Dec 27, 2008

We love what’s lost

Posted by: Marian Salzman In: Uncategorized

Technology allows us to fly over continents and communicate with anyone in the world; science has delivered us from many infectious diseases; and the global economy brings almost anything we could ever want or need to our doorstep. Yet many of us want to turn back the clock.

Some of us live with regret. Some of us remember happier times in our lives. Some of us have grown weary of today. Whatever the reason, we are increasingly stuck in the past.

Late last year I surveyed a group of people from the U.K. and asked them to indicate which “7” year, from 1967 to 2017, they would choose to live in based on various factors such as health care, travel, education and life overall. Given the gloomy mood prevailing in the U.K., it’s probably no surprise that the past proved attractive to more people than the present or the future, especially for those over 30.

As an overall preference, roughly two-thirds chose the past, with almost half going for a date at least 30 years back. About a third chose 1967, 15 percent chose 1977, and 13 percent picked 1987. Slightly fewer than one-fifth of participants preferred the present, and just 14 percent chose the future (2017).

Writing in their own words, people waxed fondly about the past and what they saw as simpler lifestyles, more carefree attitudes, more cohesive communities and fewer problems with drugs, violence and crime. In the words of one woman in her early 50s who chose 1977: “Money was not such an issue—we were happy to start married life with secondhand goods and work to save for new items—we did not have to have it all straight away. Schools were stronger, and the streets felt safer.”

A woman in her 30s described 1987 as “a relatively innocent time. It was before 9/11, when the world changed forever. There wasn’t as much gun crime, or at least it wasn’t reported in the same way. The streets were a much safer place for our kids!”

What has brought about all this nostalgia? Was society truly better a few decades back, or are we all suffering from selective memory?

There’s a good chance it’s the latter. As we age, researchers have found, we tend to frame our memories differently. For young people, bad episodes in the past are bitter memories, fresh in their minds. Older people, on the other hand, “detoxify” their regrets by remembering them in a more forgiving light, tinged with less shame and better understanding of their past selves. If painful memories and the feelings associated with them become diluted as we age, it only makes sense that the past looks like a compelling alternative to the present.

In our study, a rosy view of the past was not limited to those who actually experienced it—many younger people had similar attitudes. Said one woman in her late 20s who chose 1977: “Life seemed to be more relaxed and not so rushed, people seemed to have more time for each other, and money seemed to have more value.” Across all age groups, many people believe the present and the future are less appealing than the more romantic past. (Think of the popular period films that have wowed us in recent years, like Atonement and Pride and Prejudice.)

Much of the antagonism toward the present is, not surprisingly, tied into the current social and political climate. When asked to rate which words best describe the present, our survey respondents gravitated most toward “anxious,” “upset” and “arrogant.” By contrast, people were more likely to describe 1997 as “optimistic,” “confident,” “humorous” and “healthy.” Widespread fears, arising from the threat of terrorism, economic instability and climate change, have negatively affected the national psyche and made people yearn for yesterday.

These feelings of fear and pessimism are perhaps spurred by the 24-hour news cycle. Thanks to the cable news networks and the Internet, bad news is always at hand. In the old days, we were more sheltered—with only the nightly news, the radio and the newspaper, fewer alarming headlines popped up on our radar. Now it’s a rare day that passes when we don’t hear about freakish weather, military violence or political strife somewhere in the world—and no matter how alarming the real news is, it’s invariably pumped up a notch.

There doesn’t seem to be much optimism for the future either. A whopping 63 percent of both men and women in the survey disagreed with the statement “We are leaving our children a better world than our parents left to us.”

How we can shake this trend of hand-wringing and instead embrace what we have now?

We can begin by reminding ourselves of the advantages that today’s resources provide and their potential for easing society’s problems. As one respondent optimistically noted about the future, “The world I [imagine] would be very advanced, with more [environmentally] friendly items … like a car that does not ruin the environment.”

Most people would be hard-pressed to give up their modern commodities and rights, despite the rosy glow that the past still exudes. Indulging in nostalgia is an outlet for escapism and helps us come to grips with our personal histories, but we wouldn’t trade the comforts of 2008, like instant communication and sophisticated medical treatments.

When we take a broader view, it’s clear that the future can only get better.

(Note: A version of this posting has been published in the British edition of Psychologies in recent months. I share it because here because, like with blue being the new green, this trendsighting seems more relevant than ever as we count down the final hoours of 2008, and get ready for a scary new year.)

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