit at the bar and drink a margarita and read a book and eat whatever iteration of potato the menu is serving,” the writer Emma Specter tweeted recently. The journalist Scaachi Koul asked, poetically, “remember going to sephora / walking around for twenty, thirty minutes / just / touching things …” Referencing an old meme, the comedian Gabe Gonzalez tweeted a photo of a Dunkin’ Donuts store captioned “feel like pure shit just want her back x.” Instagram feeds scan similarly, stocked with throwback photos, remember-whens, and odes to “what I already miss.”

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.

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.”

What we’re experiencing now also qualifies as nostalgia because it has many of the traditional triggers, he said—boredom, loneliness, feelings of meaninglessness, or reminders of the reality of death, if any of those sound familiar. But the good news is that nostalgia also reinvigorates belief that life has meaning by reminding you of a time when it tangibly did. It can help you remember that there are people in your life who care about you, that you have felt better than you do now, and that you will be able to feel good again in the future.

And while nostalgia for hanging out with friends or sitting in a grungy movie-theater seat can be tough while you’re holed up at home, it can also be a powerful motivator to make plans and come up with new ideas, Routledge said. “Even though you’re thinking about the past and it’s past oriented, there’s also a component of it where you’re preparing for the future.”

Someday, I will probably once again tell a friend a secret over a third glass of wine—in person, not over Zoom. It’s something I once did without really planning to, but now nostalgia is making me want to do it on purpose. Maybe I’ll send a Google Calendar invite for 2021.

In the past month, if you’ve noticed yourself FaceTiming with friends you’ve never FaceTimed with before, or texting incessantly with family members you ordinarily rarely talk to, this could be why. When people feel socially isolated or bored, they feel nostalgic, which reminds them of their relationships. “Nostalgia has this power of making you be like ‘Oh, I feel separated or alone, that’s not good, people are supposed to be together,’” Routledge said.

It’s totally fine if you’re missing the extremely recent past, when you could look at your friends up close and go to Dunkin’ Donuts. Call it newstalgia, call it temporary nostalgia, call it whatever you want. It’s good for you, so go ahead and soak in it a little.