What makes something nostalgic

As I write this, I’m sitting in a small room in a small farmhouse in the countryside of Poland. It’s the place where my grandmother lives and where I spent many of my summers growing up. Aside from some small improvements, the place has barely changed and the nostalgia is strong. Even though little house in this part of Poland is as unremarkable as it gets — there are easily a million just like it –to me it’s the most special spot on the planet. Being here got me thinking about nostalgia, particularly how powerful it is and what makes something nostalgic.

I got on this train of thought when thinking about what exactly makes this place special, and how much you could change it before losing that feeling. That led to wondering whether other things from the past would hold up over time, and if not, why.

What things can be nostalgic

When the original Jurassic Park movie came out, McDonald’s made the “Tyrannosaurus burger” — a triple patty cheeseburger — which I ate daily for a week. I have no interest in doing that now but if McDonald’s re-released that burger I would definitely go buy one, maybe two.

Anything can become nostalgic: a place (like the farm I’m at), food (the burger above), a smell, a piece of clothing, a toy or gadget (like your first phone), a song, or even a sound (like a ringtone). But they’re all so different. What characteristics of each makes it nostalgic, and how much can they change before they lose the ability to give you that feeling.

Places

There is a certain proportion of a place that must stay the same to stay nostalgic. If the farm, for example, was torn down and a new home put in it’s place, I would have zero nostalgia for it. In fact, it would make me feel the opposite, sad. But if the interior was renovated here and there (which it has been), that would be fine. The renovated areas carry less nostalgia, as expected.

So for places, the more they change, the more nostalgia decreases, until at some point it disappears.

Food

Food has two components: the taste, and the context/experience around eating it. The Jurassic Park story above is one example of the experience part. Another is an ice cream we ate as kids that came in brick form and a wooden fork (the kind you would get with fries at carnivals and hockey arenas). I have no fondness for the taste but loved the shape and that fork. Therefore, I’m a fan of any ice cream that comes in brick form.

In other situations, it’s the taste that’s most important. Eating store-bought pierogies in my grandmother’s kitchen doesn’t have any appeal. If it’s not her homemade ones it doesn’t matter where I am. Similarly, there’s a fizzy drink we used to have as kids called Oranzada that if I can’t get in a glass bottle, I don’t want it. (Unfortunately the glass bottles are pretty rare.)

Either the experience or taste can contribute to the nostalgia, but if both are present, it’s impossible to resist.

Fashion

Fashion is an interesting one because a nostalgic brand doesn’t want to appeal to the generation that originally made it cool… because those people aren’t cool anymore and they don’t dress how they did when they were. They need to appeal to the young, cool generation so resurgences happen cyclically, after long dormant periods and when the style comes back around (usually when some celebrity starts wearing them). Adidas Stan Smiths and Ray-Ban Wayfarers are examples.

So for fashion, it’s not really about nostalgia and creating something that strikes a chord with the people who experienced it originally. It’s more about finding the right time and tactics to resurrect a product.

Gadgets and vehicles

This is the best name of this category I can think of right now because it’s the two main examples that come to mind.

It’s also very interesting because it’s the only one where getting the exact same thing isn’t necessarily a good thing. Holding your first cellphone would be cool but making it your daily device would be painful. Same thing with your first car, it’d be real cool to drive once but less cool to own one. (Note: I owned crap cars growing up; if you had a cool one you might feel different.)

The key factor is how important performance is to the experience. If it’s a big factor, then having the exact item is less interesting. So I have no interest in using an iPhone 3G or driving a 1982 Honda Accord — both would be more irritating than enjoyable. However, a new iPhone with a design reminiscent of the first one would be great. Car companies understand this, which is why they maintain certain design cues across model years, and sometimes create modern versions of the classics.

Songs and sounds

For songs, they need to be identical to the original. A bad rendition or cover song is awful to listen to. The only exception is a demo recording from the original artist — that works. For sounds, they have to be close. The sound of a motorcycle’s engine or a forest at night won’t be exactly what I heard before, but close enough to bring me back to those moments.

Those are some early thoughts about nostalgia as I sit here soaking in it on the farm. It’s a pretty fascinating topic.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store