Nostalgia, Neophilia and Now

NostalgiaLast week, I confessed to neophilia—a preference for variety in daily life, a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, as well as a love of a challenge. But being a neophiliac does not preclude moments of considerable nostalgia.

Unfortunately, nostalgia sometimes gets a bad rap. Merriam-Webster defines it as a “wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to some past period or irrecoverable condition.”  This negative perception undoubtedly stems from the Greek roots of the word—nostos (‘return home’) and algos (‘pain’). 

The implication here is that if you tend to reminisce about the past, you’re probably not a lover of the new. In fact, I’d argue that nostalgia is critical to being a lover of the new. But my view of nostalgia is less a longing to return to the past than an appreciation for how your past has shaped who you are today.

Support for this point of view comes from Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In a 2012 article, What’s So Nice about Nostalgia?, Whitbourne argues that the experiences of your teens and early 20’s are critical to the person you become later in life. In her view, these are the years when most people begin to forge a sense of identity.

Whitbourne says that after age 30, “We shape and re-shape our life stories, reworking the narrative in a way that enhances the way we feel about ourselves now.”  She adds that “dipping into the past to remind you of how you’ve coped with previous life stresses can help you strengthen your confidence in dealing with what you’re facing now.”

Whitbourne provides a helpful frame for my own experience growing up with a mother who mocked most of the things I cared about and a school environment in which I was bullied on a regular basis. It was clear that I did not fit in; the harder I tried, the worse things got. By age 16, I was desperate to escape.

I went off to college, and then to New York to work in finance. I escaped my mother and the school bullies, but I could not escape the inner child who expected criticism at every turn. My solution was to keep moving on—new jobs, new friends, new adventures—before “they” could discover what I presumed my mother and school mates already knew.

I didn’t start out as a neophiliac. I started out a scared young woman desperate to escape the mockery and criticism of her childhood. But serendipity played a large role in making me one. 

Thinking about that serendipity is where nostalgia comes in. I always had an analytical and questioning mind. I always liked solving problems. I always hated routine, and was eager to take on a new challenge. Had my career started out, as so many do today, in a routine job with a boss who expected me to follow the rules, I suspect I would not be a lover of the new but simply a woman still trying to escape the inner bullies.

In fact, who I am now—a lover of the new—reflects, in very large measure, the fact that my early employers—all men—encouraged me to explore new ideas and take on new challenges. This was indeed serendipity at a time when finance and banking were even more of a man’s world than today. I have no desire to return to those days, but I don’t ever want to forget them.

What role does nostalgia play in your life? What are you nostalgic about?


To read Whitbourne’s article, click here.

This continues the series on themes that are significant in my upcoming novel, A Fitting Place.  If you would be interested in doing a guest blog on one of these themes, click here


  1. Thank you, Mary, for introducing me to a new word, neophilia. By your definition, I believe I qualify as a neophiliac, but I am also nostalgic. In fact, the backbone of my blog is nostalgia, which does not necessarily contradict embracing chance.

    This sentence also resonated: “But my view of nostalgia is less a longing to return to the past than an appreciation for how your past has shaped who you are today.” I couldn’t agree more.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Mariam … glad to have you drop in.
      I’ve been pondering how your blog discussion of neat vs. messy plays into the balance between old and new. In a way, neatness is about keeping things they way they are, while the messy (or at least off kilter) seems metaphorically to speak of being out of control … of waiting for what happens next.

      Hummh. Something to think about.

  2. It was so funny to see this today, Mary. A friend of mine posted one of those silly quizzes on facebook yesterday, ‘which decade suits you best’, or something like that. I usually bite on those things, just for the fun of it. My friend’s results were the ’50’s, which is odd because she’s 10 years younger than I am. My results were the ’70’s. I laughed and told her I really love the here and now, and don’t get nostalgic about much of anything.

    Then we went to see American Hustle last night. Oh how it took me back! The clothes, the hair, those days of bralessness! I was right back there. So, for a brief moment I had a real tug of nostalgia. Today I’m back to working with the here and now!
    Great post!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Barbara .. thanks so much. I thoroughly enjoyed American Hustle, but my nostalgic movie(s) would be American Graffiti or The Big Chill.
      I don’t think living in the “here and now” is at odds with either nostalgia (defined as appreciating the past) or neophiilia (defined as being open to whatever comes). That’s my definition of mindfulness!

  3. Oh wow! I just saw American Hustle too! I was just a kid in the 70s, but that microwave scene in the movie reminded me of when my grandma bought us our first microwave. It was huge! I love pop culture both now and from the 60s-70s and 80s. The other day in my classroom I had a student, (a 14 yr old), who told me he was never going to let his future kids watch the stupid cartoons they have these days….Only the “old” ones…Tom and Jerry! P.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Paige — I haven’t watched many cartoon of late, so it’s hard to compare the relative stupidity of old vs new in the cartoon genre. But I found Tom and Jerry — and Sylvester and Tweetie — pretty ridiculous even when I was the right age to watch them! The only time I got nostalgic for them was when our local symphony did a New Year’s pop concert with the cartoons on a screen and symphony playing the original scores. That was cool!

  4. I just read over my comment: “the backbone of my blog is nostalgia, which does not necessarily contradict embracing chance.” Actually, I meant to type “embracing chanGe” not chance, but in a way I guess chance (impromptu / waiting for what happens next) works too! Funny . . . that slip of the finger.

  5. I’m not sure if I would call it nostalgia, but in a controlled setting in many ways I’d like to go back and meet Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain. Maybe even choose to live during that time, for sake of simplicity. Though that have that now, I have no desire to be an Amish person. (Though I mean no disrespect to those that choose to live as Amish people.)

    I guess that influences my writing subconsciously. I don’t necessarily seek lack of technology, but rather a simpler time so to speak. A time of no complexity.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Hi Sarah .. thanks for stopping by. My dream, if I were to go back, would be the late Middle Ages, when it was conceivable to absorb most of the world’s knowledge in your own lifetime. These days, “information” of all sorts (not just technology) increases at a rate that makes it hard just to stay in place.

Join the conversation! Leave a comment.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.