The Helpful / Thought

Butterfly Hunters: Nostalgia in philosophy and modern psychology

–Julian Pearce

We find ourselves in a time where optimism for the future is out-shadowed by longing for the past. Futurism used to involve dreams of jetpacks, flying cars, invincibility, and endless technological and societal possibilities. However, now –in a time where our watch, phone, calendar, computer, alarm clock, and camera are the same thing — we have come to view the possibilities for the future as nothing but bleak — nothing but a worn-out, broken version of our current utopia. At least that is what modern film and entertainment would have you believe. Nowadays, when we do explore the future we are often met with an austere and gloomy apocalyptic fate. So, perhaps the fact that we as a society are so fond of the past should really come as no surprise. Heck, we’re living in a year where Terminator, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, and Mad Max are all receiving reboots. Surprisingly, while it may appear our hope for the future has dwindled, research into nostalgia and its impact on self-esteem and optimism for the future suggests otherwise. More on that later.

Nostalgia was once considered a form of depression, and perhaps understandably. For the most part, you may feel nostalgic about a happy time in your life, but it can be hard to feel nostalgic without experiencing a feeling of loss. Some people who are of a more sensitive disposition may indeed experience nostalgia on a day-to-day basis. The feeling of “losing” time, a moment, can indeed bring on a sense of nostalgia, even for the most trivial of daily tasks. While you may feel that thinking of the past brings you joy, a bittersweet feeling of loss often accompanies such ponderings, and the longing to return to happier times is not uncommon.

Philosophically, nostalgia has been explored for centuries. In the 18th century, Japanese cultural scholar Motoori Norinaga coined the term “mono no aware“, which simply put, relates to the natural tendency of humans to empathise with things(objects, people etc), and understand their impermanence. The idea refers to a fleeting, “gentle sadness” associated with realising their passing, and a longer lasting sadness that comes with recognising this state is indeed the reality of life.

Conceptually, one could view a creature such as a butterfly as a prototype of mono no aware and its ideology. A lifecycle so quick and stunning, they pass on like a moment. It could be seen to represent the impermanence of being, and the frailty of life. We, as humans can empathise with that, much in the same way we can empathise with the coming and going of a cherry blossom tree. Brief, but special. This, in a nutshell is what the philosophy of mono no aware emphasises: the need to empathise, understand, and find meaning in life, and the sadness that comes with appreciating the poignancy of these lessons.


‘The Butterfly Hunters’ (1868). (Image: Wiki Commons)

In modern psychology, research suggests that nostalgia may make someone more optimistic about the future. Sort of the opposite of what you might expect, interestingly. The research, which was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, examined the idea that nostalgia is not simply a past-orientated emotion but its scope extends into the future, with a positive outlook.

The researchers conducted a series of studies, firstly, asking participants to conjure a nostalgic event and write about it. They then compared the number of “optimistic” words included in the narrative to a control group who were asked to recall and write about an ordinary event. They found that the number of optimistic expressions used in the “nostalgic event” condition was significantly higher than in the control group condition.

In another study, they tested music’s ability to evoke nostalgia. Subjects were asked to listen to a nostalgic song or a control song previously validated. Again, the researchers discovered that subjects  who listened to nostalgic music reported higher levels of than those listening to the control music.

Finally, subjects were presented with lyrics from a song previously identified as nostalgic by the rest of the group. Participants were then asked to answer questions about how they felt. Surprise, surprise, those who read the personally nostalgic lyrics reported higher levels of optimism that those in the control group.

What are the implications of these findings? Well, co-author of the research paper Dr. Tim Wildschut says information gathered from these studies could be useful when aiming to help individuals cope with psychological adversity. In a controlled environment, perhaps it is not far-fetched to say that using nostalgia to promote positivity and an optimistic outlook on the future could work. The results certainly hint at such a conclusion. But, like all research, questions have to be asked of the validity of the study. The results were significant–but only a little bit significant. Would asking someone suffering from anxiety to think about their holiday to Disney-Land in 2001 really help them deal with their condition? Potentially. But a stronger experimental design should be tested before I –and I suspect many others — will be convinced of its effectiveness.

In another study from researchers at the department of Social Psychology at the University of Kansas, researchers discovered that nostalgia can make people more willing to engage in “growth-oriented behaviours”, and encourages them to view themselves as “growth-oriented people”. All pretty swell stuff.

