“Nostalgia is a necessary thing, I believe, and a way for all of us to find peace in that which we have accomplished, or even failed to accomplish.”R.A. Salvatore (1989)
The term ‘nostalgia’ was introduced by Johannes Hofer (1688) in his medical dissertation to refer to a fatal disease: “homesickness.” In our modern society, nostalgia has another meaning pertaining more to personal emotions. Baker and Kennedy (1994) define nostalgia as “a sentimental or bittersweet yearning for an experience, product, or service from the past” (p. 170). In other words, when one feels nostalgic, they experience not only sadness for what no longer is, but also happiness and comfort associated with the memories of the past.
Many elements of everyday life can become nostalgic experiences, including interactions with family, friends, particular objects, special events, and treasured places. For example, the smell of home-made cuisine may evoke the person’s nostalgic memory of families and home country. Mostly, people who feel nostalgic are eager to revert to the good times of the past. As nostalgic experience allows people to maintain their identity, it can relieve certain negative feelings like anxiety and depression (David, 1979). During the COVID-19 pandemic, engaging with nostalgic feelings helps some people cope with the experiences of being separated from family and friends, fear and uncertainty for the future.
In this theme of the COVID-19 Collection, we connect personal objects of our peers to their nostalgic memories, to present a unique reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. We categorize the theme into three types of nostalgic experiences: Culinary nostalgia, Nostalgic media, and Cultural nostalgia. Through these subthemes, we explore how people show their desires to go back to pre-COVID days, and how they find the comfort zones inside their nostalgic experiences.
Where our Objects Come from
Culinary Nostalgia: Comfort Food and Belonging
“When people turn to food and they’re not physically hungry, it means that they’re using food for something else besides satisfying the needs of the body. They’re using it for a different kind of hunger—an emotional hunger, a psychological hunger, or a spiritual hunger.”Geneen Roth (Hughes & Hughes, 2007)
Many people experienced isolation, stress, separation, loneliness, and repetitive daily monotony during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has had visible impacts on their routines in daily life, including in their practices surrounding food. Sometimes explorative, sometimes sentimental, for many the role that food has played in bringing them comfort and more than one kind of nourishment whilst isolated within their kitchens has been formative in shaping their experiences of the pandemic.
Food becomes nostalgic through the recipes we store, remember, pass on, and repeatedly recreate. According to Baker et al. (2005), culinary recipes; from an extravagant 5-course dinner to a simple loaf of banana bread, play a symbolic role in collective and cultural rituals, strengthening family ties, reminding us of our past, childhood and upbringing, and helping to construct our identities. Food practices are avenues through which nostalgia can be lived out by individuals, shared between groups, cultures and families, and passed onto future generations.
Pressed by the anxieties of COVID times, people have found shelter from the storm through preparing familiar food: dusting off old recipe books, grinding spices in their mortar and pestles, and in many ways returning to the flavors and aromas of childhood which bring them comfort and a sense of belonging.
This desire to return to nostalgic ‘comfort foods’ in times of stress and worry is a well-known cultural trope. Psychological researchers Troisi et al. (2011) suggest that part of the ‘comfort’ of comfort food lies in how its consumption is cognitively associated with personal relationships. They argue that, particularly in times of loneliness or when a person’s sense of belonging is in jeopardy, the consumption of comfort food can actually act as a surrogate for social interaction, particularly in times which a sense of belonging is sought. This reflects clearly the experiences of many who have been separated from their families, friends and loved ones during the pandemic and sought food as an avenue of reassurance. The foods we consume for comfort therefore can be seen to nourish us in many meaningful and multifaceted ways.
Nostalgic Media: Revisiting Past Favorites
“Across TV and Music, more than half of consumers are seeking comfort in familiar, nostalgic content.”“COVID-19 tracking” (2021, p. 9)
Soon after quarantines and lockdowns around the world went into effect, often occupied by nothing but their own homes, many people turned to entertainment as a way to pass the time. However, they did not just turn to any source of entertainment. Overwhelmingly, people sought out pieces of media they had previously enjoyed, often during childhood. One ongoing study during the pandemic (cited in Ulaby, 2020) by Billboard and Nielsen Music (an MRC Data service), concluded in their first release that: “More than half of consumers today seek comfort in familiar music and television shows. 87 percent of respondents reported listening to the same music they normally listen to, and 54 percent said they’d recently rewatched episodes of an old favorite TV show” (para. 3).
The pandemic brought forth lots of worries and uncertainties. Things that we took for granted, such as our ability to move around freely, see friends, but also our health, were suddenly no longer guaranteed. Nostalgic forms of media – whether they be books, TV-shows, or films – provided a way for people to experience the comfort of past (pre-COVID) experiences.
