Why do so many of us turn to the past as a source of comfort? Journalist Sarah Gill investigates the chokehold that nostalgia has on society.

Between the climate crisis, Coronavirus, civil unrest and social injustices, there is an overwhelming sense of despondency towards the future. With seemingly little to look forward to, we find solace in the rose-tinted rear view mirror, where the grass looks greener and the music sounds better.

For me, there is no greater salve to emotional wounds than DJ Earworm's immortal bop United State of Pop 2009. A masterful mash-up of all the songs that sound-tracked my transition from primary to secondary school, it’s impossible not to be transported back to a time where worry was an emotion reserved for verb tenses.

Providing a touchstone for the past, certain scents, sounds or scenes trigger a cascade of poignant memories that allow us to feel a sense of connection to our past selves. The internal equivalent of a warm hug, nostalgia has a much greater impact than mere memories.

For the sentimental among us, triggers could include a stranger’s perfume bringing you right back to your first disco, or a couple of chords of an old song reminding you of someone you used to know.

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Having grown up embarking on exotic escapes to county Clare, we recently took to the road on a mission of rediscovery and reconnection with memories that fill up most of our frames. In reliable West of Ireland form, little had changed and our senses were filled with the low rumble of the Eagles on the radio and the distinct scent of a cider-soaked carpet in a dark pub.

Without even realising it, the memories of this place existed between the folds of our memories and, when unlocked, opened the floodgates of an incredibly happy time for our family. Heartening, wholesome and bittersweet all at once.

This momentary escapism or welcome reminder of long-forgotten memories is, however, entirely at odds with its original definition. Coined back in 1688 by a Swiss army physician, nostalgia comes from a Greek compound made up of 'nóstos’ (homecoming), and ‘álgos’ (pain or longing) and was widely regarded as a psychological disorder after fraught and fragile soldiers were sent home from war due to their deep ache for the familiarity of home.

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Often serving as an emotional pacifier in times of trauma, extreme stress or displacement, it's no surprise that many of us sought refuge in the good old days over lockdown. According to Spotify, in April of 2020 there was a 54% increase in listeners making nostalgic-themed playlists as we called upon pop culture to boost our serotonin levels. I write this as someone who is most definitely back in their pop-punk phase.

With anxieties being constantly exacerbated by climate guilt, a global pandemic and a general sense of hopelessness, the younger generation have been primed to fear for the future, which might just explain the Gen Z/Millennial infatuation with the past.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows calls it ‘anemoia; nostalgia for a time you’ve never known’, and you can see its physical manifestation in the wardrobes of almost all 20-somethings. We wear ‘70s flares, ‘80s shell jackets, ‘90s platforms and y2k baguette bags as we watch reruns, reboots and remakes, flip through our vinyl collections and load film onto our 35mm cameras.

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The internet is a veritable time capsule of days gone by, and we’re inputting more material with every share, story, save and screenshot. A sugar-coated shrine for decades that some of our parents never even knew, we’re presented with cultural content that is often at odds with the era’s social context.

Trickling off the screen and into the real world, the intrigue of names engraved on bathroom doors and notes scrawled in the margins of old books occupies our imagination.

As the world speeds up, we romanticise the slower pace and imagined serenity of the past every day, citing technology as the Great Distractor. Hollywood regularly looks to the past for inspiration, with many new releases coming in the forms of re-imaginings and re-tellings of stories we know by heart.

The charts are made up of songs sampling familiar melodies while runways showcase the cyclical nature of trends with every passing season.

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Sex Education is the perfect illustration of how marrying the old with the new guarantees its place in the hearts of young people. A teen utopia that defies explanation, the Netflix original melds modern day pop culture references and coming-of-age storylines with the fashion, set design and appeal of a placeless past.

A 1980s John Hughes-esque approach to the genre with present-day teachings have created something that feels timeless.

This clever little play on our emotions has been, unsurprisingly, thoroughly taken advantage of by the marketing team. We regularly see ad campaigns being rolled out that are made to appeal for our fondness for the past.

Nostalgia marketing creates a latent bond between our childhood and adult selves, promising that the product they’re selling will fill the void. From Coca-Cola relaunching their vintage contoured glass bottles to annual Christmas ads allowing us to keep one foot firmly grounded in tradition.

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Whether it’s a longing to return to the perceived leisure of the very distant past or a fondness for the comfort of childhood tradition, we’re accosted by yesteryear at every turn. From Facebook memories to Instagram’s ‘On This Day’ throwbacks, the not-too-distant past is always in our eyeline. We’re already lamenting the days of Tiger King, banana bread and the Liveline/Normal People debacle!

How, then, can all this looking back keep us looking forward? Even at the bleakest of times, once moments fade to memories and hindsight kicks in, we find the good that existed between the bad.

They say you don’t know you’re in the good times until they’re gone, so we may as well mystify the monotony and make the here and now as pleasurable as possible.

By embracing our ability to reminisce on the past and excite for the future, we find some sort of peace in the present. Who knows, maybe the Paris filter will be the new Sepia?