Why do people fall in love with nostalgic past?

We all know that feeling when the past seems beautiful and there is an uncontrollable longing to belong to a time that has already passed. Most of us romance our carefree childhood and want to relive those special moments every now and then. Artists amongst us want to live in the ages when Picasso and Dali were creating their masterpieces. Present day scientists wish to witness the years when Einstein, Darwin or Newton were just about to change the Zeitgeist forever. And, don’t writers today pine for the times when George Orwell or Shakespeare produced one great work after the other? We entrepreneurs in computer/technology space, how much we fancy times when PC industry was coming to an age with Bill Gates’s BASIC and Steve Jobs’ Apple II.

Albert Einstein is probably bored (or ill)

When we witness a past age through a historical movie or a biography, it all comes vividly alive in our imagination and then we fantasize about what it must have been to live in those times. What if you could have witnessed Gandhi or Bhagat Singh during Indian freedom struggle? What about life during World War II? What if you could have lived in Victorian times where everything was so royal? And how utterly fantastic would it have been to witness man landing on moon? (Many of us are recent borns, so we only have romantic imagery for those moments.) No matter if we love or hate the past, we can’t deny that it does indeed seems to be more captivating than the present.

Past captures our imagination because so little of it is recorded. In fact, only the most interesting events of the past are recorded. When we read or watch about the past, we only get to observe tids and bits of events happening that historians and writers found worth recording. Evidently, nobody records that, for example, on March 25th, 1902 Einstein was utterly bored for the day and he passed his time by listening to news on a half-broken radio and lazily chatted up with neighbors. Even if Einstein lived a humdrum, normal life for months and years, it wouldn’t have probably got recorded or noticed by contemporaries or future historians (precisely because that period of time wasn’t interesting). Even if these uninteresting days in Einstein’s life get written about, they are given far less importance as compared to occasional, eventful days in his life. A biographer (or a writer) would spend a good chunk of her time simply to build it up to the moment when Einstein revealed his Theory of General Relativity. This event was monumental, so it makes sense to highlight it and do an extensive elaboration of Einstein’s life around it. It is obvious that no serious biographer would write a book that contained every small (and boring) bit about a Einstein’s life. Only worthwhile bits make it to history.

But the problem is that (in present) when we imagine the past, our imagination is obviously guided by whatever we know about the past. And, what we know about the past is only the juicy details. We can’t possibly imagine our heroes or people in romantic ages living boring, humdrum lives. We can’t imagine the past ages completely and truly because we simply don’t know or remember non-important parts. So, we extrapolate whatever past our imagination can reconstruct and imagine that whole of their lives and times must have been interesting. We fall in love with the past because we imagine it to be so damn interesting. However, we must not forget that past was once present and our fancy for the past is nothing but misguided.

Today’s present will probably be longed by future generations, so right here, right now, you have an excellent opportunity to make your present as interesting (or as boring) as the past you love!

Dreams and Nostalgia

(This post was inspired by absolutely drop-dead beautiful movie by Woody Allen: Midnight in Paris. Extending this logic of falling in love with the past, we can likewise imagine why people fall in love with our present day heros’ lives as well. What we hear about lives of others is, again, just the interesting parts. So our mental imagery of how actors, sport stars or celebrities we adore or admire is significantly biased by what we get to hear, read or see about them. And, remember, nobody talks about boring parts of life. They’re not worth writing or recording, apparently.)


  1. But the problem is that (in present) when we imagine the past, our imagination is obviously guided by whatever we know about the past. And, what we know about the past is only the juicy details. We can’t possibly imagine our heroes or people in romantic ages living boring, humdrum lives.

    Perhaps, but that’s not the whole story.

    For one, people also dream of going back to their OWN past, say, their college years, or that romantic relationship, things that they know exactly how they were.

    Plus, in some way or another, any given past was better that a given future. If you give specific importance to those “ways”, then it could be better for you.

    The only things that has a steady progress past to present is technology. If you don’t much care for that, then you can find periods better than the current in other spheres of life.

    I.e if you like a huge youth movement and rock music, you could do worse than check out the 60s. Sure, you’d then had to head to Height Asbury or New York and not rural Montana, but that’s par for the course.

    1. @foljs: true, but I’d argue that people don’t even remember their own past exactly and truly. What they’d remember is a vague feeling or sensation of that past, and few very specific events/memories which evoke that feeling. It’d be a mistake to generalize that whole past with whatever sweet memories we have. I’m sure as a child, youth or even in romantic relationships, there would have been moments of utter boredom or sadness. In present, when we remember those memories we tend to comfortably ignore (or in fact we don’t even remember those unimportant) memories.

  2. I do agree. The past does seem rosier when thinking about it (or longing for it) in a loose general sense. Like foljs hinted at, the allure of the past may not be tied so directly to a specific event——instead, the milieu of the times can be enough to precipitate nostalgia.
    I most definitely see the past through a golden filter, though I am aware of this it’s still difficult to compensate for——ohh the romance of an ephemeral life!
    Even some of the most terrible times, where I can vividly remember hating my own existence, my mind will tend toward highlighting the good things however negligible in comparison they may be to the full picture.
    Existentially, I know that one of the reasons my windows to the past can warp is that I am a person averse to change. There is a safety in looking back, a comfortableness in which the outcomes are guaranteed——no grain of uncertainty to harass my optimism. That’s a nice feeling and it’s hard to shake that when life is such an unpredictable mess.

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