I am meandering back from my 6pm walk when I feel a sense of deja vu. Temporarily living back in Chigwell, the Essex suburb of my childhood, it suddenly hits me. The lazy sunny evening, the absence of cars and lack of pollution: I am back in the Seventies. And it feels good.
Even as we (gingerly) look forward to coming out of lockdown, many of us are still determined to look back. But the latest trend on Facebook is to post the last picture taken of yourself before it started. The week before, everyone was sharing photographs of themselves aged 20.
It’s true we’ve had time to rustle about looking for photos in the loft, but there is more to it than that.
Dr Hamira Riaz, who is a chartered clinical psychologist, says: “Human beings are wired to remember the past in ways that serve us. During these times of unparalleled disruption and ongoing uncertainty, it is understandable that we are looking for ways to ground ourselves in a history that feels safer and more stable.”
Then, of course, there is being away from friends and loved ones. “Nostalgia is a very social emotion,” says Tim Wildschut, professor of psychology at the University of Southampton. “When we look at what people are nostalgic about, it’s often relationships. We are triggered by a need to belong. In an unpleasant state of loneliness, nostalgia restores our sense of balance.”
Many are finding themselves picking up with old friends, as far back as school days. I, for one, am finding laughter and companionship in the Old Bancroftians’ Association – the Facebook page of my old school, which I left in 1986. (I only joined the group a couple of weeks ago.)
Retired businessman Gordon Brown, 64, is an administrator on the site, which launched in 2014. “Since lockdown started, we have grown by 700 members,” he says. “It’s been a bit like the Covid curve – a steep incline, which is now starting to plateau a bit.”
However, says Brown, it isn’t so much about the numbers of new alumni, but the engagement, which has risen by 400 per cent. “People are posting pictures of sports teams, trips and extracts from school magazines,” he says. “Best of all are the stories old pupils are starting to tell. I’ve also noticed most engagement in the pre-smartphone generation, as we never had that consistent contact.”
Prof Wildschut says: “Such ‘reunions’ make us feel connected, they simulate a presence. They also offer important continuity – having a thread between the past, present and future is good for psychological wellbeing.”
Seeing old photos of yourself with friends shows, says Prof Wildschut, “interpersonal competence. You’ve showed you can attract friends, and that you are also able to be a friend to others.”
And while most people find nostalgia a warm bath of an experience, its definition, according to Prof Wildschut, is “joy tinged with sadness”.
“Looking back can be bittersweet,” says Prof Wildschut. “But it’s important to differentiate between nostalgia, and brooding and rumination or ‘counterfactual thinking’, which leads to a sense of loss.” (An example of counterfactual thinking – if only I hadn’t gone to that university/married that man, my life would have turned out better.)
But the direction of travel is definitely backwards. In the absence of new programming, television channels have been running old content of all our yesterdays; the feel-good opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics; England’s 1990 World Cup semi-final against Germany (sadly, the penalties still don’t go in). Some have been drawn to social media challenges – post 10 albums/books that have changed your life – others have been watching black and white films, or digging out vintage outfits.
“We are adjusting to the ‘new normal’,” says Dr Riaz. “It looks as though we can’t go back to how things were, and that means dealing with a sense of loss.”
And maybe, when we are back to the sound and fury of everyday life, we will reminisce about this period of sun, space and slower-paced living, as a period worthy of nostalgia in itself.
The Daily Telegraph