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From Issue #33 January 2, 2014

Ain’t What It Used To Be

Relics of our own lives can bring regret or warm our hearts.

By Jen A. Miller Twitter icon 

On the boardwalk at night, c. 1930–1945, via the Boston public library.

“The dances” happened every summer in Allenhurst, New Jersey. The floor of an ocean-side restaurant  —  just “the restaurant”  —  would be cleared, and chairs lined up on both sides of the dance floor. Boys wore suit jackets; girls were in dresses with white gloves. Boys were required to cross the dance floor and ask, formally, “May I have this dance?”

When Geoff DiMasi talks about his childhood summers in that speck of a town at the Jersey Shore, he recalls the beach, and the boardwalk in nearby Asbury Park. But those dances, gone now, evoke the strongest memories. “It was so weird and bizarre, but a tradition in Allenhurst,” he says: a blue-blood tradition in a working-class town.

He hasn’t been back since Hurricane Sandy, which burst through the windows of the restaurant and flooded the place, most recently called Mr. C’s, in October 2012. It’s too painful. “Sandy knocked that restaurant out of generations of memories,” he says.

The restaurant was demolished in May 2013. DiMasi also hasn’t been able to visit Ground Zero since 9/11, either. He grew up in North Jersey, and the Twin Towers were always a topic of conversation when he visited his grandparents.

The memory of a far-off land

The term “nostalgia” was first coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss doctor. To Hofer, nostalgia was a disease, which he described as “the sad mood originating from the desire for return to one’s native land.” Krystine Batcho, a professor at Le Moyne College who studies nostalgia, says Hofer was looking at a practical problem of the time: soldiers far from home, many of whom had never been away before.

Hofer was really writing about homesickness or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), she says. “It really defines loosely the pain or suffering someone would feel when missing or longing for their home country.”

The medical opinion of nostalgia started to turn with the rise of psychoanalysis. “You introduce the whole construct of symbolism and suddenly home becomes a symbol for many other things, including family, parent/child relations, mother/baby relationship in that Freudian way,” she says. “Suddenly longing for home became much more. You’ve shifted from a concrete, geographical location to a conceptual thing.”

Batcho describes personal nostalgia as being “a longing or feeling, like you miss aspects from your own lived past, which is different from people who might have a preference or liking for a previous historical time period,” she said. Your Civil War buff isn’t personally nostalgic, at least not about the Civil War.

“It’s not that nostalgic people tend to be Debbie Downers; they’re not prone to depression. It’s not like they’re really happy-go-lucky people either,” she says. In her research, she found that “people who have a greater ability to feel intensely — when they’re happy they’re really, really happy, and when they’re sad, they can be very sad — can be nostalgia prone.”

Take a cold room and make it warmer

Batcho’s definition doesn’t require seeing the past as always better than it was. In contrast, the Nostalgia Research Group, based at the University of Southampton in England, defines it as “the emotion we feel when we reminisce about fond memories from our past,” says Erica Hepper of the University of Surrey, who conducts research with the group.

“Our research shows that these memories usually involve childhood, special occasions, or people who are important to us. We tend to see these memories in a rose-tinted way, miss them, and feel a sense of longing,” she says.

The group found two unexpected benefits of nostalgia, too: first, that nostalgia can help people in a cold room feel warmer, especially when listening to music that evokes the feeling; second, that nostalgia can be a cure for boredom.

These studies, says Hepper, “were designed to test whether the restorative function of nostalgia can extend to reducing other unpleasant states.” The reason could be that the anterior insular cortex is responsible for representing both physiological conditions and emotional awareness.

“It may be possible that nostalgia is related to this system and simultaneously restores both physical and psychological comfort,” she says.

Invoking nostalgia can also help patients with dementia, and is used to help patients in nursing homes. Music, photographs, and mementos form the basis of a common treatment for patients in the early stages of dementia. These relics can help bring back a sense of self  —  even a self in the past.

When my grandmother began her path to dementia, she sometimes couldn’t identify me. But put on a Sinatra song, and she could describe the pattern of the wallpaper in the Hoboken restaurant where she met the crooner during World War II.

But nostalgia might not be great for everyone. Hepper says that people who are “neurotic or have difficulty dealing with their emotions may have a harder time getting the most out of nostalgia,” because they focus more on the bitter than the sweet of it, and can get stuck on what they’ve lost.

In a 2009 study published this year in the Journal of Analytical Psychology, researchers studying Russians post–Soviet Union fall found that nostalgia could work either way  —  as either a defensive regression to the past or a “progressive striving for wholeness through re-connecting with what has been lost.” When recognized as a legitimate emotional experience, the study found, nostalgia could help them mourn and move on.

NostalgiApp

In 1995, Batcho developed a test called the Nostalgia Inventory, a survey that helped her study who is more apt to experience nostalgia. (You can take it via an app.) Both DiMasi and I took the test, and we both scored lower than we expected: in the fours of a nine-point scale.

Batcho says that’s common, since she defines nostalgia in psychological terms, whereas a layperson might be looking at it “in the sense of sentimentality, the romantic idealization of the past  —  and my data doesn’t really support that as the important psychological definition,” she says. Our feelings, perhaps, are more aligned with what the University of Southampton calls nostalgia.

Present-day Asbury Park boardwalk. Photo by Shinya Suzuki.

DiMasi and I swap Jersey Shore stories: the dirt roads in the campground where I spent my summers have now been paved; ignoring the decay on the Asbury Park boardwalk, since reversed in a town renewed.

We sit at a picnic table next to another body of water  —  Cooper River, in the town where we both live  —  and the actual definition doesn’t seem to matter much. It’s the stories that matter. The way things used to be. And even though a stiff breeze blows off the water, I feel a little warmer inside because of it.

Jen A. Miller is a freelance writer based in the great Garden State. She is a regular contributor to the New York Times, Runner's World, Running Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in Collingswood.

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