In contrast, other researchers have suggested that  particular forms of nostalgia are used as a defence mechanism to avoid historical facts. Derek Hook, an Associate Professor at the McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts, wrote an article that “reconsiders the much-lauded transformative potential of nostalgia” and suggests ways in which future research should investigate nostalgia before declaring its effectiveness.

The article which was published in the Journal of Peace Psychology, attempts to identify parallels between the concept of nostalgia and a series of psychoanalytic concepts such as imagination, fetishism, fantasy, and retroaction. Hook states that comparing these concepts makes it possible to critique the sociological notions of nostalgia. The paper discussed the different portrayals of apartheid in South Africa and argued that nostalgia appears in two ways, “restorative nostalgia” – a wish to return to the past, and “reflective nostalgia” – a more critically aware form of nostalgia. Specifically, Derek Hook used psychoanalytic concepts in order to try explain the way nostalgia functions. These included:
i) in the economy of the ego,
ii) in the mode of the fetish,
iii) in the service of fantasy,
iv) as an affect concealing anxiety,
v) as screen-memory (a recollection of early childhood that may be falsely recalled or magnified in importance; often masks another emotionally significant memory),
vi) as a means of reifying (making real) the past or present rather than attending to relations of causation obtaining between past, present and future.

Hook postulates that researchers should investigate each of these “defensive functions” before proclaiming its “transformative potential”. A fair enough conclusion, really. While it is easy to be swayed by significant results –an often misleading conclusion– we should really be careful as to how excited we get by ostensibly vague results. Telling someone to write about a nostalgic moment in their life and then report how optimistic about the future they are afterwards is all well and good. But to promote it as a potential transformational device is risky. Something to the tune of Derek Hook’s more psychologically investigative framework prior to commencing such a study might not be too bad of an idea.

So, you might use nostalgia to improve your self-esteem. Or maybe you conjure up a little nostalgia to help yourself become more growth-oriented. It could even be that you are trying to cope with a tough situation and a little nostalgia helps defend yourself against those nasty feelings. Or maybe it is a gentle sadness silently pulsing through you as you watch each moment of your life appear, transpire, and leave all too briefly. As you watch the cherry blossom burst into life for a short-while. As a butterfly floats past you, against the wind. As you ponder over your childhood and the naivety of it all. It might bring a smile to your face. It might make you more positive about the future, despite what others may have you think. It might even teach you a lesson on time, life, and death. Our romanticism of the past may indeed fuel our hope for the future.

IMG_1602 - slight edit

People skulk along the streets listening to cassettes on their walkman. They ironically adorn themselves in fashion made famous six decades ago while indifferently bouncing dull messages to friends and family off towers littered across the planet. The future is bleak they’ll have you believe in the new blockbuster film of the summer. The past is innocent and wonderful. But don’t forget to sign up for that new phone feel. I must be home to see the trailer for the reboot of that movie I loved as a child. People around me weep as they see friendly, familiar faces for the first time in decades. A drone circles my home. The future is bleak. The past is innocent and wonderful.

Previously on Lapsus Magazine:

A group of astronauts pretended they were living on Mars.

A study on make-believe invisibility and its effect on social anxiety.

3 thoughts on “Butterfly Hunters: Nostalgia in philosophy and modern psychology

  1. Interesting article. It somewhat makes sense that a bit of nostalgia makes someone more optimistic about the future, but does it make them better off? I wonder if focusing too much on the past causes us to miss what is going on in the present. Also, what will we look on in the future if we spend our days pining for the past?

    I think this attitude is what leads senior citizens to feel sad about their lives coming to a close.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point. Like I said in the introduction of the article, I get the feeling that kind of optimistic futurism is lacking these days. Nostalgia is really in vogue at the moment, as can be seen in the current climate of film and entertainment. If it makes people feel better, all is well and good. I’m slightly sceptical of some of this research, and I’d like to see more done on this topic before I’m willing to accept that nostalgia leads to a more optimistic outlook on the future.


  2. When I stop and engage a nostalgic thought, I notice an emotional “filling” in the body. Not an unpleasant feeling in any way, actually it feels good. Now, with the feeling occurring, turn to envision some future thought. The earlier feeling blends quite nicely with the vision of the future, regardless of the fact that I’m older and beyond my working years, living on a seriously meager fixed income with little hope of it increasing with all the attendant threats around it of it decreasing and me possibly living in my car. Who’s fooling who here? Years ago I wanted to produce a bumper sticker: “The last thing in the entire universe to trust is your own mind.”

    Liked by 1 person

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