It is too simplistic to divide our emotions into categorical ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ when experiences of nostalgia are also existent. This emotion reared its bittersweet head upon my temporary return to a suburb in Melbourne that I had not revisited for the past nine years. It was simultaneously strange and familiar as I revisited the station where I used to hang out in my dowdy uniform, the grocery store where I used to buy treats during lunchtime, the school where I experimented with glittery makeup and tried to navigate new relationships and friendships.
"This complexity of emotion is derived from the combination of a pleasant memory with a sense of loss associated with recognising that this time has gone. "
Initially, nostalgia was a term created by Johanes Hofer in 1688 to describe the emotional dispositions of soldiers stationed away from home, whose symptoms consisted of bouts of sadness, diminished senses, and even physical weakness. The word ‘nostalgia’ itself is initially derived from ancient Greek: nostos means to ‘return home’ and algos pertains to pain and suffering. The breakdown of the word provides a neat explanation for that twinge we feel when we think about certain times in our lives, or certain people we spent them with.
Nostalgia was associated predominantly with homesickness, and was only nulled as a medical condition in the 1950s. Within the late 1970s, sociologist Fred Davis placed a new spin on the experience of nostalgia, calling it a “positively toned evocation of a lived past.” He maintained that nostalgia has some functional utility in allowing humans to maintain their identity in the face of major transitions. That is, maintain a sense of ‘self’ through our ever-evolving roles, for example: adolescence to adulthood, single to partnered life.
Within the 1990s, William Havlena and Susan Holak highlighted the complex nature of nostalgia by juxtaposing the positive emotions of joy, gratitude and affection with others such as sadness and longing. This complexity of emotion is derived from the combination of a pleasant memory with a sense of loss associated with recognising that this time has gone.
Nostalgia will never sit simply on the spectrum of emotions, and perhaps can be regarded as an emotion with the potential to serve as a springboard to evaluate, learn from, and even motivate our future experiences.