Everyone has a tendency to look back on the past through rose coloured glasses, remembering the beautiful tropical fish we saw snorkeling as opposed to the number of times you got salt water up your nose; longing for a past relationship that wasn’t really good for you; missing a ‘past version’ of yourself despite how much you have grown.
We think nostalgically every day, but romanticising the past can be dangerous. It can cause us to go back to abusive relationships, regret good decisions we made and overall ignore all the good things we have in our lives right now. However, there are many reasons why we love to think about the past, one of which being “rosy retrospection”.
In their 1994 paper, “A theory of temporal adjustments of the evaluation of events: Rosy Prospection & Rosy Retrospection,” Terrence R. Mitchell and Leigh Thompson explore how and why events seem better in hindsight.
They break down the process called rosy retrospection, in which memories are made more positive in hindsight. First, our minds continuously reconsider things that have happened to us and reevaluate our enjoyment of them constantly. Everytime we are thinking about an event, we create a different copy of that event in our mind. As well, research shows our enjoyment evaluations tend to skew higher after the event due to the different functions of memory we use to remember different events.
Think of it like writing a book review. You combine your opinions about different aspects of the book like the character development, the plot and the climax to give the book a certain score. However, maybe something happens in your life to make you appreciate the characters more and this changes your rating of the book. You’ve still only read it once, but other factors, in this metaphor another event and in our brains the passage of time, have changed what you think about the content.
The second aspect of rosy retrospection is selective sampling, where we cut bad experiences out of our memory over time. This can be explained by fading affect bias, the physiological phenomenon that suggests that positive memories fade faster than negative ones because of how our brains recall information.
Everytime we think about something, we strengthen the neurological pathway between the two neurons that created that thought. This makes it easy to recall that same piece of information later on. Recalling positive memories causes the neurotransmitter to release serotonin, a hormone that makes us feel happy, so we are incentivised to build up those neurological pathways.
Neutral and minorly negative thoughts are not associated with the release of any hormones, so experiences which are only slightly crappy but not stress inducincing tend to fade quicker than their positive or extremely negative counterparts.
To return to the book metaphor, this reinforcement of the good memories could be represented by how we interact with others that enjoy the same books we do. We often surround ourselves with people who will validate our opinions on the books we like; those who will join us in praising the characters we like, slander plot points we hate and help us come up with more reasons why we like the parts of the book we do.
The third aspect of rosy retrospection, construction and reconstruction involves adding good things to a moment that didn’t actually happen. Often we do this to create a mental image that matches up with what we anticipated the event would be
For example, in the trailer for Marvel Studios’ 2019 film Captain Marvel Carol Danvers says “I’m not going to fight your war, I’m going to end it.” This line is not present in the final cut of the film. Despite this, many attribute this line to Captain Marvel due to their knowledge of the trailer for 3 months before the movie was released.
So we know how and why we tend to look back with rose tinted glasses (rosy retrospection?) But what is it about the pandemic that has turned this tendency into an essential part of our everyday conversations?
My tiktok feed is filled with teenagers posting about how much they miss their past selves, or how ‘great’ the first lockdown was. I’ve definitely felt nostalgic for my past habits and accomplishments, but everytime I catch myself wishing to regress back then, I have to give myself a reality check. I was inspired to write this article by the prevalence of these illogical feelings. Why is it that I am more nostalgic for who I was than excited for who I will become in the future?
Turns out, nostalgia has many physiological functions, indlung reducing loneliness, increasing perceived social support and helping us cope in times of stress.
“Nostalgia has been said to arise in response to feelings of uncertainty or anxieties, or as means to find continuity in times of change,” says an article published in 2020 studying the link between music evoked nostalgia and well being. “Many studies identify a causal link between loneliness and nostalgia. Lonelier participants report higher levels of nostalgia, and are more likely to turn to nostalgia to provide social support, counteracting their loneliness.”
The pandemic has been one of the most isolating periods of recent history, with feelings of loneliness at an all time high. So it is no wonder we use nostalgia to connect with the past when we have few connections in the present. As we move out of the pandemic, what the authors say about change becomes relevant as well. It is a big transition to go from being unable to see your family members to having the whole world at your fingertips. So, we think back on what we have known for the past year and a half with perhaps a bit more joy than we felt at the time.
Studies show that up to 75% of our conversations include nostalgic content. As demonstrated by the psychological and neurological incentives to keep using it, nostalgia isn’t going away anytime soon. However, when you reflect on the past, please take the time to pause and reflect on if that picture is too perfect.