Sometimes, when I feel like gently torturing myself, I try to remember what it felt like before we began to see other people mostly as potential vectors for disease – how it felt to hug friends, to brush past strangers in crowded bars, to touch a “high contact surface” like a door knob and not instantly reach for the hand sanitiser. The answer is that it didn’t feel like anything; we took such things for granted. And when I remember that, my nostalgia becomes so heavy it weighs like a stone on my chest.
Recently other, stranger things have made me feel nostalgic. I feel nostalgia for late spring last year, once the initial pandemic terror had worn off and the weather had improved, and on sunny lockdown mornings I frogmarched my two children to the park to burn off energy and watch the goslings in the pond. If you had asked me how I felt at the time I would have told you I was scared and stressed – it was exhausting, trying to work full-time with no childcare, trying to stay safe. But now it’s easier to remember the good times.
With restrictions easing, some people are once more – perhaps perversely – anticipating feeling nostalgic for lockdown. If you are fortunate enough to be able to wait out the worst at home, if you have been spared devastating loss, then the lockdown might have functioned as a protective “cocoon”, Devon Powers, an academic at Temple University in Philadelphia, wrote in the Atlantic. For some, lockdowns have provided an excuse to step away from the grind of busy social schedules, long commutes and work travel. They have served as an opportunity to spend more time with one’s partner or children, or to seek solace in those homely, old-fashioned hobbies such as baking, knitting or gardening that were enjoying a comeback even before our lives came to a standstill.
I had puzzled over why we might one day reminisce fondly about a period of history that has been so awful – after all, no one has been untouched by this pandemic – but then I was reminded of one of the more controversial and counterintuitive studies in positive psychology. The 1978 study led by the US psychologist Philip Brickman compared lottery winners and people who had become paralysed in an accident and found that, after the initial shock, neither event had a significant impact on an individual’s happiness. The lottery winners ended up a bit happier than those who had become paralysed, but not much. They found that after their win they could take less joy in everyday pleasures and soon became habituated to their new life. Those who had been seriously injured, by contrast, found that after suffering so much they were able to appreciate the small things and soon adjusted to their new, different life, the study concluded.
Studies such as this have convinced the psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky that only about 10 per cent of our individual happiness is determined by life events: the rest is the product of our genetic disposition to happiness, and our beliefs and attitudes. This suggests that even if you have found lockdown miserable – an unwanted event that has knocked your life off course, a period of intermittent loneliness, grief and fear – you may by now have adjusted psychologically to this new reality to such an extent that your day-to-day moods are not so different from before. By now, most of us have settled into new routines and found new ways to feel happy. The end of lockdown might therefore be experienced simultaneously as a relief and as a loss.
Lockdown nostalgia might also have a psychologically protective function. Long before it became a marketing tool, nostalgia was seen as a serious disease, thought in the 17th century mostly to afflict soldiers who were believed to suffer a range of physical and psychological ailments as a result of missing home. More recently, researchers have uncovered a host of psychological benefits to experiencing nostalgia: it can boost one’s mood, reduce anxiety and improve a person’s sense of social connectedness.
Crucially, studies have suggested that when people experience a sense of existential threat, nostalgia can act as a psychological defence, by giving people a sense of meaning and purpose. One study required participants to read either a random passage about computers or a nihilistic philosophical essay with such depressing reflections as: “There are approximately seven billion people living on this planet. So take a moment to ponder the following question: in the grand scheme of things, how significant are you?” Those who had read the essay reported feeling more nostalgic afterwards. The same study found that those who were asked before reading the gloomy essay to think about an event that made them feel nostalgic were less likely to respond defensively to it, suggesting that their nostalgia had served as a psychological buffer against the idea that life is essentially meaningless.
Perhaps this is why we might one day feel nostalgia for a time that has been marked by so much suffering and loss. Not because we are heartless or too quick to forget, but because we have a human need to find meaning and purpose in our lives.
It has often felt in lockdown as though our lives have been on hold, but that is an illusion. Life continues; this time cannot be recovered. I noticed how when Britain began reopening it felt as though, having remained frozen for so long, time had suddenly lurched too far forward. How can my youngest, who was only an infant when this began, be turning two in the summer? Why has my eldest outgrown all her clothes? Maybe it’s no surprise that some of us will one day look back on this pandemic year with bittersweet nostalgia. How did it feel, we might ask ourselves, when time seemed to slow down so much? The answer is that it didn’t feel like anything. We took such things for granted.
[See also: How we misunderstand depression]
This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?