It was yet another lonely, endless night in the spring of 2020 spent mindlessly rewatching “Parks and Recreation” for the third time. The painfully familiar feeling of restlessness washed over me — my glossy eyes began to burn from countless hours of screen time and my brain’s insatiable appetite for unachievable social stimulation had returned. I shifted my position in my teal and pink chevron-patterned childhood bed as a desperate attempt to feel any remote sense of change. All was calm and yet little was well.
Suddenly, a sound I hadn’t heard since my preschool days blared out of my phone’s speaker: the gritty, pixelated music of early 2000s children’s computer games. I felt a rush of serotonin as I pulled a long forgotten memory out of my brain’s deepest crevices. For the first time in the weeks since the shutdowns of mid-March 2020, I had actually felt something.
I had randomly stumbled upon a TikTok showcasing an old Holly Hobbie game I suddenly remembered playing as a kid on an account called @noughtienostalgia. Hearing the forgotten yet familiar “Hi! I’m Holly! And I’m Perri. Amy here! And we’re the Hey Girls!” was the most exciting event I had experienced in almost three months. It whisked me right back to staring at my dad’s clunky old computer, choosing sparkly dresses for my Polly Pockets and baking cupcakes with Barbie.
The pure, unadulterated excitement of rediscovering a silly, mindless computer game I hadn’t played in over a decade allowed me to travel back to what felt like simpler times. For just one minute, it was if I had reverted back to being four years old, pink Barbie brand glasses and all.
I spent the rest of that lonely night diving deep into the abyss of childhood memories on the brink of being forgotten. I chased that nostalgic high until I had drained every ounce of my curiosity.
Nostalgia is an undoubtedly and underratedly powerful emotion. It’s what drives your best friend to get back with their clearly problematic ex-boyfriend and what convinces college students to blast Hannah Montana’s Greatest Hits at pregames. It gives bygone music artists the chance to milk their last profits through reunion tours and draws viewers’ attention to bland reboots of once successful TV shows, like “Fuller House” or “Arrested Development: Fateful Consequences.” It’s what drove me to spend an embarrassing amount of time trying to redownload Adobe Flash Player on my computer so I could play “Holly Hobbie and Friends Muffin Maker.”
Nostalgia, defined by Oxford Languages as a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, can be a positive emotion. Studies have shown that nostalgia in healthy doses can provide us with feelings of continuity and purpose in our lives.
As New York Times columnist John Tierney wrote in his piece “What is Nostalgia Good For?”: “When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.”
Hearing songs or seeing photos that spark old memories of an elementary school graduation or family vacation can remind us of how far we’ve come. Acknowledging our pasts allows us to understand the scope of our lives and find meaning in personal growth and development. It prompts us to reconnect with old, cherished friends and appreciate what may seem like simpler times.
I felt trapped in my childhood home and chose to spend my days unproductively waiting for an alternate reality to swoop in and create some miraculous COVID-19 cure that, of course, never arrived. Rediscovering those silly, low-quality Holly Hobbie games gave me a sense of purpose in a time of extreme uncertainty. Reminding myself of such a random yet warm childhood experience inspired me to appreciate every moment of that forced family time I could because I would hopefully be leaving for college in a few short months. I was put back on track and focusing on how I could make the most of our family quarantine rather than angrily ponder what experiences I was being forced to miss. Those games brought me back to simply being young, easily fascinated by every object, activity and person that entered my life; but more importantly, they reminded me of the atmosphere of my childhood — the comfortable feeling of being entrenched in familial love. It reminded me to be eternally grateful for the endless sacrifices made out of compassion so that I could go to school each day and come home excited to experience the fun that was in store. My parents worked tirelessly to ensure my happiness, even in times of extreme financial difficulty like the 2008 recession. My grandparents came over rather than spending a night with their friends to give my parents a break, simultaneously providing me with all the love I could dream of. And the ironic beauty of it all is that they were so successful that my biggest concerns as a child were choosing what color icing to put on my virtual Holly Hobbie muffins.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Hollis Griffin, an LSA Communication and Media professor, discussed how we often utilize nostalgia as a comforting tool to soften the blow of a currently stressful reality.
“I think there’s a way of looking back that is understanding the past as somehow simpler and more desirable than the present moment,” Griffin said. “We tend to look back when we’re nervous about what’s going on around us in the present, and there’s a way in which when you’re nervous about, express trepidation about or have kind of wary cautious feelings about something going on in your immediate surroundings, there’s a way in which looking back is deeply comforting.”
Nostalgia can be wonderful. It can bring us back to our roots and revive our excitement for the pure, simple joys of being alive. But like anything, excessive focus on the past can hinder our personal progress. Spending our days reminiscing may cause us to neglect the necessity of moving forward.
When does it get to be too much? When does rewatching “Friends” for the nth time transition from harmless reminiscence into an emotional downward spiral driven by reversion? Where is the line between appreciation and excessive longing for times we will never get back?
It’s tempting to get wrapped up in reliving what seems like the glory days, particularly in a pandemic, where daily life often feels simultaneously monotonous and emotionally taxing. It feels as if I have spent so much of this time reminiscing on simpler days that I have lost almost a year and counting’s worth of potential memories.
Hollis also noted humans’ tendency to oversimplify the past. When I think about that Holly Hobbie game and its association with the warm love of my family and early childhood, it’s easy to quietly disregard the time’s miserable meltdowns and ever-present stress.
“I think that there’s a way of seeing the past that way as being simpler than it was a lot of times,” Hollis said. “It doesn’t mean the past was without its problems, it means that the conditions of the present are looking at the past in particular ways.”
After hearing from Hollis and giving it more thought, I believe what we have learned and experienced in our past is necessary to propel us to elevated personal happiness and success, but our past should not prevent us from advancing to the next stages of our lives. The past is an indispensable mechanism for learning and growth so long as we use it wisely and moderately.
A rewatch of your favorite Disney Channel show or a scream-singing session of 2000s pop hits may not clue us in on how to solve a global pandemic, but they can, and have, kept our endurance high in these infinitely trying times. When the present reality feels suffocating and stressful, sometimes the best escape is to allow ourselves, even just for a moment, to revert back to the simple joys of being an imaginative, naïve child. Nostalgia essentially provides us with the chance to time travel, allowing us to rediscover the brightest aspects of our past in order to motivate and comfort us in the present.