Last month, at the recommendation of a gratitude journal prompt that suggested I “listen to music you loved when you were younger but haven't heard in a long time," I found my way to a “Top Hits of 2012” playlist on Spotify. And, oh my God. I felt transported.
As I listened to “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepson, I was suddenly back at a Homecoming dance in my high school’s cafeteria. I was jumping around obnoxiously with my friends, making the little telephone sign with my hand and putting it up to my ear, before grabbing one of my best friends’ arms and swinging around in a circle, do-si-do-style, as Carly sang, “Before you came into my life, I missed you so bad.” When “We Are Young” by fun. and Janelle Monáe came on, I remembered belting out the words while driving around my small Iowa town with one too many people packed into my cramped, blue Volkswagen Bug. During “Little Things” by One Direction, I viscerally remembered playing the song over and over through my corded headphones (back when they were the only option we had, versus a retro fashion statement) while fantasising about my crush.
The playlist was a trip, and it made me temporarily forget where I actually was: quarantining in my tiny New York City apartment after testing positive for COVID-19 at the height of the Omicron wave, in the dead of winter, while processing a tumultuous breakup. The hit of nostalgia I got from the songs was just what I needed to feel better; it helped me forget, temporarily at least, that I had a stuffy nose and broken heart.
This is the power of nostalgia, says Andrew Abeyta, PhD, an assistant professor at Rutgers University-Camden, who’s been studying nostalgia scientifically since… 2012 (!!). “We tend to find nostalgia pleasurable and comforting because it connects us to who we were in the past — to simpler times,” he says. Some folks have more of a tendency towards nostalgia than others (“sentimental types,” Dr. Abeyta calls them), but many people recruit nostalgic memories “when they’re facing stressful experiences in their lives, and particularly when they’re feeling lonely or facing a big life transition.”
Times of upheaval can draw us towards the past, Dr. Abeyta says. We reach for things that bring us to another time: songs we used to love, old greeting cards, or a perfume or tchotchke that reminds us of being a kid.
And it’s not just that people are getting escapism out of this, which was how I initially saw my brief journey back to 2012. Nostalgia helps us make meaning of the past, and better understand how we became who we are today — what we’ve overcome and experienced already to get to this point, Dr. Abeyta says. It can help us cope and even improve our moods. One study found that engaging in nostalgia helped people feel less lonely during COVID-19 lockdowns, and happier.
That said, nostalgia is a complicated emotion. “We experience happiness and joy [when we feel nostalgic], but also loss and sadness,” Dr. Abeyta says. It’s taking us to a time we may have shared with people we can’t or don’t see anymore. But thinking about those times may allow us to process the emotions they bring up, consciously or not. And that can help us grow.
Music, specifically, can facilitate personal growth in another way, separate from nostalgia, adds Alan Turry, DA, the managing director of the Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy at NYU Steinhardt. Listening to songs from their past can help people with dementia “access and express repressed feelings,” he says. Music can also encourage those with a terminal illness to review significant moments and “move towards more acceptance as they come to the end of their life,” he says. And most anyone could get those benefits. “It's more than nostalgia,” Dr. Turry says. “It’s about accessing feelings that one may be repressing. It's about self-reflection and developing a deeper awareness of oneself.”
Dr. Abeyta notes that nostalgia can make us more likely to connect with others, and I found this to be true. My trip down memory lane prompted me to reach out socially, which went a long way toward boosting my spirits. After listening to “Call Me Maybe," I was feeling so nostalgic that I ended up texting one of my old friends/Homecoming dance partners — someone I hadn’t spoken to in ages — to suggest a catch-up call.
I also started a conversation with my coworkers about 2012, which prompted us all to reminisce. Of course, we remembered learning Gossip Girl's true identity and freaking out about the rumours that Nick Jonas had taken off his purity ring. But we also reflected on our personal growth over the past 10 years, and how much our worlds had changed. I felt compelled to ask other friends what they were doing in 2012 too, which started some conversations that ended up being surprisingly deep.
A random journal prompt and a 2012 playlist made me feel significantly less lonely, even though I was in quarantine and couldn’t actually talk to anyone face-to-face.
It also gave me a glimmer of hope. In 2012, we thought (to varying degrees of seriousness) that the world was going to end. Hurricane Sandy hit. Whitney Houston died. Although 2022 feels bleak, so had 2012 — and yet, while listening to 2012 music, I’d felt warm and reflective of the good times I’d had. Was there a chance someday I’d look back at 2022 fondly, too? It seemed impossible, and a little terrifying.
Dr. Turry encouraged me to look a little deeper at 2012, and to analyse why I might have chosen a playlist from that year in response to my gratitude journal’s prompt. “Perhaps 2012 is a particularly important year for you or those around you," he suggested. "I suspect it may be connected to a time before the political and social divides became really explicit in everyday social discourse."
"Also," he added, "going back 10 years for anyone, at any time period, can provide relief from current concerns. As we move through different life stages, certain options become less possible and more commitment is made to a particular path.” That means 10 years ago is always “a more naive time, a more hopeful time, with more options and choices,” regardless of if you’re 20-something and looking back at your teens or 70-something and looking back at your 60s.
I was generally happy with the way my life had gone since 2012, but the cool thing about that year was that I didn’t know what I would be doing in 10 years, so I could imagine anything. I would sit on my back porch and dream about being a nurse, a journalist, a penguin researcher, a teacher, a PR coordinator, and a stay-at-home parent. I pictured myself marrying both my schoolgirl crushes and Gerard Butler. I thought about living in Manhattan high rises and country homes in Montana and maybe even in Antarctica with the Emperor penguins. There was so much possibility, and I wasn’t yet on any particular trajectory. My future decisions about where to go to school, where to live, and who to associate myself with would shape where I went eventually — but, then, I was doodling on a blank dry-erase board, coming up with different future life scenarios, each more different than the next but just as full of wonder and excitement.
Dr. Abeyta pointed out that, while nostalgia can be healthy and helpful, it can sometimes have negative socio-political consequences. Think: “Make America Great Again.” “Politicians use historical nostalgia as a way to unite a base, and depending on the scenario, that could be problematic,” he says. This is often called "collective nostalgia."
Although it’s fine to think back fondly on who you were in the past, it’s also important to reflect on why we shouldn’t go backward. For example, 2012 was a year before the Supreme Court struck down section 3 of the Defence of Marriage Act, deciding that legally married same-sex couples were entitled to federal benefits. Although we might be nostalgic about what we were doing in 2012, it can tread into troubling territory to be wistful for a time when fewer people had rights.
In many ways, nostalgia is a double edge sword, one we should wield carefully, cutting through Pollyanna-ish ideals that it was a “better” time, and questioning who it was really better for, while also acknowledging our individual experiences and trajectories since.
2012 was wild. Kesha was still using a $ sign in her name. Joe Biden was Vice President, and then-President Barack Obama did an AMA on Reddit. A lot has changed. Looking back was a fun way to, for the moment, forget my pandemic blues. But, now that I’m out of quarantine, I’m excited to look forward too. Though, no matter how old I get, I’ll always make a little telephone hand signal when listening to “Call Me Maybe.”