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Nostalgia: Comfort in the familiar

In today's world, our "normal" is quite a bit different than it was in 2019. In this article, Greer Valaquenta discusses how revisiting familiar media can help us unwind, now and in the future



Nostalgia is commonly defined as a sentimental longing for the past. This longing is the basis of humanity’s search for comfort in the familiar. In our sense of nostalgia lies solace and peace, but it can also lead to heartache and melancholy. When faced with anxiety and stress, we instinctively gravitate to objects, places, and media that elicit this feeling of warmth and closeness in an effort to calm ourselves and find an equilibrium. I have often perused a list of must-see films and television shows only to decide “Once Upon a Time” or “Star Trek: Voyager” were preferable. Rather than taking a chance on something new and potentially jarring, my brain decided it preferred a previously known and loved stimulus.

There is intricate psychological reasoning behind this attraction to the familiar, all written in impeccable terminology, which seemingly boils down to “our brains are lazy and they like what they already know”. This is partly due to something called cognitive fluency, which is a state in which we are more likely to believe something if it is easily understood. Simplicity and familiarity are therefore the gateway to comfort. This tendency towards the habitual increases in times of stress, something we are subjected to every day, but even more so in the past year. Everything about the past twelve months has been unfamiliar, unknown, and thus stressful to our nervous systems. Almost no living person had lived through a worldwide pandemic before, yet now this foreign concept has become ordinary. Things that seemed strange and thus distasteful, such as wearing masks, or being unable to touch your loved ones, have become the ‘new normal’. We are forcing our brains and bodies to adapt at a fast pace to these new situations. While our brains learn quickly, adapting to new environments and living conditions takes time.

University freshers in particular have been faced with very difficult circumstances, as I know first-hand. Some of my friends have been placed in accommodation that is little more than a bed, a desk, and four walls. They are then told they must not socialise with groups and to keep to themselves as much as possible. For many, this is their first time away from their families, from the life they have always known. Every month that passes brings with it another email that tells us things will be normal again ‘soon’. You can see your friends ‘soon’ after these ‘difficult times’ are over. Many students were unable to travel home for the winter break, myself included. Of those who did, many have been unable to return. Therefore, our sense of the familiar has been scattered in many directions. We cannot see our families and we miss our friends who are dispersed across the globe. When displaced from everything we know and love, what better way to relax than comforting films or music?

One of my friends watches several episodes of “Gilmore Girls” every day to ease her mind after long hours of studying, or to simply take her mind off of the constant stress she is under. Our favourite television shows can help us get through times of worry by reminding us of the happy moments we had while watching them previously. Our associative memory reminds us of the laughter we experienced and triggers a much-needed boost of serotonin. Re-reading our favourite novels has the same mental effect on us. When I was younger, I would re-read the “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series over and over, because I felt a kinship with Percy, and reading about his trials in life helped me through my own. Having someone, even a fictional character, who is also experiencing stress and disheartening life events can help ease our own anxiety.

Music is another way that we can unwind, and the music does not have to be melodic at all. While some people may find contentment in Bach or Chopin, others may prefer rap, EDM, techno, house, or classic rock. It does not matter what the relaxing stimulus is, only that it is comforting to the person listening, watching, or reading it. In days, weeks, and months filled with uncertainty and anxiousness, we must do whatever we can to find pockets of joy in our lives. The cycle will continue, and one day we will watch a show, or hear a song and be instantly reminded of these days we are living through right now. We shall feel nostalgia for them.


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