Additionally, rewatching or rereading things that one has previously consumed is a ‘safe’ experience, because it provides no uncertainties, an important factor considering the current state of the world. As one interviewee in Ulaby (2020) puts it: “I’ll start to watch something I thought I wanted to watch, but then I just stop after a couple of minutes … It seems like a lot of effort to start a new thing, if that makes sense” (para 4).
Across the world people turned to the favorites of their youth for comfort and relaxation, escaping the uncertainties of real-world events. From rereading Harry Potter to rewatching Avatar the Last Airbender, everyone had their own trips down memory lane to ease the experience of being stuck, lonely and bored at home.
Cultural Nostalgia: Attachment to the Past
“Nostalgia comes from the Greek words nosto, meaning “returning home,” and algia, meaning “pain” or “suffering.” Hence, nostalgia literally means “homesickness.”“Smeekes, A. & Jetten, J (2016)
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the closure of various places as well as restrictive travel regulations has prevented many people from going to other places, for some even going home. For those outside their home country, the longing for their home and the feeling of nostalgia for their culture can easily be triggered by some objects which carry unique cultural meanings as well as memories. In this way, even a commodity souvenir can bring up the feeling of cultural nostalgia and homesickness for those who cannot go home because of the pandemic.
According to psychological studies, nostalgia is typically defined as a longing for the past resulting from separation in time, while homesickness is understood as the longing for home that results from the separation from home in space (Wildschut et al, 2006). Further, nostalgia is considered to result in predominantly positive consequences for individual well-being whereas homesickness is associated with psychological discomfort and distress (Sedikides et al, 2009). However, Smeekes & Jetten (2016) suggest that aside from emotions experienced as an individual, people may also feel collective emotions related to the groups they belong to (p.131).
It is perhaps unsurprising that even commodity objects such as souvenirs can stir up the collective emotions of the individuals who are separated from their homeland during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through engaging with the objects which stimulate cultural values and nostalgic memories, such as drinking traditional South American mate drink with a souvenir mate cup or using a museum-bought notepaper brick depicting a traditional Chinese painting, people can feel more attached with their own home and country. Therefore, by engaging with culturally nostalgic objects and bringing the self closer to their cultural collective, people can also begin to feel a little less separated, a little less isolated, from those they miss elsewhere in the world.
Objects Associated with this Theme
Explore the narratives hidden behind each object and gain a deeper understanding of how they can act as coping mechanisms.
Baker S. M. and Kennedy P. F. (1994). Death By Nostalgia: a Diagnosis of Context-Specific Cases. NA – Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, 169-174.
COVID-19 tracking the impact on the Entertainment Landscape: Release 1. (2020, April 13). Billboard. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www.billboard.com/articles/insight-reports/9355929/covid-19-tracking-the-impact-on-the-entertainment-landscape-release-1?utm_content=pass.
Hughes, J., Hughes, D. (2007). Food, emotions, and the search for true nourishment: Unraveling our complex relationship with food: An interview with Geneen Roth. Share Guide. Retrieved from http://www.shareguide.com/RothGeneen.html
Neve, T. (2017, December 7). The History and Uses of the Mortar and Pestle. Cambridge Environmental Products, Inc. https://cambridgeenviro.com/blogs/news/the-history-and-uses-of-the-mortar-and-pestle#:~:text=Mortar%20and%20Pestles%20were%20described,for%20the%20grinding%20of%20spices.
Rowling, J.K. (2006). Biography. JKRowling.com. https://web.archive.org/web/20060421032312/http://www.jkrowling.com/textonly/en/biography.cfm
Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Routledge, C., Arndt, J., & Zhou, X. (2009). Buffering acculturative stress and facilitating cultural adaptation: Nostalgia as a psychological resource.
Smeekes, A., & Jetten, J. (2016). Longing for one’s home country: National nostalgia and acculturation among immigrants and natives. Utrecht, The Netherlands: Utrecht University, Ercomer.
Troisi, J. D., & Gabriel, S. (2011). Chicken Soup Really Is Good for the Soul: “Comfort Food” Fulfills the Need to Belong. Psychological Science, 22(6), 747–753. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611407931
Ulaby, N. (2020, April 15). Returning To Old Favorites? Comfort TV (And Books, And Music) Is A New Trend. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/15/834299376/returning-to-old-favorites-comfort-tv-and-books-and-music-is-a-new-trend. Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: content, triggers, functions. Journal of personality and social psychology, 91(5), 975.